People are often surprised when I tell them that I hear from about 1% of my constituents. It seems that the prevailing attitude is one of leaving it up to somebody else. While that sometimes presents a challenge for me to know what our neighbors think, it is a real plus for you as it makes your input more significant. It also helps explain why folks are reluctant to weigh in. They assume we’re inundated (hardly) or won’t respond (we do 100% of the time). Not only do you care about certain issues, your viewpoint, education, and life experiences will enable me to reach a better decision.
No doubt different legislators have particular preferences but I think most of us operate similarly so here is what works for me. With a nod to author Stephen Covey, the following are my Seven Habits of Highly Effective Advocates.
- Have a clear message. Is it a particular bill or a general issue that you are concerned with? Early in a session, we can still advance ideas but as it gets later, we deal with specific bills and look for that type of input. If you are opposed, is there a change you want or a way to make the bill better? And it also helps to let us know if you support a bill why that is the case. I might use your reason to sway a colleague!
- Know who you are contacting. It might be a committee member, not just your local rep. Where are they from, what is their background and which bills are they working on? Try to meet them (if possible) and have a brief face to face meeting. This will prove invaluable over time. Locally, I have chatted with folks not just in my office but at the grocery store, at church, at restaurants and even on the Terry Hershey trail. At the Capitol, we are accessible (though not for long periods) and it has a huge impact when somebody takes the time to come to Austin and see us.
- Know the status of your issue. It the bill about to have a hearing? Has is already passed the Senate? Is it up for a floor vote soon? This helps us “triage” our work. Your knowing where things are in the process is a big help to us.
- Use all forms of communication. A personal call takes just a few minutes and gives you a great opportunity for feedback. Emails can be easily forwarded and are good to send along details. Short letters can be handwritten for impact or longer letters, typed, are good too. Form letters and copied emails get some attention but are of far less impact. You might also think about testifying on a bill or sending a letter to the author or chairperson with your views. This will became part of our records.
- Use the staff. We rely heavily in these folks so please don’t feel that you’re working at some lower level. They often know more about the details of your issue and are great at gathering and relaying information to me. And they have more time to help you so use these fine public servants.
- Leverage your work with advocacy groups. Perhaps you’re a Realtor, CPA, engineer, teacher, or a nurse. Each of these professions (and lots more) has paid staff that follows issues and they can be part of your team. Your school, church or neighborhoods can also be part of your team. Or you might want to form a new group about your issue. MADD was once just a dream. Now it has real impact. How about the TEA Party?
- Build a relationship with legislators and their staff. Chances are your initial call or letter won’t resolve the issue at hand. And, once you find that you can indeed have an impact, you’ll want to address new matters. So treat these folks well, remember they are working under a fair amount of pressure during session, and they will be eager to go out of their way to help you.
And the final word on this matter of influence is simply persistence. If you follow up, and stay on an issue, you will rise above the vast majority of people who contact us. And armed with this value, and the habits above, you’ll be doing your part to make Texas even better. And I’ll thank you for being part of our team.