Like it or not, "the squeaky wheel gets
the grease!" With all of the other constituents and issues
facing legislators today, don’t expect to have your
perspective represented if you don’t make the effort
to communicate your views.
Remember the old adage, "There is strength
in numbers"? It’s not only true in life, but in
politics as well! While you as an individual can work with
legislators for the best interests of your district, the best
chance of accomplishing your goals is to work with your organization
by establishing your priorities and advocating for them together.
While your entire group may not agree completely on every
issue, you will build more credibility and be more effective
if you speak with one voice rather than at cross purposes.
Involving others from your community also adds to the strength
of your message.
Key 1: Know your
Knowing legislators and staff personally is the first step
to having your voice heard. If you haven’t met them,
set up a meeting and introduce yourself. This is especially
important if the lawmaker is new. Welcome them to your district;
now is the time to educate them and they’ll remember
your courtesy. Establish a friendly relationship by finding
common friends or interests. Don’t miss the chance to
visit with your legislators in the district at town hall meetings
or other events. Stop by their offices even if you are just
passing through. Legislative schedules can be tricky so make
an appointment if you can, and make sure to develop contacts
with the legislators’ staffs.
Don’t wait until an important bill is
in your legislator’s committee or on the floor to develop
these contacts. Start early and as President Lyndon Johnson
said, " Make friends before you need them."
Key 2: Be a source
of reliable information
Specific knowledge about your district is essential if you
are to be of any assistance to your legislators. The information
your provide must be:
• Understandable– Remember that your legislator
probably does not have the same background in the subject
matter as you do.
• Accurate– It’s okay not to know the answer
to a question; simply say you will find out and always follow
• Persuasive– Always break your proposals down
to how they will positively impact the targeted population.
Bottom line: Legislators need to be convinced that your mission
The goal is to build credibility with your legislator
so they come looking for you when they need information. Give
legislators your address, phone numbers at home and work and
a fax number. Often when legislators need information, time
is of the essence. If a legislator asks a question and you
don’t know the answer, use your resources to obtain
the correct information. If you inadvertently offer erroneous
information, always contact your legislator and explain the
mistake as quickly as possible.
Key 3: Make your
legislator experts on your district.
Don’t assume that just because legislators grew up in
your state that they know how you would like them to vote
on every issue of interest to you. Invite them to events,
and make sure that they are on the mailing list for your newsletter.
They won’t be able to attend every function, but the
more time they spend with you and your organization, the more
likely they are to support your cause.
Key 4: Timing is
everything– know the process.
You need to know when to strike –
when lawmakers are voting in committee or when you need their
votes on the floor. Knowing the process makes it easier for
you to target your contacts and make your voice heard.
Key 5: Ask how
they will vote... and hold them accountable:
All of your hard work is for nothing if you don’t follow
through when the final votes are counted. Contact your legislator
and ask how they intend to vote on specific issues. If they
are leaning away from your position, continue to share information
that may sway their opinion or help them choose a compromise
position on the issue. If you aren’t successful, don’t
worry; there is always a next time. This week’s opposition
is inevitably next week’s ally.
Legislators want to do the right thing; they also like public
recognition. When legislators support your position, give
them credit. Send them letters of thanks which you can share
with the editor of your local newspaper; comment on their
support publicly in board meetings; and call or stop by to
visit them personally. The request for help is easier the
next time if you offer appreciation this time.
Patience and persistence are the primary characteristics of
good legislative advocates.
Building relationships and credibility are key and can be
accomplished with time and effort by following theses do’s
- Do your homework–know your district, the issues
and your legislators.
- Develop rapport over time. You do not need to be chummy
with a legislator, but you do need to be respected.
- Treat your legislator with the dignity and respect you
- Work with a legislator’s staff. Staff members do
research, draft bills make recommendations on amendments
and develop expertise in areas in which their legislator
cannot devote the time.
- Develop strong grassroots support. The more people there
are forming the consensus that you speak for, the more impact
- Don’t be rude, offensive or argumentative. A good
guideline to follow is "Will the legislator invite
me back or avoid me in the future?"
- Don’t give an ultimatum. Learn to accept rejection
without destroying the relationship; this week’s enemy
is often next week’s ally.
- Don’t ever resort to name calling. If you use strong
negative labels for those who oppose your proposals, you
may alienate them forever.
- Don’t expect to change a legislator’s mind
- Don’t get frustrated. We can’t expect victory
overnight. We often have to learn to rejoice in small victories.
- Don’t take a shotgun approach. Focus on your board’s
priorities for the district, rather than trying to accomplish
everything at once.
- Don’t forget that legislators are faced with hundreds
of bills and thousands of constituents. While they are the
elected officials with policy-making responsibilities, you
are both accountable to many of the same constituents
- Building relationships and credibility with your legislator
can be difficult if you don’t communicate effectively
what it is you want. This section provides a number of tips
on phoning, writing and visiting with your legislators and
Phone calls may be best when time is of the essence, ie. when
a bill is up for a vote in committee. Phone calls can also
be used immediately following a favorable vote to extend your
- Ask to speak with the legislator, but if necessary, spend
some time talking with the staff person. You can also call
the Legislative Access Number and leave a message for the
legislator to return your call.
- Clearly identify yourself as a board member and identify
- If you have spoken to or seen the legislator recently,
remind him or her of the contact. Legislators meet with
many constituents and may not remember precisely when they
saw or heard from them last. This can help to break the
ice and lead into your reason for calling.
- Identify the specific proposal you are calling about,
by bill number if possible. Call about only one issue at
- Briefly state your position and how you’d like
your legislator to vote.
- Ask your legislator’s view on the issue or bill.
- If necessary, offer to provide information the legislator
needs to make an informed decision at the time.
- If the legislator is unsure of his or her position or
vote, offer to follow up the phone call with another call
Putting your thoughts in writing is important when you are
introducing a complicated topic. It will allow your legislator
time to mull over the issue before responding, and will help
you to organize your thoughts so that you can explain them
more clearly when you meet.
- Put your mailing address and phone number on all correspondence
so that the legislator can easily contact you with questions
or for more information.
- Do not use postcards.
- Keep your letters to one issue, short and to the point.
Refer to the issue specifically or by bill number, if possible.
- Clearly state what it is you want them to do. Support
a bill on the floor? Oppose a bill in committee? Draft a
bill or an amendment?
- Offer specific information on why it is important. What
is the bottom line on this issue for your district?
- Timing is critical. If the letter arrives too early,
it may be forgotten before the vote. One or two days before
the vote is taken is generally best.
- Ask that the legislator state his or her position in
- Legislators appreciate thank you notes, as they cite
or use parts of them for newsletters or other constituents
By Personal Visit
Visits are important on key issues when your legislators’
vote really counts. It is more difficult to say no in person
than over the phone or in a letter! They also may keep you
in mind as a source of information on a specific issue if
they can put together a name and a face.
Call their office or drop them a note before you visit.
Let them know specifically what you wish to speak to them
about, and offer them two or three alternative times you are
Address legislators as "Representative" or "
Legislators are often between votes and your time with them
is limited. Get to the point or you may miss your opportunity.
Be prepared when you arrive. Do your homework in advance so
you can speak clearly and concisely on the issue.
Have something in writing to leave behind with the legislator,
preferably a one-page fact sheet on your issue and position.
Always thank legislators for their time and express interest
in keeping touch, even if they disagree with your position
This information comes from the
office of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords.
Jim was first elected to serve
as Vermont's Attorney General from 1969 to 1973. He then
served in the United States Congress as Vermont's
representative from 1975 until 1989 when he was elected to
serve in the United States Senate. Jeffords retired from
office, ending his long career in public service, in 2006.