Resource: Advice from a Citizen Lobbyist
This advice was contributed by Peter Chabarek for anyone working with their state legistlators.
Guidelines, Rules of Thumb, and Suggestions for Lobbying in the Oregon Legislature
I have been asked to come to the BORDC statewide meeting February 6 to share my views from my experiences lobbying the legislature in the last session in 2003. I know there will be many people with lots of important things to say, and I want to be as respectful of people’s time as I possibly can. So I’m writing this for people so I won’t take up too much time at the meeting. Because I was kind of “in the center of the storm,” I want to share my thoughts with y’all (I picked up that Southern drawl from Brooke). I’ll just say here that these guidelines are just my ideas coming from my experience, others will have their “take” on the whole tornado that happened back then, and also that I felt we achieved a great deal in the last session, much more than anyone expected, which is a testament to the power of the grassroots responding to an idea whose time has come. SO MANY people put out extraordinary effort in the waning weeks of the last legislature, it was truly a deeply moving thing to witness—I cried with awe and joy so many times I lost count. The power and immediacy of the need for this work has become even greater in these dangerous times, and my heart goes out to all of you who are investing a chunk of your life force toward keeping all of us free. OK, here’s my humble contribution on what I think worked and didn’t work in Salem in 2003:
Consider everyone you encounter in the legislature as either an ALLY or a POTENTIAL ALLY. The issue of civil liberties cuts right across party lines, so make no assumptions about who you think will help or hurt the movement. Assume that anyone who doesn’t yet agree with defending the Bill of Rights simply needs to be educated more. That’s our job. And legislators’ aides can be very important allies, even if they take the opposing view, so work on everyone. ·
Be RESPECTFUL BUT ASSERTIVE when dealing with legislators and their staff. They are incredibly busy; on average 3000 bills will be introduced in a session, and that’s a lot to deal with on top of their other responsibilities, especially considering they are “citizen legislators” who are paid something like $12oo per month for this. And no matter how frustrated or righteously angry you might feel, never GET angry with opponents or allies. But also be absolutely assertive—know exactly what you’re after, and go after it with dogged determination. Oppression never yields voluntarily, it only yields to the will of a determined populace (that’s either from Frederick Douglas or Hope Marston, I don’t remember which). ·
PERSEVERENCE FURTHERS. Nothing earns the respect of legislators like determined, consistent effort. 90% of the battle is to just keep showing up and showing your face, hounding them with emails, phone calls, literature, and the like. Sometimes they give you what you want just to get rid of you. ·
USE THE RESOURCES that we have built up over the past 3 years. The ACLU, staff of supportive legislators, general staff of the Capitol building can give you tips about things you didn’t know existed. We’re all beginners at this, learn from the folks who live in the legislature and play the game for a living. Who would have thought we would have the NRA lobbying for our measure? But that’s the kind of thing the ACLU helped us with. Who would have thought that an aide to Sen. Bill Fisher (an extreme conservative who told us he thought it was a great idea to lock up the Japanese Americans in WWII in concentration camps) would listen to our arguments and help persuade Fisher to back us (he became a sponsor, for God’s sake!)? But that’s what happened when Michi just kept working on him with the literature we had built up over time. ·
DO YOUR HOMEWORK. You don’t need to know everything about civil liberties to do lobbying, but you should know very well the basics about our bill and the most egregious aspects of the UPA and other laws. Use the legislature website to read thru each legislator’s background (they’re short) and make some flashcards to review just before you go in to see them. This helps a lot in making a personal connection if you can find some piece of legislation they introduced that you liked, or help you avoid talking about a subject that you strongly disagree on. It helped immensely, for example, to read a speech about Martin Luther King that Max Williams, a Republican, had on his webpage—it was a fine speech, I thought, and I told him so, and it was easier to get an “in” when I could ask him what he thought MLK would think of the UPA, and remind him he’s from the party of Lincoln. And it was helpful to know about Gary George’s extreme feelings about abortion but also that he’s really a libertarian more than a Republican. Also, part of “homework” is setting up appointments beforehand so you’re more likely to catch the key people BEFORE decisions get made in the backroom deals that happen all the time in the Capitol. ·
ACTIVATE THE GRASSROOTS!!! This is huge. The most important reason we got as far as we did last session is because folks like Hope Marston and Brian Michaels spent enormous time creating and nurturing contacts throughout the state. So we had an amazing grassroots network ready to go when we got to Salem, people who learned the essence of the issues and were motivated to act when called upon. TIMING IS CRUCIAL—activate the phone tree for the activist constituents in the particular district of a legislator who you’re going to be meeting with a week before you get to him/her, so by the time you talk to the legislator, they’ve already had an earful from their constituents on the issue. If you do this step correctly and the grassroots follows thru like they usually do, then all you have to do when you meet the legislator is give him a few good reasons to vote for the bill, and remind him/her that their constituents are up in arms about this issue. ·
COMMUNICATE COMMUNICATE COMMUNICATE. This a true People’s movement, and it takes the involvement of all of us to make it work. Misunderstandings happen when assumptions get made, feelings get hurt, inaccurate information gets passed on, rumors fly, and bad decisions can happen if we don’t communicate enough. Run up the cell phone bill, send lots of emails, whatever it takes, but keep everyone in the loop as much as humanly possible. Besides, this part is half the fun! ·
SIMPLIFY THE MESSAGE. Take a page from Karl Rove’s playbook—keep the message simple, and pound away on it relentlessly. When you go in to talk with a legislator, know 5 hardhitting aspects of the UPA and related laws that you can hit them with, but only use 3 in the initial conversation. Don’t overwhelm them with information, they won’t assimilate it and will forget it as soon as you’re out the door. Of course, give them a great packet of information that they can read if they are truly interested, and to show that we did our homework, but it’s much more important to hit them over the head with 3 things they can remember, like: “Did you realize the FBI can read your emails and tap your phone without a warrant now?” or “Do you think your constituents would like it if they knew the Patriot Act allows undercover agents to infiltrate their churches, mosques and synagogues without any suspicion of a crime?” Stuff like that which is difficult to argue against without sounding silly or fascist. ·
COME FROM A PLACE OF STRENGTH. We have had innumerable successes, more than 350 communities, 4 entire states passing these resolutions. We cleared the Senate by a near-unanimous vote last time. The issue is deeply implanted in the public mind, and the politicians know it. GO AT THIS TASK WITH THE ATTITUDE AND THE KNOWLEDGE THAT WE ARE GOING TO WIN, and if they don’t go along they’re going to miss the train. We WILL win, and they know that. Remember that, when things get to feeling a little tough.
I hope this wasn’t too long or redundant. We have drawn some amazingly talented and dedicated people to this work, and I honor the sacrifice and passion you all have put and will put into this critical work.