Meeting and Influencing Legislators
Getting Acquainted with the Legislators is the first step to what may be a lasting and crucial relationship to the passage for your bill. If possible, strive to make your first meeting a "get acquainted" time. Opportunities might include:
- Attending a town hall meeting and introducing yourselves as a constituents.
- Scheduling a personal meeting when he or she is available in the community.
- Attending open official functions where your group can be seen and express your interest in the legislator's work.
- Inviting the legislator to speak at your advocacy group’s meeting
Need help finding contact information on legislators? Most states offer a free roster or directory with contact information, political affiliation, and even a picture directory or guide to name pronunciation.
Generate a computer listing of all legislators, the Governor and the Governor’s legal assistant, and any officials who should be kept informed of your legislation, i.e.: State Commissioner of Health, State Department of Family Services, key aides to the Majority and Minority offices at the State House. Use this list in your lobbying efforts.
Not all legislators are equal. Majority party members with control over a particular legislative body may wield more control than minority members. Chairs have considerable power over committees that may hear your bill. Senior members may have great influence over key decisions.
As you start to enter the legislative process, try to put yourself in each legislator’s shoes. No legislator can learn all that is needed to know to vote responsibly on the many, many bills heard in a session. Be patient, don’t take a rebuff personally and gently educate.
Before Visiting Legislators, Prepare a One Page Fact Sheet
Gather your facts with a recap of your proposed bill, organized into a one page fact sheet to hand to each legislator that you contact. Limit this to one-side and include your contact information. You may create your own or adapt AAC materials contained in the Adoptee Access Action Kit.
Coordinate efforts with the sponsors of your bill as you start to visit legislators to:
- Educate about the bill.
- Seek co-sponsors from those positive to the bill.
- Gain support for future committee hearings.
Your visit will not only help to persuade legislators, but it will also be an educational experience for you. During your visit, you will get an inside look at the political climate and get insight on how to better promote your bill.
Appointments are always preferable to walk-ins where you may only get a chance to drop off materials. If possible, arrange for a larger group to assemble and split appointments between your group members. Helpful Hint: If possible, visit in threes so that the legislator hears your bill supported by an adoptee, a birth parent and an adoptive parent.
It is important to be as relaxed as possible during your visit. If you have a delegation with you, choose a primary speaker based on familiarity with the issue of access to records and speaking skills, but let everyone quickly voice their support… particularly if different members of the triad are present. Practice beforehand with a "one minute elevator pitch" in which you condense the bill into one minute. Also practice quickly saying how you feel about the bill… and how it will affect you and others connected to adoption.
Only Answer Questions that You Know
As you speak to legislators, if you do cannot answer a question, tell the legislator that you will get back to them. NEVER make up an answer. If you give out incorrect information you will eliminate credibility for your advocacy group. Offering to get back to them also offers you a chance to re-familiarize them with your topic.
Expect Opposition and Keep Cool
After discussing the proposed legislation, if the legislator opposes the bill, politely thank him/her, let him/her know that you still hold your position, urge him/her to reconsider, and politely leave. Do not get argumentative. Remember that legislators may hold their stance more rigidly if you are unreasonable or argumentative.
If your representative opposes the bill, see if you can come up with some common ground. Offer to follow up on any new developments, and make sure that your fact sheet has all of your contact information.
Make a special listing of the members of the committees where your bill will be heard. These primary contacts have power over the outcome of your bill and may need multiple lobbying attempts.
Track the status of each legislator's stand on the bill - YES, NO, UNDECIDED. This way, everyone knows what to expect when contacting each office.
It's a good idea to keep very close track of amendments during the process, even those that are approved by the bill's sponsors. Sometimes a sponsor will be more willing to compromise than adoption reformers are, and sometimes an amendment that is called "friendly" can alter the bill completely.
Be prepared for the possibility that a compromise, amendment or other alteration will so change the text of the bill that the activists in your group can no longer support the altered bill. Experienced access advocates have found that as disappointing as it may be to withdraw from championing a particular bill, it offers the option to re-introduce a better bill in the future.
Legislators Pay More Attention to Constituents
Legislators pay attention to issues that may affect their re-election. Some will not meet with anyone who does not reside in their district. Gather relatives and friends who are from the district represented by a legislator. “I’m from your district and I vote along the lines of this issue,” is important to say when lobbying in person, in an email or over the phone.
After a visit, it is important that you follow up on any questions that you were unable to answer. Always send a note thanking your legislator for their time. If necessary, set up another appointment if you sense that the legislator needs more information. If your representative does what you asked them to do (such as signing onto the bill), then be sure to thank them in writing and let them know that you appreciate their efforts.
Other Grass Roots Strategies
- Phone Campaign: Organizing a mass telephone campaign to put pressure on a legislator may not be particularly effective. Incoming calls to legislators are screened in order of priority and there is only so much that can be said over the telephone. Individual calls that express your personal view are more effective.
- Letter Writing Campaign: Letters to your elected official will be taken seriously; letters can either be generated under the name of the association or as a grassroots approach mobilizing your members; letters that are mass produced or photocopied are generally disregarded. Be brief; the desirable length is one page.
The Legislator's Staff
It is not enough just to know the legislator. Much of his or her time is spent out of the office. It has been said that the invisible force in American lawmaking is the legislator’s staff. Knowing the important staff persons is a key element in being effective.
- Remember who they are. Staff members will be key figures in getting your legislation to pass.
- Do not overestimate what they know.
- Do not underestimate their influence. Legislators trust them, depend on them and act on their suggestions.
- Be honest. Provide accurate, complete information to maintain credibility.
- Provide summarized, useful information that is concise, brief and to the point.
- Visit them before asking for a favor. Get acquainted and create and create regular contact.
- Do not hesitate to seek their advice and to ask for their opinions.
- Do not attack their ideas. Be prepared to offer an alternative idea or proposal.
Visiting your Legislators
Learn as much as you can about each legislator, especially which committees he/she serves on. Be prepared. Be on time for your appointment and stay within your allotted time. Avoid arguments. If you can’t answer a question, say so. Let your legislator know that you will get the information Leave your one page fact sheet with your contact information.
When writing to legislators, address your letter properly. When writing to legislators, address your letter to "The Honorable" followed by the legislator's name such as "The Honorable Jane Jones." The salutation of your letter should use the title they have in your state such as "Dear Senator Jones" or "Dear Assemblyperson Jones." Be brief and to the point, and never exceed one page. Use your own words with a quick reference to your personal story. Explain what the impact of access will be and why your legislator should vote as you ask. Write legibly, be courteous, and remember, timing is critical.
Each legislator has one vote. Encourage other members of your group throughout the state to contact their legislators in their respective districts. Legislators who are members of a committee that will hear your bill are especially important to the passage of your bill. Concentrate the group effort on these legislators.
Other legislators will be strongly opposed to an access bill. You need to know who they are and why they oppose the bill.