The phone calls.
Everyone imagines it would be a great idea to call their statelegislator and tell him or her what you think of a certain bill being proposed.
Calling during the day while the legislator is at the capitol is the better way to do it. You probably won't get directly through, but the phone slips are collected and given to the legislator during the day. That gives the legislator a chance to look them over and if your name is familiar, chances are he or she will call you back. The problem is that you might not be at that number when
the call is returned.
If the legislator lives in or near the Denver area, he or she will be going home after the day's session ends. So you call at the legislator's home. Bad choice, unless you and the legislator are really close friends or he or she owes you a favor.
The legislator has already spent a full day at the capitol, probably sitting through some bill hearings in committee until 5 or 6 pm. He or she has come home to have dinner, say hello to the spouse, play with the kids. He or she needs some down time.
Most legislators put their phones on message answering, even if they are sitting right by the phone. If a legislator forgets, he or she might absentmindedly answer the phone. He or she will be courteous but the chances are you may negatively impact your message by calling at home. I can't remember a single phone call taken over 22 years in the legislature that ever changed my mind on an issue, except negatively against the phone caller's issue.
If there are any exceptions to no phone calls at home, it would be calls from someone who is also in politics, a committeeperson, a district captain, a campaign donor, or a friend or neighbor.
The easiest calls for legislators to take are those from people who are urging the legislator to vote for what he or she was already planning to vote for. For some who call and get through who are on the opposite side of the issue, the few minutes on the phone can actually be physically exhausting. That's why the message answering is turned on to avoid such encounters.
Calling on weekends isn't really an alternative. You are forcing the legislator to adjust back to what he or she is trying to forget for a short while. The rule at our house was either leave the message answering on, or have my wife answer all calls saying "no, he isn't in right now" and take a message.
Rule No. 1. Call at the legislature, but don't expect a prompt response. If you call at home, you call at your peril unless you have a relationship with the legislator and are not concerned at putting it to the test.
Letters, not money, are the mother's milk of politics. Especially letters from constituents. One of the first things I did on receiving a letter was to check the address. If it was within my House district, it was opened first.
Letters are solid. They don't disappear over electrical waves, as do phone calls. Legislators especially prize written as opposed to typed or computerized letters. It shows effort, and assuming the penmanship is good, it almost presents a voice. But legislators are going to read your letter, no matter whether written or typed.
If you have a good argument to make, spend the time and set it out. A letter can be reread and often is, in order to achieve an understanding. The legislator's response may often be formalized, if there have been a great many letters to him or her on that subject. But don't be disappointed. Your letter has been read.
Form letters are not letters. Form letters are a show of hands. Some groups distribute postcards with messages already prepared and with a space for a signature. A legislator will have an assistant count them and maybe bundle them, but they won't get an answer and don't deserve one. If you are too lazy to present your message, why should I listen to it?
Petitions get a little more respect than form letters, if only because they crowd a number of names onto one sheet. Again you will not get a letter back, but the petition will be kept in the file on the bill.
Letters that appear original but contain one or more of the same paragraphs as other letters are also kept. But the reader still feels the writer is lazy and possibly is someone who will do whatever someone else tells him or her to do.
I once gave a joint lecture about the legislature with Vickie Agler who was then a first term legislator. It was a class at Metro State on political science being given by Rep. Jeannie Faatz. A question was offered by a student "do letters affect your vote?" Rep. Agler gave an emphatic "yes", even to the extent that several letters from constituents on a particular issue would be enough to influence her decision on a bill.
However, be prepared for reciprocity for the letters read and letters answered. If a legislator is astute, he or she will contact the letter writer again, especially if the legislator voted the way the letter writer wanted. The contact will be made for the legislator's re-election, reminding the letter writer that his or her letter had been a decisive factor in the legislator's vote, and would you now like to contribute to the election campaign?
Today of course, there is e-mail and faxes. To the extent it can be kept and reviewed, they deserve to be called mail. However, for those of us over 50, there is nothing like a sealed letter with a stamp on the envelope.
Helping in a campaign
The best way to make sure your phone call is returned, or your letter read and answered is to participate in elections, above and beyond just voting.
If you attend your caucus and become a delegate to the county convention, the legislator or would-be legislator will court you, doting on your every word, especially if there is a challenge. If you take part in the election campaign, you have now moved up several notches. If you simply don't have the time, then a sizeable campaign contribution, and a sign on your lawn puts you above the ordinary voter.
But if you find the time to make phone calls, pass out literature, take the legislator with you on a door-to-door visit in your area, become a precinct committeeman or woman, work in the campaign office, then you are in the elite corps and should have easy access to your successful legislator. But always make sure the legislator knows that you were involved in the campaign. You can do that with your letter of congratulations when the election results are in.
Getting Your Way with the Legislature
The campaign is over. Your candidate won. Now he or she is in the legislature and there is a bill being considered that you have a definite position on, and knowledge about. So you are going to go to a legislative committee hearing and testify. It will be your first time before a legislative committee.
Rule No. One. There is nothing to be nervous about. Lots of people testify each day in legislative hearings. Every legislator sitting at the committee table had to go door to door to ask people justlike you to vote for him or her.
Rule No. Two. The committee hearing may not start on time. Don't expect to be out at a certain time. Don't expect the bills listed for hearing will be heard in the order as printed. Try to plan your day around this one event and that will avoid complications.
Rule No. Three. Don't give a long, long presentation. If you can, any personal touch or personal event is useful to provide credibility. Try to use a conversational tone, in a moderate voice. It's ok to be emotional, as long as it is soft-spoken.
Rule No. 4. If your legislator is on the committee, don't address him or her or anyone else in the first person. It is always Rep. Smith or Sen. Smith. You don't know what kind of games are being played at the legislature and any suggestions of best friends to a particular legislator could backfire with other legislators who don't like your legislator.
Rule No. Five. Don't lie or give a half-truth, even if the full truth may not help your position. You brought your credibility into the room. Leave with it intact.
Let's summarize and then we will take questions.
The best way to influence a legislator is to actively participate in his or her election campaign.
The best way to transmit influence is with a well written original letter.
The surest way to get a phone call returned is to identify yourself as someone who did work in the election campaign.
When you give testimony at a committee hearing, tell the truth in a moderate, conversational voice, using personal stories if they are relevant. Be brief and polite and remember these are the same legislators who came knocking on your door asking for your help.
Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel