I have lobbied on behalf of libraries in our state for just over 40 years now. I have experienced many failures, but at least a few notable successes, and if nothing else, this experience has taught me some things about the legislative process that may be of use concerning GLBT issues.
First off, I believe that most legislators are motivated by three primary factors. The most important of these is lining up votes and getting re-elected, Next comes raising campaign funds. Last, and unfortunately least, is doing what they believe to be the right thing.
This is especially unfortunate because GLBT rights, which are at base human rights, are the right thing. Our arguments are strong and persuasive, so I think that we usually have this base fairly well covered. Unfortunately that leaves votes and campaign funds to decide the issue, and that seems to be where we most often lose. Few of us can compete with wealth of the Koch brothers or the Church of Latter Day Saints, so that leaves us with the issue of votes as single hook upon which we can hang our best hopes of success.
Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to deal with legislators to make our case in that regard. Here are a few.
First, the mass approach: Flood your capitol with supporters. When the issue of concealed carry came before our legislature, hundreds of supporters packed the halls and galleries – and made no secret of the fact that their votes would follow only what they considered to be a favorable response. Nothing concerning this issue happened in the days and weeks that followed without those who favored this law in attendance. Rallies were held through out the state. Legislators felt that their jobs were threatened, and even many of those who had opposed concealed carry in the past caved in. I didn’t agree with the issue, but I had to admire the tactics. I should also point out that those of us who call ourselves allies all too often leave the heavy lifting to the GLBT community. That won’t work for a mass approach. All of us are needed, and especially our votes!
Second, the personal appeal: Your own vote is important, doubly so if you are known to be politically active. The most successful way to affect a legislator is to develop a personal relationship. If the individual in question is a personal friend or a friend of someone you know and can mobilize, so much the better. But another path is to attend fundraisers (there are some cheap ones out there) and work on campaigns. Participating in a literature drop takes a few hours, but the possible dividends in appreciation are large. Beyond this make the effort to get to personally know your legislator. Visit his or her office and take your friends along, And don’t just discuss your issues. Take a little time to discover what is important to that elected official. Do you have common ground? Can you at least agree to disagree and establish a relationshiip of mutual respect? And here a caveat. Many legislators listen only to their own constituents. Don’t depend on few concerned citizens to do the whole job for you. It takes somebody from every district to carry the ball.
Beyond visits, it is important to keep up a flow of information. Phone calls can be successful, but usually only if you have a personal relationship already. This leave us with written communication. Oddly enough, I have been told many times over the years that the best way to convince is with a hand written letter. They take both time and commitment to write, and legislators don’t get many, so they are accordingly prized. Next comes a typed letter. Easier to do, but less personal and marginally less effective. Then we turn to electronics. Email, messages left on a legislator’s web page, facebook page, hotline, etc. Mostly these are just stacked up and counted, to see where the voters are going today. A further caveat. If you cannot say what you have to say on two sides of one sheet of paper (and one side is better), it probably will never be read. Legislators are busy. Also, don’t overlook staff. They have much more effect on decisions than you might think, and a personal relationship with a key legislative staff member is often as valuable as one with a legislator.
If the GLBT population is 10% of the whole, that leaves 90% of the rest of us. As far as I can see, that means all those of us who call ourselves allies represent the mass required to get the job done. So let’s buckle down and change the world. It’s time!