Each elected official will have a different set of goals. Your job, as a volunteer advocate, is to figure out what they want and help them get it. As one motivational speaker said, “You can get anything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want.”
You will stand out immediately from the many people who want something from a politician if you just ask, What are your goals and how can I help you attain them? The big No. 1 is reelection. Have you volunteered to work in a campaign? Have you contributed significant money to your PAC or to the election campaign?
If so, you will have access and receive a warm welcome. But notice, I asked, “Have you contributed significantly?” People frequently ask me how much to give. My rule of thumb is, you want to be in the top tier of contributors. You want your contribution to stand out, whether it is from a PAC or from you personally. That’s one reason PACs work. They bring together amounts of money that will be remembered. When you deliver a PAC check, the politician remembers you.
As for personal contributions, they are a matter of public record, so find out what others are giving and give enough to stand out. People often tell me they don’t feel good about giving campaign contributions. It feels like they are trying to buy a vote. Don’t worry. That doesn’t happen with legal campaign contributions. For one thing, there are limits as to how much you can give.
For the 2014 California senate and assembly races, individual limits were $4,100. Another option for your group may be a “Small Contributor Committee” which can give $8,200. (You can find all the rules at the Fair Political Practices Commission website: http://www.fppc.ca.gov). These contributions are on the record, on the Internet and reported in the media.
Whatever your cause or organization, finding a way to get money to candidates will help you get in the door. It will not buy a vote. It frequently happens that your opponents, the people on the other side of your issue are also giving to the same candidate, so the money from opposing sides balances out.
You’re not going to buy a vote with a legal contribution, but obviously you are giving to promote your cause or interest. So what do you get for the money?
The best reason to give is that you may actually help elect someone who agrees with you. Presumably you are supporting your friends and opposing your enemies. The money you give to a campaign is used to pay for advertising, direct mail, phone bills-the things a person needs to do to get elected. One politician pointed out to me, “You’re not giving the money to me, you’re giving it to the campaign.”
It’s a good place to start: Get “good people” (those who agree with you) in office. It’s also true that you cannot expect anyone to be in 100 percent agreement with you 100 percent of the time. Just because you help elect someone does not mean she will always be with you.
However, given that most issues could go either way and the state would survive, and given that most politicians don’t know or care about most issues, and given that their basic impulse is to help their constituents, friends and supporters, it follows that if you are a significant contributor-either by giving time or money or raising money-you get more than access. You get a warm, helpful welcome.
I still believe that any citizen with something sensible to say can get a conversation with an elected official whether they give money or not, although it may not be easy. It is in the politician’s interest to at least listen. (U.S. senators from large states like California are the exception. Hardly anyone gets to them; they just don’t have the time. Getting to their staffers is the key.)
But you want more. You want a relationship with your elected official that moves from professional courtesy to friendly support. You want her wanting to say yes-and being eager to help. Money isn’t the only way. For example, volunteering time to work in a campaign or work on a task force can be even more valuable. This may be hard to believe because of the way television and newspapers portray campaigns. When you see campaigns on television, you usually see the big national races or hotly contested races for the U.S. House or Senate. You see a carefully created picture of crowds of enthusiastic volunteers.
The reality, particularly at the state and local level, is different. The number of consistent volunteers, not paid staff, working in campaigns is very small. One state senator in Michigan told me she had to hire temps, not because she had no supporters but because they were all two-worker families with children and had no time.
You can become a valuable resource just by showing up. Think back to that contentious 2000 Presidential election. Remember the volunteers in Florida who completed absentee ballot applications for the Republican Party? Think about the people who demonstrated in front of the ballot count in Miami and apparently contributed to getting the count stopped. A small effort by you can make a big difference and will be remembered. You can establish a relationship and you can earn that warm, friendly access by putting out signs, making phone calls and stuffing envelopes. You can-with relatively little time investment-get on a first-name basis with your elected officials.
It helps to develop a specialty-something you like doing and can do well-that’s valuable to a campaign. For example, if you are friendly with numbers and detail, learn how to keep track of campaign contributions and expenses. It’s not hard or complicated; it just requires a good eye for detail and a lot of discipline. People who can do this are worth their weight in gold to the campaign and the candidate.
My specialty is signs. When I support candidates, I load up my car with signs. I pull out my special mallet-named Edna-and my heavy-duty staple gun and cruise the precincts I know best, pounding stakes and stapling signs. The mallet is named Edna after Edna Chirico, a county commissioner I supported. I met her one day while I was out riding my bicycle. I saw her putting out signs, talked to her, and asked her what I could do to help. “Put out some of these signs,” she said, and I did.
Though she’s no longer in office, she still remembers me. When she was in office, she would always return my calls.
You can be even stronger contributing volunteers as an organization. If your association helps recruit workers, you will get that friendly access after the election.
One of my favorite interviews is with an electrical contractor from Texas who lives within a couple of miles of two representatives in Congress. Every year he sponsors a barbecue, charging admission to raise funds for the politicians and inviting a huge crowd. Everyone has fun and-guess what?-the members of Congress returned his phone calls.
One group I worked with helped set up phone banks for a man running for Congress. For two weeks, they mustered between ten and twenty people every night to make calls around the district. He faced a tough fight in the primary and won by 974 votes. His name was Newt Gingrich. Four years later he was Speaker of the House and he publicly stated that no legislation harmful to this group would pass while he was Speaker. He was as loyal to his friends as they were to him.
One easy, productive thing to do is organize a site visit for your elected official. Let them come to the place related to your issue. Could be a food bank, library, factory or other business office. If you put them in front of potential voters, put them in your newsletter or get media coverage for them, they won’t forget.
Once a state senator called and asked me to write a letter to the editor. The newspaper had been covering an issue and he felt he needed to show that his side had some support. It was an issue I cared about, and I was glad to do it. It took me all of thirty minutes to write it and fax it to the newspaper. They published it. Is that senator going to answer my phone call? Will he help me if he can? You bet.
Your elected official needs many things in addition to money and volunteer time. For example, simply knowing what’s going on in the community is very important. Your contacts at work, at church, through your civic club and social relationships put you in touch with people and groups of all kinds. Think of the news you hear about a new company coming to town, a new issue some town council is discussing or something you read in a local newspaper. This may be information that doesn’t make its way to your elected official. Some districts are huge, especially the congressional districts, and it’s difficult for officials to keep up with what’s going on everywhere in their district.
For example, I read in my community newspaper that a small town nearby had formed a task force on education and crowding in the elementary school. Knowing that my county commissioner probably doesn’t get that little paper, I faxed her a copy of the article. I wrote a note that said, “Here’s a meeting you might like to know about. If you can’t make it, I can attend and take notes.” She faxed me back, thanking me and saying she’d be there and hadn’t known about the meeting. It took me five minutes but it was most valuable to her.
This kind of activity is especially helpful in avoiding the “out of sight, out of mind” factor. To build a really good relationship, I recommend you put it on your calendar to make positive contact at least once a quarter. Stay in front of your elected official with something that helps her so she doesn’t forget. It could be as simple as a letter, a phone call, an email or a fax, but whatever it is, do something deliberately. If you see your elected official is speaking to a group, attend the meeting and shake her hand. Stand up and support her publicly.
It doesn’t have to be something that advances your cause-it’s better if it doesn’t. Just do something to help out or show support. Granted, this may seem simple, but it works-perhaps because so few people do it. Most people, if they participate in politics at all beyond complaining, vote and that’s all. When you become personally engaged with your elected officials, you stand out like a warm slice of Mom’s pound cake.
An example of things few people do is a story about the mayor of the town where I used to live. He and I are in different political parties and we frequently disagreed. But he was a reasonable man and a hard worker. He’d been in office about ten years and had done well by our town in a job that is generally thankless. We were standing out in the street one day, arguing about a zoning issue. Finally, I said, “Okay, Russell, I can see we are never going to agree. But I would like to say one thing. I appreciate the fact that you have served in office and I want to thank you for serving. Even when we disagree, I know you have the town’s best interest at heart.”
He was shocked. He got a tear in his eye and said, “Joel, in the ten years I’ve been in office, no one has ever said that to me before.” It didn’t change his mind. But I’m always thinking about the next time-and he will remember what I said. You will stand out if you do nothing but thank your elected official for serving-because so many people never take that simple step.