|Learn how legislators and aides do their jobs, with techniques for developing and maintaining legislative relationships, and working together for mutual benefit.
Why are relationships with Legislators and aides important?
Who are legislators and their aides?
Whom do you need to develop a relationship with?
What exactly do we mean by developing a relationship?
How do you meet legislators and their aides?
How do you establish and maintain relationships?
Let's look at a couple of situations.
This section deals specifically with federal and state legislators. All of it, however, is equally relevant to members of the executive branch and their staffs and to policymakers at the local level.Although members of the executive branch (the president and cabinet departments at the federal level, the governor and cabinet departments at the state level, and the mayor or town manager and municipal departments in cities and towns) and local officials - city councils, county commissioners - may not be called legislators, some may have the power to enact laws and regulations, and all have the power of persuasion. Many local officials and bodies - mayors, local elected and appointed boards and agencies, county governing bodies, etc. - have the power to allocate funds, and therefore may be very important to your organization and your issue. These officials and bodies vary from state to state, and even from community to community, and we're not going to generalize about or try to describe them here. (In much of the Northeast, for instance, county government is all but nonexistent; in states in many other parts of the country, it is extremely powerful.)The guidelines and suggestions for forming and maintaining relationships with federal and state legislators and their aides discussed in this chapter can - and should - be used on the local level. Where the methods of contacting or establishing and maintaining relationships with local officials are different from those suggested for state and federal legislators, we'll include them as well. If you're an advocate - and if you care about an issue or are involved in a grass roots or community-based organization, you are an advocate, like it or not - the more and better relationships you can develop with decision makers at all levels, the more effective you'll be.More information about legislators and aides, as well as other policy makers, and about how the real work of Congress and state legislatures gets done, can be found in General Rules for Organizing for Legislative Advocacy.
Why are relationships with legislators and aides important?
Who are legislators and their aides?
House of Representatives.
Each state must have at least one Congressman. Currently, Wyoming, at a population of about 458,000 is the only state that would lack a Congressman if it had to meet a population standard. There are a few other one-seat states, including Alaska and North and South Dakota.
Congressional and legislative staffs.
The Congressional Quarterly publishes a Congressional Staff Directory (see Resources) three times a year. Most states either publish similar state legislative staff directories, or have widely-available directories published by advocacy organizations.
It is important to understand that an individual legislator at either the state or federal level doesn't - and can't - know very much about most of what she votes on. An annual state budget is hundreds, or even thousands, of pages long, with each page containing perhaps 20 or 30 individual line items. The federal budget is even longer. Because there is too much for any one person to be familiar with, legislators often pick a small number of issues that interest them or are important to their constituents, and become knowledgeable about them. Often, colleagues will defer to their judgment on those issues in which they are known to have expertise. If the legislator relies heavily on staff, however, it may well be the staff person who becomes the expert on, or even picks, the issues the legislator will tackle. So it's not only legislators, but their staff people as well, who need to be approached by advocates.
State legislative staffs.
As in many organizations, much of the work in Congress and state legislatures is actually done in committees, rather than in the full legislative body. Most of these committees have their own staffs, members of which sometimes set policy for the committees, and can be very powerful in their own right. Getting to know these committee staffers can be an important advocacy tool.
Whom do you need to develop a relationship with?
The absolute first step here is to make sure that everyone involved in your advocacy effort knows who her own state and federal legislators are, and - if they're not the same - who the legislators are who represent the beneficiaries of your organization or initiative.
- Your own federal or state legislators. Any politician worth his salt knows that he's never talking to just one voter. He knows you have friends, relatives, and colleagues who are likely to hear whether you think he's God's gift to democracy or the political equivalent of the Swamp Thing. For that reason alone, the people who actually represent you are going to be willing to talk to you. If you can also show them how support of your issue or the work you do will benefit their districts, they'll want to be on your side, because what's good for the district is good for their reelection.
This may sound cynical, but even the politicians who are most sincere and most concerned with the fates of the human beings they represent think constantly about reelection. Representatives, particularly, because their terms are only two years, are always concerned about the next election, and start running as soon as they're elected. If you can offer them something that will help keep them in office, they'll be willing to offer something in return. If their support would be forthcoming anyway, all the better -- that's a reason you want them reelected.
- Legislators who represent many of your participants or beneficiaries, even if they don't represent you personally.
- Legislators to whom your issue is crucial. Someone who's run on a platform of protecting the environment needs to pay attention to that goal. If you're a community land trust, or an environmental coalition, then you're an important ally, and a source of useful information. You're also a potential source of pressure in support of legislation.
- Legislators or aides with a personal passion for your issue. Someone who's lost a relative as a result of the lack of affordable health care is likely to be very interested in community health and universal health care, for instance, and to want to work with you to expand or institute programs in those areas.
- Aides, particularly committee staff, who need the information you have at your fingertips. If you've established yourself as a reliable source, you can make these people's jobs infinitely easier by saving them hours of research.
- Chairs or vice-chairs or members of key committees, and/or their aides. If your organization is oriented toward education reform, it's important to know people on the education committee. If you do job training for welfare recipients, you might want contacts on both the Commerce and Labor and Human Services committees.
- Individual legislators and staffs and chairs of committees or that are important to any issue. The Speaker of the House, the Senate President, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee or the Rules Committee.
The Ways and Means Committee (there's one in the House and one in the Senate) makes up the chamber's annual budget recommendations, and ultimately decides how much money gets allotted for what in the federal or state budget. If you want money for your issue, someone has to talk to the Ways and Means Committee. The chief staff person of Ways and Means may have as much influence as the chair in making up the annual budget, and deciding how much funding goes to specific areas of the budget.The Rules Committee, which oversees how the legislative body runs, has to pass on every single bill before it gets to the floor to be voted on. The Rules Committee can be tremendously powerful, because it has the ability to hold anything up for as long as it sees fit. It can kill a bill, at least for the year, by holding it up until the end of the legislative session, after which it has to be refiled. Often, bills die in the Rules Committee not for opposition to them, but for lack of vigorous support.
- Aides of your legislative champions or of legislators who are particularly powerful, particularly those aides with responsibility for your issue. Some legislators have staked out strong positions on particular issues and are known as experts on them by other legislators. Others, especially in the U.S. Senate, are powerful enough that their sponsorship of any issue is worth a great deal, whether they are seen as knowledgeable or not. These people are not always easily reached, but their aides usually can be. Furthermore, the aides may have as much to do with setting policy in your area as the legislators do.
On the local level, figuring out who needs your support, or whose support you need, is at least partially a function of knowing your community and local area. Officials who are themselves from a district where a number of your organization's beneficiaries live, or who have experienced circumstances in their lives similar to those of your target population, may have a vested interest in working with you. Others may have a master plan for the community or the area that includes your issue. For still others, it may be a simple matter of votes, or even of pressure from a family member or close friend. It's up to you to find out who's who, to understand local politics and the local political system.Another difference on the local level is that many, or perhaps most, local officials have no aides. They may have subordinates, but these folks usually have specific jobs, rather than simply being part of the official's staff, to be deployed as he sees fit. Thus, it's often the official himself that you want to get to know. (But not necessarily... Again, that depends on the particular community and how the system works.)Because local systems are so different, there's a vast range of people who might be allies and friends. Those in the abbreviated list below - except for the obvious ones like mayors or county commissioners - might be town, city, county, or regional officials, depending on the system in your area.
- Town managers
- Town or city councilors
- County commissioners
- Boards of Health members
- Conservation Commission members
- Planning Board members
- School Committee members
- Town, city, county, or regional planners
- Finance Board members
- County administrators
- Precinct representatives
What exactly do we mean by developing a relationship?
- The legislator's staff people -- and the legislator herself -- should recognize your name (in the ideal, with pleasure), and be willing to take or return your calls promptly.
- If you want to speak to the legislator in person, you'll have the opportunity.
State legislators, if they know you fairly well, will often pick up the phone or call you back if you ask to speak to them. Congresspersons seldom will, unless they know you extremely well or perceive you as wielding a great deal of power. Their aides, however, can often arrange meetings or calls with them. For a U.S. Senator, the best you can probably do is to speak to the aide in charge of your issue.
- You should be the first person the legislator's office thinks of to call when she needs information about your issue.
- The legislator should be willing to support your issue when you need it, and quickly. That may mean trying to override a veto, pushing a vote, trying to get a bill passed at the last minute, etc. (By the same token, you should realize when that's politically impossible for her, and be willing to take no for an answer on that basis.)
- The legislator or her staff people should call you to alert you to crisis points, situations where you need to mobilize your constituency, impending problems or opportunities, etc.
The degree of responsiveness called for in points 4 and 5 implies either that the issue is one close to the legislator's heart, or that she has enough of a relationship with you (and understands your clout and constituency well enough) that she'll act on your request. If, of the several legislators with whom you try to establish relationships, you can find one who'll act in these ways, you've more than done your job as an advocate.
- The legislator should be willing to visit your organization or community, or support you in other ways - speaking at an organizational function, explaining the legislative process to participants, etc.
Especially if you present this as an opportunity to meet constituents (new voters, particularly), legislators are likely to jump at the chance. They may send aides instead of coming themselves, but you may also be surprised at how often a legislator will agree to attend these kinds of events.
- You should be willing to help the legislator and her staff when they need it.
- Act as a resource, information finder, etc.
- Get behind their pet projects (where they're in agreement with your principles), and encourage your colleagues to do the same.
- Say good things about them wherever you go.
- Invite them to community or professional functions where they can meet people.
- Give them awards.
- Thank them publicly for their help.
- Mention them in the media.
- Contribute money to them and/or work on their reelection campaigns.
- You should have enough of a personal relationship with at least one person in the office -- ideally the legislator herself -- that you can chat for a few minutes about family, music or movies, sports, politics, etc. You don't have to be close friends, but it's good to have at least some personal connection.
How do you meet legislators and their aides?
- You almost never get to see a U.S. Senator (at least a powerful one, or one from a large state), unless you have an in (which may come through meetings with an aide), or unless you officially represent a large or powerful constituency. You can easily get an appointment with an aide, however, and that's often just as effective. In general, Senate aides are the people in the office most concerned with policy, and they can often influence the Senator on issues.
- You can often get to see a Congressman, especially in the district. Congressmen are usually more attentive to constituents because they have to run every two years, and their districts, in most states, are much smaller than the whole-state constituencies of the Senators.
You can always get a meeting with a Congressman's aides in the district. Their primary job is constituent service, so they're all too happy to talk to voters. This is a good chance to educate an aide on your issue, and to set yourself up for a meeting with the Congressman.
- You can usually get to see a state senator, but not necessarily for a long meeting, and it may take at least one meeting with an aide to set it up. You have a better chance for more time as part of a group that represents your issue.
- You can almost always meet with a state representative. In most states, legislative districts contain fewer than 50,000 people, so every voter is important. Representatives usually have regular office hours in the district, although sometimes they're so swamped there that it's easier to see them at the state capital.
In rural districts or small towns, you may be able to catch the representative when he picks up his mail at the post office on Saturday morning, or when he holds court at the local coffee shop on Friday (in many states, Friday is traditionally a day spent in the district), or at a community event. It's even likely that his home phone is in the book, if you have trouble getting hold of him in another way. (If you use these avenues, however - particularly his home phone - make sure not to abuse the privilege. If you annoy him by invading his privacy, your chances of establishing a relationship will diminish.)Another factor here is that, in such districts, you're much more likely to have some personal connection with a state representative -- to know a relative, a neighbor, a colleague, someone he went to school with. That kind of contact makes a meeting much easier to arrange.
- You can always get a meeting with an aide to a state senator or state representative, either in the district or at the State House. We've already discussed how aides may actually be the key people in policy decisions. If you don't know the particular person you want, ask to meet with whoever handles your issue. How helpful a meeting with an aide is will depend on both the competence of the particular aide and the degree to which the legislator relies on her for information and advice.
- Know what you want to talk about. It should be clear, concise, and focused on your issue. If you have printed material, it should be short and to the point -- a fact sheet.
- Identify the issue clearly. Don't overload the legislator or aide with information; keep it simple enough that she'll understand and remember most of what you tell her.
If you're asking for the legislator's help, be as specific as you can. If there's an immediate concern, highlight it. ("Those of us in the field are concerned about House bill 2374, which would limit the number of people we could serve.") Explain why it's a concern, how it would affect constituents and the district, and what action needs to be taken. ("Would it be possible for you to approach the leadership and the sponsors, explain the unintended consequences of this bill, and ask them to table it?")
- Identify yourself with the issue, and establish your credentials as a spokesperson. ("I've been the director of a community health program for 11 years, and I'm on the Board of the state professional organization, where I chair the public outreach committee.") If you can identify yourself as the spokesperson for, or a member of, a group or coalition, it gives you more credibility.
- Remember that you have knowledge that legislators and their aides don't have, because you spend all your time on this issue. If they know anything about it at all, it's probably secondhand; it may be conventional wisdom, which often has little to do with reality. Take advantage of the fact that you represent reality for them.Don't, however make the mistake of underestimating someone because you haven't asked. A legislator or aide may have personal experience of your issue that you don't know about, or may have dealt with it in the past. Don't assume ignorance -- you may offend someone unnecessarily.
Invite legislators or aides to visit your organization or town. Arrange for them to meet with participants, or with members of your coalition. If you're concerned with the town as a whole -- supporting residents' initiative to improve neighborhoods, preserving green space, increasing opportunities for youth -- take them on a tour. If you use an invitation as a way to make contact with a legislator or his aide, remember to:
- Ask him to speak at an event, or to present something: certificates, diplomas, awards.
- Give the legislator an award for something good he's done, or for spearheading a bill that helped the issue or the community.
- Ask him to explain the legislative process to participants, or to a meeting of practitioners.
- Invite him to see something specific -- an exhibit, or a community problem.
- Invite him to talk with a focus group (of teen parents, welfare recipients, environmental activists, etc.).
- Get the media there.
- Thank him for his visit and his contribution, both at the time and later, by letter. Legislators use such thank-you letters to demonstrate their good work in the district.
- Invite him back to follow up on something specific. ("We're planning a community day to clean up this lot on Saturday the 14th of next month. We'd love to have you join us, and see the coalition in action.")
- Invite him back to continue discussions with participants.
- Invite him back to preside or speak at a particular event or occasion.
- Give him something to take away -- an award (see above), a journal of participants ' writings, a photo, a fact sheet, a report or position paper, etc.
- Provide an unusual experience for him (a walk along the route of a proposed rail trail, a tour of a housing project, a simulated welfare registration).
- Have people affected by your issue on hand to tell their own stories.
Bring participants or a community group to meet with the legislator for the first time. The meeting shouldn't be intimidating or threatening -- merely a group of citizens visiting their legislator, either with a specific request, or simply to discuss issues of concern. Legislators find it hard to turn down meetings with sizeable groups of constituents.
Start with a phone conversation. State legislators will usually be free to talk on the phone -- many answer their own phones, at least some of the time. Federal legislators generally are unlikely to talk to you unless they know you already, but you can have a phone conversation with a staff person, and start the contact that way.
Testify at a Congressional or state legislative hearing or public comment session. You'll probably have to wait at the hearing for several hours to do this, but it may be worth it for the recognition it will bring. The more often you do it, the more recognizable you become.
Hold a state legislative briefing on your issue. You may need at least one legislator to sponsor this (a good idea in any case, since legislators are more likely to respond to their colleagues than to outside sources). Often legislators send aides to these briefings, which is fine. Make sure to have a sign-up sheet at the door, and to try to either talk to or get back to everyone who attends.
Another event may also be appropriate here, depending upon the issue and the circumstances. The advantage of a legislative briefing is that you can legitimately invite all legislators, and, if scheduled carefully, it can draw a number of legislators and aides. A champion, or even a legislative caucus, for the issue may emerge from such a session.
Get an introduction from a mutual acquaintance. It can be helpful, as in any relationship, if you're recommended as a reasonable and knowledgeable person by someone the legislator or aide knows.
Attend events where legislators and aides are likely to be present, and take the opportunity to introduce yourself. In Washington, that may mean getting on someone's "list." In a state legislative district, it usually has more to do with keeping track of community events or finding someone who knows the person you're hoping to meet.
All of the above methods go for meeting local officials as well. In smaller communities, you're likely to have a direct connection to almost all officials through friends, family, or business associates. In addition, officials in smaller communities are much more receptive to being called at home than a state legislator is likely to be.If you have a personal connection, and it's someone you know reasonably well, it might be a good idea for that person to be present at a first meeting. An official might be more comfortable - and therefore more receptive - if she's meeting with someone she knows. There's also the unspoken sponsorship that goes with being accompanied by someone who's already accepted as a friend.
How do you establish and maintain relationships?
- Keep contact after the initial meeting. Tell the legislator or aide that you'll keep her informed about whatever you've discussed, and then do it. Call, write, or e-mail regularly with updates and new information.
Try to talk to the same person each time -- the legislator if you can, with an aide if that's who met with you the first time or if the legislator is unavailable. (You don't have to talk to the legislator every time, even if you met with her initially. For most conversations, an aide might be fine. Save the legislator for when you really need her.)
If possible, meet face to face periodically, as well as by phone. Your contact should be often enough that folks remember who you are, and seldom enough that they don't say, "Oh, no -- not him again," whenever you call.
- Attend fundraisers and other events honoring the legislator. This means being political and putting out your own money on your own time. If you're serious about being a player, this is the game. You may not like it, but it's where the action is. If the legislator knows your face from these events, she'll be more open to being approached for help (after all, you're a supporter.)
- Have real conversations. Don't just say your piece and hang up. Be genuinely interested in what the other person has to say, in the peculiarities of her job, etc. Discuss issues in general when appropriate, not just your immediate interest. Often, the legislator or aide may be pressed for time, or simply too busy to have a conversation, and it's important to pick up on that situation and respect it. But there will also be times when they will be free to talk, and that's when you can develop an actual personal relationship.
It's nice if you can develop a real friendship, but you can't make that happen. It either will or it won't, depending upon who you both are as people, and upon how much contact you have. But it's a good idea to establish, over time, who you are, and what your outlook and priorities are. The goal is mutual respect. If you can go the next step and become friends, that's fine... but it's not necessary for a good working relationship.
- Ask legislators' and aides' advice -- and follow it when you can. If you're planning a legislative campaign, enlist the legislator to help you design it. If you're approaching other legislators or if you have strategy questions about addressing an issue, ask for pointers on how to do it effectively. If you're trying to get funding or a funding increase in the state or federal budget, ask for input about how much would be appropriate or possible.
- Establish yourself as an absolutely reliable source of information. Be accurate, be quick, and never exaggerate or misstate anything to make your argument stronger. If you don't know something, say so, promise to find it out, and then do. You've reached your goal when legislators and aides start calling you for information and advice.
- Thank legislators for their help, publicly and privately, formally and informally, at every opportunity. Write letters from your organization or coalition, put it in the paper, announce it at public meetings. Take every chance you get to make them look good.
- Respect a legislator's or aide's limitations and priorities. If you're not sure how something will affect her, ask before you make a decision about it. Don't do anything that will put her in an awkward position or a bad light, especially as a result of something she's done as a favor to you. That would be unethical, and it could terminally damage the relationship. She might work with you again, but she'd never trust you.
- Don't abuse the relationship. Don't ask for help unless you really need it. Don't be an annoyance: keep your contacts to a reasonable and businesslike level. Never demand -- ask if help is possible. And be understanding if the answer is no.
Communication Tools for Advocacy from the National Association for Gifted Children provides information on different ways to communicate with policy makers.
Congressional Email Directory. Congressional e-mail addresses.
Congressional Staff Directory. See Print resources, below.
The Christian Coalition. A guide to Congress: complete contact information, thumbnail biographies, photos, find-your-Representative-by-zip-code, and more.
Government Resources. The Library of Congress legislative branch resource page. Everything you'll ever need to know and more: e-mails, committees, ins and outs of Congressional operations, and links to a myriad of other important sites. An excellent site.
Project Vote Smart. Voting records of Congress and state legislators, among other political information.
University of Michigan Library. Another terrific site, including links to information for the federal and all 50 state governments -- laws, courts, executive branches, and everything else.
U.S. House Leadership Web Services -- web links to House Leadership.
State and Local Government on the Net. A resource for all 50 state legislatures. Information for each state on each legislator, each legislative committee, texts of bills and budgets, etc. The site also includes the other branches of government, pending and passed legislation, and other information, depending on the state. A huge resource, especially for groups working in more than one state
10 things: How to better connect with your legislators, from the Vancouver Business Journal, offers seven state legislators discussing what local business owners can and should do to ensure that their voices are heard.
THOMAS (The Library of Congress). The absolutely indispensable website for advocates. Named for Thomas Jefferson, this Library of Congress site has the actual texts of all federal bills, budgets, pending and passed legislation (all this from 1993 on), as well as that currently or recently under discussion, and access to everything else.
Writing Your Elected Official is a guide provided by the Children’s Defense Fund, and it provides information on effectively communicating with elected officials.
Avner, M., & Smucker, B. (2002). The lobbying and advocacy handbook for nonprofit organizations: Shaping public policy at the state and local level. Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. This book offers a clear step-by-step guide to implementing a successful advocacy program at both the state and local levels.
Berkowitz, B., & Wolff T. (2000). The Spirit of the Coalition. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.
Congressional Quarterly, Congressional Staff Directory. Congressional Quarterly Press, Washington, DC. Updated three times yearly.
Fitch, B. (2010). Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials: Citizen Advocacy in State Legislatures and Congress: A Guide for Citizen Lobbyists and Grassroots. The Capitol Net, Inc. This book offers practical guidance for reaching elected officials with a variety of different communication strategies.