For the last six months, retail politics in Minnesota have been at their finest. Current and would-be lawmakers criss-crossed districts to knock on voters’ doors, meeting people at their homes to find out the issues that matter to them most. But that kind of prolonged and meaningful contact with politicians never really lasts, especially as candidates make the transition from the campaign trail to the Capitol.
Almost immediately, legislators’ schedules fill up with committee meetings and public events. They spend long days stuck on the House and Senate floors or in hearings. Suddenly, the people politicians hear from are lobbyists, who are often paid six-figure salaries to convince them to vote one way or another on an issue.
So how do non-lobbyists have meaningful interactions with elected officials after they’re elected? To get beyond the most obvious ways — letters, emails and phone calls — to make your feelings known, we asked current and former legislators, lobbyists and political staffers: What are the most (and least) effective ways to get an elected official’s attention on an issue?
Face-to-face: still the best
Many legislators say their most memorable interactions with constituents or other members of the public were in face-to-face meetings, and it’s also the most direct way to make sure your concern is heard. Plus, “contact leads to familiarity,” said David FitzSimmons, chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer and a former state House member.
Believe it or not, the easiest way to set up a meeting with a lawmaker is to call their office or go directly to their website and fill out a contact form. It’s easy to feel like those requests fall into some kind of dark hole on the internet never to be read by anyone (ever), but that’s actually not the case. Elected officials have staff to read those requests.
You can even ask the governor or lieutenant governor to appear at an event (just make sure you give them plenty of lead time). “If you want to get a meeting or in touch with the governor, the truth is, you go on the website and fill out the form,” Katharine Tinucci, former spokeswoman to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, said. “They all get reviewed.”
There are other ways too. Many cities, business groups or issue-based organizations have big lobbying days at the Capitol, where they help organization transportation for people to go to St. Paul. Or you can always go to a committee hearing on a topic you’re interested to testify and chat an elected official before or after the meeting.
Go to an event in the district
That being said, it’s not always easy for people — especially in Greater Minnesota — to make the trip to St. Paul to meet with their elected officials.
Most legislators suggest people try to meet them when they are back in their districts or on the road, so keep an eye on the travel schedules of local lawmakers. You can usually hear about upcoming events by signing up for a lawmaker’s email updates. The governor and his commissioners also do listening sessions around the state and travel regularly for events. Some lawmakers have regularly scheduled times they post up in a restaurant or local coffee shop for people to stop in and chat.
If you do set up a meeting with a legislator while they are in town, be respectful of their time, says Marty Seifert, a former House Republican minority leader. Many legislators from Greater Minnesota only get the weekend to see their families. “If you are asking for a meeting on a Sunday, let them know what the meeting is about and let them know that you will be respectful of their time,” Seifert said. “Try to keep it at a half hour. They’ve got everyone demanding their time.”
Let your lawmaker know you’re a constituent
Legislators still get old fashioned letters and respond to phone calls, but mostly they communicate via email. In fact, emails have the highest read and response rate among legislators.
A tip from FitzSimmons: If you live in the district of the lawmaker you’re contacting, make that clear right off the bat. It might sound obvious, but rank-and-file lawmakers get contacted from people outside their districts all the time, and they put a priority on responding to their constituents. If it’s an email, write down the city, county or address you are writing from, or just write “constituent request” in the subject line.
Track down the right person
Spend a few minutes to make sure you understand who you are contacting and why. Don’t contact your state legislator about an issue that your city council member is better equipped to handle. “You have to do a little homework,” Seifert said. “Make sure it’s in your legislator’s jurisdiction. Can they actually do something about it?”
Better yet, does the lawmaker serve on a committee where they deal with the issue you’re writing about? All of that should be noted in a to-the-point, well-researched note to an elected official.
Don’t send a form letter
One way to get ignored, according to just about everyone, is to fill out a form letter or email and send it to a legislator on an issue. Those tend to pile in by the hundreds on big issues, like gay marriage, raising the minimum wage or gun control, and there’s no way to read them all. “If you try to to communicate with your legislator but you don’t take the time to do it right, it’s almost counter productive,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River.
Form letters mostly reinforce something a lawmaker already knows: The issue in question is controversial. Occasionally, enough letters can sway a vote on an issue, but as a rule, the more personal the interaction the more likely it will catch a lawmaker’s attention. “Giving a compelling example about yourself or a family member or friend is so much more powerful than filling out a form letter,” Tinucci said.
‘Earlier is better’
Former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher knows what it’s like to get sucked into the “time and issue funnel” of the legislative session. At the beginning of session, a lot of groups come to the Capitol to get their input in early. But as time passes and deadlines near, those issues funnel down to a narrow point. There’s less time and room to work on complicated issues. “Earlier is always better, especially if you are bringing a new idea or a problem that needs to be solved,” Anderson Kelliher said.
Before Anderson Kelliher became speaker, a constituent came to her with a thorny pension issue. It took all session to work through, but because the person came to her early, it was able to get worked out before adjournment. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have the right amount of time,” she said. “I think that time funnel is a really important thing to remember.”
Get to know staffers
Sometimes, the person you need to reach isn’t actually your elected official. Most lawmakers with a large geographic area of representation — like the governor — have staffers dedicated to constituent services. Those staffers answer emails, letters and questions on a daily basis, whether it’s laying out an elected official’s position on a certain issue, or acting as a point person to help them with issues.
But getting to know staff — legislative aides, chiefs of staff, communication staffers and more — is beneficial beyond just transactional encounters. Many things are filtered through a staffer before it reaches a lawmaker, so they’re often the first person you have to go through if you need more than a quick answer to a question. They will decide if the issue is big enough to require a direct response from an elected official or even set up a meeting.
Social media can be effective — if used wisely
In a lot of ways, social media revolutionized how people connect with their lawmakers. On a day-to-day basis, you can see what they’re up to or how they’re voting on issues you care about. Connecting with them is also as easy as sending a 140-character tweet or replying to a post on Facebook. For better or worse, lawmakers pay attention to what’s being said about them on social media platforms, and many organizations have used that effectively to force them to connect on an issue they were otherwise ignoring.
But social media can be a deterrent to having a meaningful interaction with your elected official too, depending on how you use it. “Just ranting at your legislators on social media is a good way to get ignored,” Tinucci said.
“It might sound so obvious, but be polite and be respectful and be factual,” FitzSimmons said. “Sometimes people go all the way to extremes and to threats and profanity on social media, and then try to contact you and talk about an issue, but they’ve become a known quantity now.”