Do Politicians Care? How Much Time Does It Take To Be An Effective Grass Roots Advocate?

In my research into why people don’t contact elected officials, one comment comes up frequently: “Elected officials are too busy doing important work to talk with me.” It’s true they are busy. But nothing is more important to an elected official than a constituent. Just think, who put her in office? Who is going to determine if she stays in office? You and others like you who vote in the district.

I did a grassroots training session in New York State some years back. Afterwards, I went with one of the trainees over to the Capitol to meet with her senator. When we got there, we met with a staffer who said the senator would be back shortly; he was in a meeting.

The senator was Ronald B. Stafford, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He was holding an important budget hearing, yet he left the meeting to come talk with this one woman from the district. When it was over, I asked him why he left an important meeting to meet with just one voter.

Here is what he said: “Because I know that anytime I don’t meet with her or any of my constituents, they are going to go back home and get on the phone and call everyone they know and tell them that I’m getting too big for my britches and I have no time for someone back home. And the next election, they may send me back home.”

Elected officials who stay in office keep in mind who sent them to the capital and who can send them home. Doing this, Stafford served in the New York Senate 37 years.

Many people think politicians don’t want to hear what they have to say because the politicians have already made up their minds. On some issues, it’s true; you can’t change their minds. Elected officials, just like you and I, have some attitudes they will not change. I call these quasi-religious beliefs. They are deeply seated matters of faith and belief, and almost no amount of logic or persuasion will change a person’s belief system. Abortion, gun control, the death penalty-you are unlikely to change anyone’s mind on those sorts of issues. Many times, not even the threat of losing an election can change a politician’s mind about these issues; they would rather lose than change.

But the issues you will be lobbying are likely to be less visible, more specific and less emotional. They are less a matter of faith than of practicality. How shall we fund parks? Should optometrists do laser surgery? Your elected official probably knows little or nothing about your issue. They have no emotional or political stake to defend and are willing to be persuaded.

Somebody is going to help them decide. It can be you, particularly if you live or work in their district. But first, you have to persuade them to care at all. If you can convince them that enough voters in their district or enough important people in the district care, they will care. Then you have a chance to persuade them to support your position. That’s a main source of power for you. (I’ll explain how you can become important to your elected official when we get to relationship building.)

Even people who belong to special interest groups often fail to realize their own power. They think they don’t need to work for themselves because they have a paid professional lobbyist to do the work. You need that professional, the one I call the “inside lobbyist.” The professional has the power of knowledge, persuasion, personal relationship, good information, and maybe fundraising-that’s significant. But the lobbyist can only vote in one district. To a politician, the importance of the professional lobbyist pales in comparison to someone who lives and votes or works in the district.

Imagine   that   I   am   your   senator.   I   may   like   your professional lobbyist and respect her. But the lobbyists needs me more than I need her. I can accept her information, reject it, or just ignore it. If I kiss off or ignore your lobbyist, so what? That lobbyist can hardly try to get even with me for fear that I will remember it the next time she needs me.

But as your senator, when someone who can vote for me says people in my district care about an issue, I have to listen. I can’t afford to have people back home saying negative things about me. You are a substantial   member   of my community and not only do I want you saying positive things about me, I really, really don’t want you saying negative things. What’s   more, you can help me understand   why something is important in my district. After all, I want to represent that district and win the next election.

Perhaps you don’t advocate for your issues because you are worried about getting into controversy and somehow someone will get angry and retaliate. You are concerned that something bad will happen as a result because you’ve seen bare knuckled politics on TV. It’s not likely.

Think about your issue. Could be education. parks, scope of medical practice, mental health, taxes, insurance or water. These issues are not like abortion or gun control, where everybody has an opinion and strong feelings and some opinions and feelings are extreme. Most issues are not the kind of thing anyone will get emotional about. No one except you and your opponents care. Most issues never even make the back section of the newspaper, much less the television.

Even the most nonpartisan, apolitical group is expected to advocate or educate to win support for its goals. Politicians want and need your expertise and experience. There is a key difference between supporting issues and supporting candidates. As long as you stick to your issues and skip personalities and endorsing candidates, you will stay out of trouble.

Despite media reports to the contrary, Americans are usually able to disagree agreeably. The media folks have to emphasize conflict and maximize the appearance of conflict or they lose their audience. Do not accept the media portrayal of politics as reality.

Another obstacle to advocacy is time. We’re all so busy surviving, dealing with family and jobs; we think we don’t have time to get involved in politics. You may envision “getting involved” as having to stay on the phone, go to a lot of meetings, write a lot of letters, and travel to the capital. Not so.

If you are focused on one issue, you probably won’t need to write or call more than six times as the legislation moves through the process. If you make contact six times, taking less than a half hour each time, you can have significant impact. How long does it take to scribble a note and fax it or email it or to make a phone call urging your elected official to vote yes? Is your issue worth three hours of effort?

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