20 May 2009

Working effectively for change

Getting people out to vote was what put Obama into the Oval Office, but obviously different tactics are required to bring about change, particularly at the national level, when the issue won't be decided at the polls. Part of what we do is spread the messages, and arm people with the facts, but most of the change between elections depends on legislative persuasion, and incumbents aren't typically "scared" of losing votes unless their re-election date is looming very closely indeed.

Do you know how your legislator voted on the issue, or similar ones, in the past?

Voting records can be found at watchdog sites such as OpenCongress and Project Vote Smart. Search voting records by member of congress or by topic, check in on committee and bill activity, or call the office and ask for their voting record or a position paper on how your representative stands on the issue of concern to you. Not only will you understand the position your elected official has already taken, it may help you learn about the issue in terms of what's in play in D.C., or where the pressure from the other side is concentrated.

The Wellstone Action organization always stresses what you have in common with your reps...

They're people with a history, experiences, and most importantly commitments to various issues. There are lots of great tips at Wellstone.org, but here are a few highlights for effectively dealing with a legislator at any level of government. It is crucial to get to know them and their story - they're people.

  • Learn their biographies - including family, profession, education, etc.
  • Know their districts. If it's not your representative you're lobbying you'd better research the demographics, geography, economy, and the challenges of the person's state or district.
  • Discover their policy interests. What issues motivated them to become an elected official? On which issues do they exert leadership? What life experiences have made certain issues real to them? Whose opinion on issues do they value?
  • Learn their community interests. Find out where they volunteer, and worship -- what they care about in their communities both now and historically.
  • Exhibit your shared interests by letting them get to know you. Sales professionals know it's all about personal relationships, and that means your success is tied to your willingness to talk about yourself, not just the issue. They know you have an agenda, everybody who approaches an elected official has an agenda, that's the nature of their position - but if they like you as a person you will, frankly, make better progress.

Take the time to listen to elected officials, not just study them. Hear their concerns. Become a resource to them and look for opportunities to provide them information and other assistance. These folks are all about networking. If you go to a town hall meeting or a fund-raiser, or any other event they're at, they WILL talk to you, they love to talk - so listen, don't just cram your idea down their throat.

Maintain contact and notice things that deserve praise and support. You're pitching an idea, and you can bet somebody else is pitching a totally contrary plan - so be respectful and genuine to make yourself worthy of consideration. When you're up against the hopes and ambitions of major campaign donors (and you almost always are) or influential special interests you'll have to be persistent and persuasive to make much headway, as the current negotiations over health care reform show.

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