Working with Legislators
Most legislators are knowledgeable about a broad range of causes but may rely on staff, constituents, and special interest groups to provide detailed information. If you have no experience with a legislative body, research which legislators you should contact first.
How to Meet Legislators
The more legislators you know, the more effective you will be as a lobbyist. Several ways to build and improve relationships with legislators are:
- Be politically active as an individual. Nonprofit organizations cannot support a specific candidate, but you can.
- Volunteer to put campaign signs in your yard, work on a campaign, attend political functions, or buy tickets to political fundraisers.
- Let your organization, sanctuary or business be a hook. Invite legislators to visit and ask them to be part of fundraising activities or offer them a tour of your facility. Be sure to include the legislators’ family as well.
- Give awards. If your organization has any reason to recognize the contributions of an elected official, do it publicly and with as much media attention as possible.
- Use big names. If you can arrange to bring in a celebrity to help you on an issue, invite your local state legislators to come as well.
- Go through the backdoor. If you are affiliated with a local business or civic group, go out of your way to work with an official. When the time is appropriate, use that relationship to educate the legislator on animal issues.
- Be direct. Call a legislator and simply say that you would like to meet at a convenient time to discuss areas of mutual interest. Offer to help provide information on animal issues in response to constituent mail.
- If you are nervous about taking the first step, find other people with similar legislative interests and approach the legislator as a group.
- Get to know the staff. If a legislator’s staff members like you, you are more likely to get to know the legislator directly. Also see the section Legislative Staff below.
- Be polite. Thank legislators for their action. Publicize their good work, and let them know you spread the word. If they voted as you hoped they would on a bill, send a thoughtful, handwritten note.
- Arrange group meetings. Invite legislators to meet with members of your organization at your next meeting. Ask them to speak to the group on effective lobbying techniques.
- Solicit an introduction. If you ask around, you will probably find someone who can introduce you to a legislator.
Do not underestimate the importance of legislative staff members. They are often the legislator’s most trusted advisors and are usually more accessible than the legislators themselves. Staff members can also provide information about the district and how to organize effective grassroots help.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH LEGISLATORS
Legislators can be divided into three (3) categories: members who will almost surely be with you, those who will surely be against you, and those in the “undecided” middle. Contact those likely to be with you first to ensure that they know what your concerns are and why. Do NOT assume that they will vote your way. Focus your main lobbying efforts on those in the undecided group as they can be swayed if you provide enough facts and produce enough positive public pressure. Target those against you only if time allows or if you have some special card to play with them.
Determining Which Legislators to Target
Ask yourself to determine which legislators you should target:
- Does the legislator have a history of supporting animal rights issues?
- Does the legislator have a history of being able to get bills through the legislature – not just introduced?
- Is the legislator a member of the committee that will most likely be assigned the bill?
- Is the legislator well respected by other legislators, or will you automatically lose a significant number of votes in your favor because the legislator takes your stance on the bill?
- Are the legislator’s constituents likely to support or oppose the bill?
- Is the legislator likely to be reelected?
Other Groups – Proponents and Opponents
If other groups are working on the same issue in the legislature, try to coordinate with them to avoid duplicate efforts. You do not want your opponents to know your plan, but make sure that all groups on the same side as you have at least a vague idea of the strategy. In some circumstances, it is good to speak with those on the other side of the issue as acting early to bring those people to your side may avert some problems later. This strategy is sometimes good in cases where your opponents are able to swing more of the votes in its favor.
During the Meeting
Before you arrive for your appointment, decide on the specific points you want to make and what you want the legislator to do.
- Start the meeting by speaking of some current legislative matter, past successes on your issues, or something the legislator is working on.
- If you have a connection with the district – i.e. you live there, went to school there, or represent specific groups from there – say so.
- Know the facts about your issue when you meet with the legislator and be prepared to answer questions. If you don’t know the answers, do not provide incorrect information. State that you will get the information and send it in a follow-up letter.
- Most legislators are dealing with many bills, so do NOT overload them with books, articles, or studies. Instead, point them to various resources, provide concise fact sheets and summaries, and offer your assistance.
- If you have a request - such as how you want a vote cast or what letter needs to be sent and where - be clear and concise, but also be flexible. If the legislator wants to discuss the issue at greater length, you can give more background information and other material. Different legislators prefer to be lobbied in different ways.
After the Meeting
After the meeting, write a thank you letter to the legislator thanking him or her for their time.
Where and When to Meet
Many legislators prefer to meet their constituents in their home districts rather than in the state capitol. If you want to meet with a key legislator not from your area, enlist a constituent to initiate contact and to accompany you to the meeting.
If you spend time at the state capitol while the legislature is in session, you will be able to meet with a variety of legislators. When discussing the merits of the position, keep the following tips in mind:
- If possible, call ahead for an appointment so that you can sit down and discuss the issue. If time does not permit this, go to the state capitol during the legislative period and try to “run into” the legislator in the hallway. These meetings are not very satisfying, but you can usually deliver a few important facts. Always have a short fact sheet or summary on hand.
- When speaking with a legislator, always identify yourself first. Even if you’ve met the legislator previously, restating your name and affiliation will help the legislator to focus on what you are saying.
- Do NOT threaten or antagonize legislators no matter what the provocation. If a legislator opposes your position, be polite and express gratitude for the legislator’s willingness to meet with you. Remember, there may be a future bill that you both will agree on.
- Listen closely to the legislator’s questions and provide honest, sincere answers. If you don’t know the answer, tell the legislator you will do the research and provide the information later.
- If a legislator has taken a neutral stance on a bill, ask what concerns he or she has about the legislation. If it is concern about public safety for citizens in the legislator’s district, try to alleviate those fears by getting citizens to contact the legislator to express your stance on the bill. Just do NOT be so insistent on the legislator taking a position that you end up alienating the legislator.
- Always know the status of the bill.
- Be brief with your appeal, but follow up when new information such as a change in the bill that which was of concern to the legislator arises.
- If the legislator has been good on this issue before, it is important to know that and to express thanks.
- As you meet with each legislator, keep notes on the meeting, his or her position on the bill or issue, and any questions that came up. The constituent should do most of the talking at the meeting and should be briefed on the issues. You are there to provide facts and to support the constituent.
- If you meet with a legislator in the state capitol, arrive early and be prepared to wait or only to be able to talk between sessions or in some other rushed manner.
- Different times are appropriate to lobby to legislators depending on your message and whether or not the legislature is in session. If your purpose is simply to educate a legislature, meet when the legislature is not in session and things are not as hurried. Above all, be flexible and understanding of scheduling difficulties.
- If you are lobbying for or against a specific bill, keep in mind that some legislators like to be made aware of everything relevant to an issue as early as possible, while others do not want to be pressed on an issue until the bill is far enough along to warrant their attention. If that is the case, at least meet with staff or send written materials outlining the issue and your position. A combination of both approaches is often the most effective.
- Try to meet as early as possible with members who are on the committee that will consider the bill. For legislators who are not on that committee, first provide written information, and once the bill begins to move, meet with their staff.