By Lara Brenner
Coming to the Capitol for a Citizen Lobby Day is one of the best ways to participate in the Sierra Club North Star Chapter’s work at the legislature! I was happy to join the Sierra Club and others for the Clean Energy and Jobs Campaign Lobby Day in February. Despite how intimidating it may seem to meet with your Senators or Representatives and talk to them about the environment, anyone with an interest can be trained to be a successful lobbyist.
Lobby Days are organized regularly by the Sierra Club, in collaboration with allied organizations, during the state legislative session (between January and May). Here is an sample schedule that hopefully demystifies what it’s like to attend a Sierra Club lobbying day at the Capitol:
9 AM – Registration
Check in and register. There’s a lot of construction around the Capitol Building at the moment. If you are driving, leave yourself extra time unless you want to be driving around in a panic at 9:15 trying to find a parking spot. Or better yet, take public transit for a worry-free arrival. The METRO Green Line stops just one block northeast of the Capitol Building. If you make it on time, enjoy coffee and pastries in the Fellowship Hall.
9:30 – 11 AM – Training
Get trained by the experts about how to talk to your legislators about the environmental issues you’ll be lobbying for. This is when you’ll learn basic skills for citizen activism, like how to effectively communicate with each legislator and when you will meet with them. You’ll also learn about the subject matter you’ll be discussing in your meeting, so don’t worry if you’re coming in without much of a background in the topic.
At the Clean Energy and Jobs Campaign Lobby Day, we were briefed the Renewable Energy Standard (RES) and the Energy Efficiency Resources Standard (EERS), two clean energy proposals to increase the percentage of electricity coming from wind and solar power while reducing the amount of energy waste overall. We got a handout on each topic to study and pass on to our assigned legislators, and the floor was opened to clarifying questions. Our job on that day was to ask our legislators if we could count on them to support the relevant bills when they came up to a vote. Easy, right?
11:30 – 1:30 PM – Lunch
Food is provided – sandwiches and pop. Yum!
12:00 PM – Prayer Circle
If you like, you can participate in an interfaith prayer circle guided by religious leaders from many different traditions to remind us of the spiritual calling to work for environmental protection, and to offer inspiration to Lobby Day volunteers. Our circle involved a sing-along with a gigantic sun puppet, so even if you aren’t religious it’s worth a look.
1:30 – 2:30 PM – Hear from the Experts
Usually a panel of experts will give a deeper presentation on the issue at hand for those who are interested in learning more. At the Clean Energy & Jobs day, the Union of Concerned Scientists presented their findings concerning the impact of increasing the Renewable Energy Standard on Minnesotan consumers, economy and environment. If you can make it to this meeting it’s highly advisable to do so, as attending will give more depth to conversations with your legislators.
10:30 – 4 PM – Meet with Legislators
The fun part! After training you’ll break off into groups and sub-groups based on your legislative district. This is the time to introduce yourself to your fellow lobbyists and make a plan for your meetings with your state senator and representative. It’s a good idea to appoint someone to give introductory remarks (in my experience, it’s easy to become star-struck when you actually get in a room with your legislator) but make sure everyone who wants to talk gets a chance to do so. Go over your handouts and make sure any final questions are smoothed out.
When it’s your appointed time to meet with your senator or representative, your designated “runner” (a lobbying expert – they’re familiar with the layout of the Capitol and can tell you what to expect from your legislator) will gather you together and lead you to wherever you’re meeting your senator or state rep. Usually this is in their office, but it could be anywhere – hallway meetings between sessions are common, and we met with Senator Jeff Hayden in the Senate cafeteria. Anything goes!
On the way to your meeting, ask your runner for more background about your legislator. They are familiar with the inner workings of the current session, so they can tell you if it’s likely that your legislator will support the issue you’re lobbying for or not. This can totally change how you approach the meeting, so it’s important to know if they’re generally pro-environment, or if they might take a little more convincing to sign on. Veteran Sierra Club lobbyist David Howe says that when meeting with a more truculent representative, it is important to “have sound facts or observations to back you up”, so they can’t entirely dismiss what you have to say. Make it apparent that you represent the viewpoints of many of their constituents and they will likely take you concerns more seriously. Knowing their background can also help you approach the issue from an angle that appeals to them, like jobs, agriculture or recreation.
More Tips for Engaging with Your Legislator:
- Your meeting will likely be short (under 30 minutes), so make sure you hit all the points you intend to bring up.
- Dress well! David Howe says to “think of lobbying a legislator as a job interview.” It’s also a good idea to wear a sticker or button that identifies you as a part of a larger group (i.e. the Sierra Club).
- Don’t interrupt or criticize, but do try to keep the conversation on topic.
- Use personal stories as well as facts – most legislators like to hear what’s going on with their constituents.
- Offer to follow up on any questions the legislator asks that you do not immediately know the answer to.
- Make sure you explicitly ask them if you can count on their support for the bill. This information helps organizations make policy and action decisions regarding bills, and can also help in predicting whether or not they will pass.
Other activities are available throughout the day, such as photo booth petitioning, letter to the editor writing stations, and collaborative murals, so you can keep busy during downtime.
If you can’t make it to a designated lobbying day, you can always connect with your state senators and representatives through letter writing and emails. Most members of congress have a Twitter presence, and tweeting at your congressperson is an easy way to get your voice heard.