So you want to be a Citizen Lobbyist?

Leandra Nessel is a Georgia native and UGA alumna who prior to November 2016 wouldn’t have been caught dead talking about politics. A wife and mother of two, Leandra works in academic fundraising.

So you want to lobby your senator or your state representative but have no idea where to start? I was in the same predicament a few weeks ago, but thanks to Athens for Everyone and their Legislative Action Network, I now know what to do and want to help others who want to start lobbying.  Here’s the guide I made:

How to Be a Citizen Lobbyist

First things first, don’t be afraid. You can do this. The legislators are just people, and it’s THEIR JOB to listen to you. The prospect of citizen lobbying may seem terrifying at first, but in my opinion it’s sort of like riding a roller coaster: the anticipation is more terrifying than the actual reality and as soon as the ride is over you want to go again.

Second, if you’re nervous, find a group to go with. There’s a reason for the saying there’s strength in numbers. It’s because… well, there really is strength in numbers. It’s much less overwhelming navigating the different floors and the mezzanines (oh God, the mezzanines!) of the Capitol when you have compatriots standing with you, when they literally have your back.

Don’t be intimidated by the sheer number of people who are there on any given day. When I went, we walked in and it was wall-to-wall people. Student groups are always visiting, and  there are also a lot of professional lobbyists walking the halls. But I’m happy to report that a lot of grassroots, non-profit lobbyists are there as well.  Our guide for the day, a non-profit lobbyist herself, said that she has seen an encouraging surge in grassroots and citizen lobbying!

There are a lot of logistical issues that go along with trying to meet your legislators that I was completely unaware of, so below I’ve shared a few tips and tricks.

  1. Do Your Research. Have an issue you feel strongly about? Research it. Has a Senator or Representative issued a resolution or bill in support of or against it? If yes, who are the co-sponsors? Has it been sent to committee yet? If yes, what committee and who are the commitee members? Based on your research, decide who you want to try to lobby. Here’s a great graphic that explains how a bill becomes a law in Georgia. If a bill has already been assigned a number, searching will provide you with the information you need about where that particular bill is in the process.
  2. Work the rope line. One of the easiest ways to meet legislators is to work the rope line. When the house and senate are in session, you can send a note to any senator or representative asking for a few minutes of their time. If they’re available, they’ll come out to the rope (yes, there’s really a rope line!) to talk with you. Helpful hint:  If you are a constituent, say so on your card, because that makes it more likely that they will come out to see you. If they come out, you can use that opportunity to talk with them about your issue. We didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with the Representative we spoke with, to say the least, but before we left he sincerely thanked us for taking the time to share our thoughts with him and he said he wished more people would do it. Before leaving, grab a few extra copies of the rope line note cards so you can fill them out in advance of your next visit to the Capitol.
  3. Visit the legislator’s office. Finding your legislator in his or her office can be a challenge, but if you’re already there, it’s worth a shot. Some might ask, why not try to get an appointment before going? Depending on whether or not you’re a constituent of the person you’re trying to meet, you may or may not be able to get an appointment. But if you just drop in and they happen to be in their office, it’s more difficult for them to tell you no (though that can still happen!).
  4. Sit in on/testify at a committee meeting. Most committee meetings/hearings are open to the public. If a bill you’re following has been sent to a committee, you can sit in on the meeting. It’s up to the Chair of the committee whether public comment or testimony is allowed and you may not always know in advance, but prepare comments anyway. If you don’t have an opportunity to speak in the meeting, you can always leave your remarks with the Chair or other members of the committee.

Remember, you have power and together we can effect great change. If we want the government to represent ALL of its citizens, then we have to hold them accountable. Our legislators see that we are taking action and it’s making them nervous. Let’s keep their feet to the fire!

Leandra Nessel

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