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Summer Minnick Advises Local Leaders on How to Work with Michigan Legislators
By Summer Minnick
Working with legislators, governors, and officials appointed to high office in a term-limited environment can be challenging. I sympathize with members who have experienced frustration when re-educating a whole new group of people on complicated municipal issues—especially after you may have just gotten to a comfortable point with the prior Representative or Senator. And poof! They’re history.
But it is also an amazing opportunity! There’s a new group of leaders in Lansing and there are significant possibilities for positive changes for local communities. So, whether you’ve been involved in the League’s legislative efforts for decades…or you’re a brand new local official seeking to dip your toes in the advocacy waters for the first time, now is a perfect time to gear up and engage for the betterment of your community.
Here are some basics of legislative advocacy to get you inspired to join (or re-join) the effort:
ESTABLISH A RELATIONSHIP.
I can’t overstate the critical nature of this point. The first time you contact your state legislator should not be when you are making “an ask.” These people are human—and trust is a huge factor. As soon as you have the chance, call and congratulate them on the start of their service, introduce yourself, and try to find out a bit about their background. And I don’t mean if they are a Republican or Democrat. What is their personal story? What shapes their viewpoint? Knowing something about your legislators helps determine the best way to approach them. And, it helps you avoid sticking your foot in your mouth with off-hand comments about different topics (not that I have any personal experience here).
know this seems like common sense, but small things make a big difference in building relationships. Unless you have a long standing relationship that allows you to call your legislator by his/her first name, use the title. Legislators may subsequently urge you to call them by their first name—but I usually refer to them as “Representative” or “Senator” a few times, even if they insist initially—just so they know I recognize their position. In conversations with them, recognize their viewpoint, even if you disagree. And always thank them for taking time to speak with you and work on your issues.
KNOW THE FACTS.
When working on an issue—be prepared to give examples and statistics so your advocacy effort comes across legitimately and not like a series of complaints. For example, when talking about revenue sharing, state the amount of funding your community has lost, the impact it has had locally, and relate it to the added complications of your budget due to property reductions. You would NOT want to call and merely say that you can’t get cut anymore, the state has broken its promise because of rotten legislators, etc.
BE OPEN AND TRUTHFUL—ALWAYS.
f a legislator asks you for examples or wants to know a specific situation so he/she can understand an issue, be as open as possible. Encourage legislators to get to know what you have undertaken in your community, such as shared services, cost cutting, quality of life improvements, etc. Never answer their questions with a “guess.” An opposing side may accuse you of intentionally lying, which could hurt your credibility. So, if a legislator asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, tell him/her you don’t know the answer and will get back to him/her. And always get back to them.
MAKE “THE ASK.”
I see it so many times…well intentioned people who talk to legislators passionately about an issue. Legislators nod their heads to indicate they understand what their viewpoint is…and the conversation ends without the person telling the legislator what they actually want them to do about it. Don’t just call legislators to explain problems or ideas. Tell them exactly what you want them to do with that problem or idea. Whether you want them to introduce a bill, vote yes or no, etc. Remember, if they are new…they may not know how to help you.
Working on complicated or controversial issues can be tough going. It helps to enlist support. Whether it’s a group of concerned citizens, or local service organizations, or small businesses—recruit allies to help make the case on your issue.
UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE OF BEING HEARD AND BEING AGREED WITH.
When legislators nod their heads when you are talking it does not mean they will push the green button when a bill comes up. Be aware of phrases like “I will look into it” or “we’ll check into that” because they don’t necessarily mean “I support your position.” Clarify specifically if your legislator agrees with you and will support or oppose the issue.
There may be times when you have to educate a legislator on an issue in depth. One short conversation may not be enough. Stay respectful and stick with it. Sometimes it takes time.
Always let legislators know you appreciate the time that they’ve taken on an issue. If you need to send supportive information or there are additional editorials on a subject—send them on to your legislator as a reminder of the topic.
As a grassroots organization, we rely heavily on the legislative involvement of our members. Our successes in recent years are due to the expertise which community leaders have lent to our various causes. Whether it’s serving on one of the League’s legislative committees, testifying in Lansing, sending emails and/or making phone calls on critical issues…your involvement makes the difference in our efforts. So as we embark on a brand new session with lots of new faces, I hope you’ll be as excited as we are to jump right in and start fighting for thriving communities in our state.
Summer Minnick is the director of state & federal affairs for the League. You may reach her at 517-908-0301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.