IFAS | Freedom Writer | January 1995 | officials.html

Keeping in touch with elected officials

By Linda J. Yanney

One thing elected officials do -- and do well -- is count. They count votes, they count contributions to their campaign, and they count phone calls, letters and office visits. This article contains practical advice on contacting and influencing your local elected officials on issues of importance to church-state separation.

In person

Many elected officals are happy to meet with constituents in their offices. State and federal officials have their primary offices in Washington or in the state capitol, but they usually will meet with constituents when they are in the constituents' home area.

When you call the official's office, ask to speak to his or her scheduler or appointment secretary. Be specific about your reason for wanting the appointment. Do you want to discuss a vote with which you agree or disagree? Do you want to speak generally about an issue such as abortion or discimination? Do you want the official to cosponsor or support a specific idea or piece of legislation? Are you inviting the official to speak at your annual awards dinner?

Whatever the reason, be honest and keep your request for time brief 15 minutes is a long time to discuss your views on a particular vote or issue. Respect for an official's time will be appreciated and remembered the next time you want access to his or her office.

During the visit, present yourself and your views in a respectful, dignified manner. Dress appropriately, as if you were going to a business appointment.

Local elected officials often meet with constituents in person, others have staff. Don't assume that the official is blowing you off because you're dealing with a staff person. Most of the information officials rely on comes from their staff. If you get a credible staffer to see things your way, you have been successful.

Be direct and concise in your presentation. Know what you want the official to do and be able to present your views clearly. It's the quality of the discussion that is important, not the length.

If you're going to see an official who has a bad voting record on your issues, you might be tempted to tell him or her off. Don't do it! If he or she says things that offend you, keep a cool head and respond rationally with facts. In some offices, all you may achieve the first time out is a civil exchange of conflicting opinions, but if you handle yourself well you can begin to establish a working relationship with that office. They'll recognize your name when you write or phone the next time, building the base for continuing communication.

Whenever possible, demonstrate that you speak for other voters in the community. Back up your claim with petitions and letters. Let the official or staffer know that you intend to communicate with the community about your visit.

If an official has a good or excellent record of support thank them! Government officials need to know that their support is appreciated.

Be sure to summarize your discussion in a follow-up letter. State or local activist organizations may be interested in the results of your visit.

By letter

Individuals need to stay in written contact with their elected officials. Officials use letters as one way to measure public opinion in their district. Officials count the pieces of mail for and against every issue.

Make sure your elected official knows you are his or her constituent. You can also assume the staff person recognizes most addresses in the community or district which means you must include your name and address. Avoid anonymous letters.

Cover one subject per letter. In a large office, different staff persons cover different issues. Your letter may get lost or hung up with one staff person if you cover several topics in your letters. If you have more than one issue to raise, write more than one letter.

If the issue can be identified by a bill number, include the bill number. If possible, mention who introduced the legislation, how many others have cosponsored the bill and what it will do. This demonstrates to the official that you are serious about the issue and are keeping a close watch on the progress of the bill.

Be brief and concise. Type or write legibly so that your letter is easy to read. State your position and exactly what you want the official to do in your first paragraph.

For example, "I urge you to support state efforts designed to end the irrational discharges of lesbian and gay national guard personnel." Or, "I urge you to support and cosponsor the Johnson County Domestic Partnership Policy."

Give reasons for your position. Remember, when you write, you are essentially trying to sell your idea or position on an issue to the official. Avoid deeply emotional appeals, demands, threats, or promises. These are not effective letter-writing tactics. However, if you are writing about discrimination and have been a victim of discrimination, explain that to the legislator. Officials will want to know how a bill or proposal will affect the lives of their constituents. Your own experiences and observations will help sell our position.

Request a reply. You can ask your official how he or she will vote on a particular bill; you can ask about his or her position on an issue; and/or you can request his or her personal involvement in a particular issue. You are more likely to receive a reply if you ask for one.

When you receive a reply from the official indicating that he or she agrees with your position or that he or she intends to vote for the position you have advocated, write back and thank him or her. If you receive a reply which indicates that the official intends to vote in opposition to your position, write back and explain your position again. Don't let him or her off the hook. Keep the heat on!

Officials are addressed in a variety of ways. Some titles may be obvious, such as "Dear Senator Spring." Some forms of address require phrases such as "The Honorable." If you know the proper title, use it. You can find out the proper title from the official's office or look in the back of most dictionaries.

If you don't know the proper way of addressing the official, you can't go wrong with a simple "Dear Mr. Fehrman" or "Dear Ms. Carpenter." Politeness will usually substitute for properness. Remember: the only effective letter is one which is written and mailed!

Letter-writing parties can be hosted by individuals or organizations, and can be as large or small and as formal or informal as the host wants. The basic goal is to make it easy to write letters. Have sample letters and information on legislation available for use by your guests. By making it easy for people to write letters, you are helping them to be heard, and making sure that your views are represented.

By phone

Just as letters are used by officials to measure public opinion, officials also count phone calls for or against an issue. Phone calls to a policy maker's office are most useful when a vote has been scheduled and there isn't time to write or visit the office. Congress and state legislatures often have one general number for each chamber which can be used to leave messages about an approaching vote.

When you call your official's office, expect that someone on the office staff will take the call. If you're calling to request information about the official's position on an issue or to register an opinion, you will most likely be transferred to the staff person in charge of that particular issue. He or she will be able to discuss in more detail the official's position on the issue and the current status of any pending legislation.

Make sure the staff person knows you live in the official's district. Be sure to provide the staff member with your name and address for follow-up.

Cover one subject per call. Different staff persons cover different issues. Do not assume that the person you are speaking with handles all issues for the official. If you have more than one issue to raise, ask to speak to the staff person who is in charge of each issue.

If there is a pending vote on the floor of the House or Senate, or before the City Council, your phone call should be simple and to the point: "I support S. 242, the state gay and lesbian civil rights bill, and I urge Senator Tinsman to vote for the legislation." The information will be recorded and forwarded to the appropriate staff person.

Even if the issue isn't pending on the floor of a governing body, it is still important to be brief and concise in your conversation. Your opinion is important, but the staff person will respect your use of their time. Be prepared to state your position, what you want the official to do, and be ready to back up your position with one or two supporting arguments.

The official may not have an immediate answer for you. Ask when you can expect an answer. If a staff person doesn't have an answer for you, ask that they speak with the official and get back to you, either by letter or phone.

When you receive a reply by phone, be sure to thank the official or staff person for responding, even if the information about the official's position is bad news. Establishing a good relationship with the staff will help you when you need to speak with them again.

Other contacts

There are many occasions, formal and informal, where officials interact with the public. Elected officials need to spend a lot of time meeting constituents, contributors, and party workers and volunteers. Most of these opportunities are open to the public for free or for a very small contribution. Legislative forums, candidate forums during elections, public office hours and attendance at civic events are all opportunities to talk to officials. They are expecting it, so ask questions during question and answer sessions. Keep your questions short and to the point. Often, officials are available before and after the event to meet people. You can use this time to introduce yourself and make brief comments. Remember that officials are often criticized and rarely thanked, so if you like something an official has done, thanking them can make a big impression.

Party fund-raisers are great informal occasions to get to know officials as well as the political movers and shakers in your area. Some fundraisers can go for as little as $5-$25. If the crowd is large, you may have to work to get a handshake, but if the crowd is small, you may be able to engage the official in a real conversation.

It can't be said enough: you will maximize the impact of your contact with any official by following up. Following up lets the official know that you are serious and committed, and it gives you an opportunity to get to know each other. You may not agree this time, but whatever you learn about an official may come in handy on the next issue.

Every call you make -- and get others to make -- and every letter you write is a triumph of participatory democracy. For most people, government is a spectator sport. By using the techniques discussed here, you will become one of the most important and powerful people in America -- an active citizen.

Linda Yanney is with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute in Washington, DC.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.