Search form

Example #1: Knowing your legislators

Candy Lightner, the woman who started the national organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving, recounts this story which illustrates the importance of knowing your legislators:

When I first decided to start the organization, one of the first people I went to was an old and dear friend, and he said to me, "What is it you want to do? "

And I said, "Well, I've started this organization, and I want to do something. "

And he says, "Do you know what?"

And I said, "Not really. What do you think I should do?"

And he said, "Well, I think you should go see your assembly person."

And I said, "Who's that?"

And he said, "Well, what district are you in?"

And I said, "I don't know."

And he said, "Well, what are you, a Republican or a Democrat?"

And I said, "I'm not either."

And he says, "Well, don't you vote?"

And I said, "No, I don't."

And he got so angry with me he sent me out of the office, and said, "Don't you even come back until you're registered to vote." And I didn't know how to register to vote....

But Candy Lightner learned fast. Eventually, she succeeded admirably in getting tougher laws against drunk drivers. But she never would have gotten anywhere until she learned something about her local decision-makers and the legislative process.

[From Bill Berkowitz, Local Heroes (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987), pp. 127 -128.]

Example #2: Developing a base of support

Judy Meredith, a professional human service lobbyist, describes the necessity of developing a grass-roots base of support:

"Yes, I am a full-time lobbyist. But I spend half my time organizing and mobilizing my clients into district-based grass-roots networks, because that's where the power is. So I'm going to a meeting tomorrow morning around the kids access issue to health care. We're doing two things. One, we're identifying reps who are most likely to vote for this, who might be undecided, or who might know nothing at all. And the professional lobbyist will walk up to the State House and drop off factual materials for every one of those people.

But at the same time, we will be telling various organizations -- the teachers, the hospital association, the Medical Society, everybody, saying, "Next week, we think this vote's coming up. Your job is to call your rep, with this specific message." So the rep knows exactly how this affects his district. How does he know? Because maybe 30-40 people have called him. Saying something like, "You know me. I'm on the board of the community hospital. We think this is an important piece of legislation, and we know it's going to be up next week, and we really hope you're going to vote for it, we hope we can count on you." And this legislator comes in and finds maybe 50 more pink slips on his desk. Then the bill comes up, and it's time to vote yes or no -- he is much more likely to vote yes.

Judy continues by describing why this grass-roots support really does count:

"You see, a legislative body makes decisions where opinion is weighted equal to fact. Because there's too much to know. The legislators are up there, the calendar has 150 items on it, they see the title of a bill and they go, [whispers] "What the hell is this bill about?". And they say to the guy next to them, "Do you know anything about this?" They can see it's sponsored by somebody who is generally trustworthy. So unless they've been lobbied to say "This is a terrible bill," they don't know any better. So they make most of their decisions based on opinion, the more so than fact. And our job is to get the fact in there and change their opinion.

It's a human place. I mean, human beings are good, and if you give them the right information, they'll make the right decisions...

Adapted from an interview with Judy Meredith

Example #3: A Successful Lobbying Effort

One of the best examples we know comes from a lobbying project carried out in Illinois. The issue there was a proposal to require safety seats for young children in cars. The state senate was scheduled to vote on the bill; sentiments were mixed. But two university researchers studied the issue, collected some new facts, and sent this written message to all state senators:

"As you know, the Child Passenger Protection Act (House Bill 608) is likely to be brought before the Illinois State Senate within the next month. We would like to provide you pertinent data that we hope will be useful to you as you consider this piece of legislation.

"Tom Rose and I, 2 investigators at DePaul University, have been collecting data over the past eight months and have found that 93% of children 4 years and less are not placed in appropriate restraints when riding in automobiles. These data were collected in the Chicago metropolitan area and are based on looking at whether children in 1450 cars were in appropriate restraints. To obtain information about citizen attitudes concerning the issue of child restraints in automobiles, in March of 1982, Mr. Rose and I interviewed a sample of Illinois citizens and found that 78% of adults in the Chicago metropolitan area would support the passage of the Child Protection Passenger Act.

"Illinois traffic statistics indicate that 140 children were killed and 25,828 children injured in automobile accidents during the period from 1975-1981. Not only do these statistics represent a tragic loss of human life and potential, they also represent a tremendous cost in rehabilitative care. For example, a 3-year-old who sustains a spinal injury in an automobile accident-- not an infrequent injury -- and is rendered a paraplegic will require $724,240 dollars in rehabilitative care over his or her life. If this child were rendered a quadriplegic, costs would exceed $3,317,929 for rehabilitative care over his/her lifetime.

"Finally, states that have adopted child restraint legislation have experienced significant increases in the use of restraint devices. In Tennessee, for example, twice as many children were placed in appropriate restraints after the Tennessee Child Passenger Protection Act became law on January 1, 1978.

"We hope this information is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you have any further questions. I can be reached at 312-[xxx-xxxx]."

When the actual vote was taken, this bill passed by a close-to-unanimous majority and became law. The written communication here--lobbying, in the best sense of the word--clearly made a big difference. The form and content of the message are excellent illustrations of many of the points we have made above. [From Leonard Jason and Thomas Rose, American journal of community psychology, 1984.]

You may not be a university researcher, and you may not be able to collect original data. But by presenting your facts in a clear, forceful, and respectful manner, your own work in influencing decision-makers is much more likely to be successful.