If you are to be respected, you must be both respectful and respectable. Courtesy and knowledge of the issues can be, as in Bogart’s timeless line, “…the beginning of a beautiful friendship…” between you and your State and Federal representatives. But even if differences in political affiliation, values or philosophy hamper the development of friendship, you can still have cordial relations with them. And a good relationship is essential to effective advocacy.
Get Personally Acquainted with Your Legislators—Bridges are built to bring us together. So, in a metaphorical kind of a way, all of us involved in local government are involved in the building of bridges - in bringing together all kinds of people, ideas and ideals. Build strong bridges to your state and federal legislators. Never let them fall into disuse. If you haven’t already done so, call their local offices. If you can, arrange to meet them there. If you can’t, then ask to talk directly with them. Take an interest in them. Get to know their political philosophies. Don’t wait until you need their support to contact them. It might be too late.
Get to Know Your Legislators’ Staffs—Each state legislator in New Jersey represents a district that includes approximately 200,000 people. Each of our Congress members represents over 500,000. And our two U.S. Senators represent all of our State’s 8.4 million people. That’s a lot of constituents to hear from and to serve. Obviously, they can’t do it alone. They rely heavily on trusted and loyal aides to help them better serve. Frequently, you may be unable to talk directly with your legislator to express your concerns on a particular issue. Then, a call to the legislator’s aide or other staff, whom you know and who knows you, is the next best thing. If the traffic is jammed on one bridge, it’s good to have an alternate route at hand.
Invite Your Legislators to Special Events—The opportunity to meet and communicate with constituents is a valuable gift to any elected official. Invite your legislators and their staffs to local and regional league meetings as guests or speakers. Also invite them to parades, town festivals or other events as guests or participants. Your hospitality will not be forgotten. And rarely will it go unrewarded.
Get on Your Delegation’s Mailing List—Then you will receive newsletters and other communications from your legislator’s office. This will help you to learn their feelings about issues that are particularly important to them. Effective communication depends more on careful listening than on brilliant rhetoric.
Recognize Legislators’ Problems—You can try to hear all that they are saying, but you’ll never hear all that they are hearing. Your legislators represent all of the constituents in your area—liberal and conservative, business and labor. Their duty is to represent all of the people to the best of their ability. There may be times when you think your legislators are on the wrong track, but they may have facts that are not available to you. Never threaten political or other consequences if the senator or representative refuses to see an issue your way. Remember that you can disagree without being disagreeable.
Say Thanks—Nothing grates more on a relationship than ingratitude. Remember to thank legislators regularly and publicly for their time, work, support and votes. Never discount the importance of a thank you; it can really make a difference.
Stay Informed on the Issues—The Assembly and Senate convene for the regular legislative session every year. The 2010 Legislative Session began in January. Throughout this year and next, the 214th Legislature is making important decisions that may have a direct impact on your municipality. You can’t lobby what you don’t know! Stay abreast of the issues through the local media and the League.
Use the League—Remember that your League staff will be informed of the critical issues and can assist you in your advocacy efforts. They can also assist in tailoring the information to explain what an issue might mean to your hometown.
Read the League’s Publications—The League’s Legislative Bulletin is published throughout the Legislative Session. This is supplemented by Legislative analyses and Membership Alerts full of timely information on key municipal issues that are being considered by the Legislature. Other legislative publications include the League’s annual “Legislative Action Agenda” and the Update column that appears in each issue of this magazine.
Express Yourself—The time for listening and learning never ends. But, eventually, the time comes for talking. Because of who you are and because of the office you hold, you owe it to yourself, you owe it to your constituents and you owe it to your state and federal representatives, themselves, to speak, honestly and forthrightly, on the issues affecting your municipality. Having carefully built and maintained the bridge, you can never fear to use it. Some may say that legislators have no time or inclination to answer their phones or read their mail, and that one single contact won’t make any difference anyway. In most cases, these views are wrong. Thoughtful, factual, persuasive contacts can change legislators’ minds and cause them to review their positions. Be sure to have accurate facts and good arguments about any issues you discuss with your legislators. Make sure you understand the particular bill in question.
Write Letters Carefully and Thoughtfully—Each letter you write should cover one bill and should reference the bill number in a separate line at the top of the page. Present your opinion logically and base it on facts. Emotional appeals do not influence votes, nor should they. The importance of personally contacting a legislator on time cannot be overemphasized. An eloquent letter does no good if it arrives after a vote. You may also fax or e-mail a letter or brief note to your legislator to get your position across in a short time frame.
Use the Local Media—Schedule meetings with the editorial board and staff of your local newspaper to discuss legislative issues and positions. Schedule sessions on local television and radio shows to discuss the issues and their impact on your municipality.
Attend Mayors’ Legislative Day—The League’s Mayors’ Legislative Day is held each year, generally in late January. This is an opportunity for municipal officials to visit with key legislators on crucial municipal issues that are being considered by the Legislature.
Invite your Legislators to League Functions—While legislators receive a written invitation to most League activities, the personal touch is always nice. Call your legislators and invite them personally to the Mayors’ Legislative Day and the League Conference in November.