By: Chrissy Olivia
Having worked in New York State Government for 4 years before working at the Alan T Brown Foundation as both a Legislative Aide and a Deputy Chief of Staff for two Members of the New York State Senate and liaising with staff and elected officials on the village, county, and federal government levels; I have some key advice and takeaways in building a relationship with your elected official/policymaker based on my own personal experiences with constituent groups and individuals. You can use this to pursue disability advocacy or for niche issues you may be interested in like accessible transportation, sidewalk improvements, funding for health care or travel rights.
Recommendation 1: Find out who your elected officials are
The first item I would recommend is research who your elected officials are online. Based on where you live, there may be different layers of government (village, town, county, city, state, federal). Know the names of the people representing you.
Recommendation 2: Research their views, background, political ties and interests
Once you know who your elected officials are, do a little research. Dig into their personal statements, press articles, voting records, legislation they have sponsored and find out what types of groups they support or those that support them (ie. campaign contributors/special interests) or what particular interest areas they identify with. You can do this by searching on government sites or by simply using an online search engine.
Recommendation 3: Make an introduction
Either get involved with an organization that is already representing your views and interests or simply request an in-person meeting or send a letter yourself. Elected officials want to be engaged with their audience and understand their view points. It helps them legislate when they know what issues are important to their constituents. They won’t know unless you tell them.
Recommendation 4: Build rapport with the elected official and his/her staff
Some elected officials are difficult to meet in person during legislative session unless you are with a group or have planned in advance of legislative session to meet with the elected official or his/her staff. However, there are a number of ways to build rapport. The first thing is to be kind to the staff. They are going to be the key to getting you in the door and having face time with the elected official. You can also attend a town hall meeting or open meeting function (ribbon cutting, community event, inviting the elected official to speak to your own group or organization) and introduce yourself to the elected official and his/her team. Informal meetings are a great opportunity to speak with your elected official.
Recommendation 5: Do your homework on the issue
Know what you are advocating for and demonstrate and that you are a dependable and reliable source of information. Never lie or fabricate an opinion even if you feel passionately about it. Always be honest so that you are perceived as credible. Do not underestimate the influence or education of the elected official’s staff. Try to be succinct with your points. Become acquainted with the elected official before making your “ask” and try not to attack them on their ideas or insult their viewpoints if they do not match yours. Do not hesitate to be honest and seek their opinions. If you do not understand something, ask for an explanation.
Recommendation 6: Prepare for your meeting
Know what you are proposing or what you want from the elected official. You can do this by drafting language for legislation or by providing a bill number for something you would like supported or opposed. You should also know the legislative process for what you are proposing. For instance, if your idea for legislation needs to be approved by several committees or sub-committees, know which ones or inquire with the staff or elected official. If you are pleading a case, it doesn’t hurt to garner signatures or a group of people who also support your idea. There is strength in numbers. Individual letters are always weighted more heavily. Postcards, form letters and emails also work, but have less of an impact. Never threaten the elected official. Know what the other side might say or think (the counterargument) of your proposal and have an argument prepared to counteract it. Be aware of all fiscal implications of what you are proposing.
Recommendation 7: Be a combination of patient and persistent and maintain a positive attitude throughout
If you want to influence your elected official, you need to be open-minded, positive and not ruin your chances of building a healthy relationships and good rapport. Always express appreciation to your elected official and understand their limitations. A thank you note to the staff and elected official goes a long way! Hopefully in the future they can put your face on the issue and tell your story!