Portland Event: How to Effectively Communicate with Lawmakers

On December 9 Joanne D’Arcangelo of JD’A Consulting shared her wisdom with an engaged group of about 20 people, drawing on her many years of working with the Maine Legislature. The event was coordinated by Sonya Durney of Portland Public Library’s Choosing Civility program and facilitated by Polly Ward of the Portland Area League of Women Voters. A panel discussion followed with insights from four Mainers active in state politics and advocacy:

  • PortlandEvent120915Senator Anne Haskell, a State Senator from the Portland area.
  • Robyn Merrill, Executive Director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for people with low income.
  • Eliza Townsend, Executive Director of Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Women’s Policy Center and a former State Representative.
  • Dan Walker, Chair of Preti Flaherty’s Government Affairs Group, and an advocate for clients before the Maine Legislature, the Executive Branch and other state and federal governmental agencies.

Takeaway points about the State Legislature:

  • The Maine legislature is more accessible than in many other states and citizens should take advantage of that.
  • Maine is unusual in that all bills have public hearings. Any citizen can speak on any bill and legislators can submit any number of bills.
  • Maine legislators consider themselves to be stewards of the process and rely on us, the voters, as sources of information on which issues to address and for understanding how the legislation they must vote on will affect their constituents.
  • Term limits (4 consecutive 2-year terms) that became effective in 1996 have had both positive (e.g., opening up opportunities for more citizen legislators to participate in government) and negative impacts (e.g., leaving lobbyists with more long-term experience and expertise on some issues than legislators).
  • The turnover in legislators every two years limits the development of long term relationships among legislators, making legislative compromise more difficult now.
  • Term limits also make it more difficult for legislators to develop the leadership skills needed to effectively lead committees before their terms expire. (Read LWVME testimony on term limits)
  • Low compensation for legislators results in members being primarily of younger and older generations, because they are the ones who are willing/able to put in the very long hours for the low pay.
  • When a legislator receives three calls on an issue, it is considered an ‘overwhelming surge from constituents,’ so citizens can get their point across even without large numbers.

How to make your voice heard by representatives – Guidelines offered by Joanne D’Arcangelo

  • Be respectful of their time constraints by asking to set up a ‘meet and greet’ when the Legislature is not in session (early January in an odd numbered year is a good time to reach out).
  • Ask them how they prefer to communicate (phone, email, Twitter).
  • Be clear and specific on your request.
  • Use data sparingly when making your points.
  • Personal stories are often more effective than data in supporting requests.
  • Take notes when meeting with a legislator or their staff (this reinforces the seriousness you attach to the meeting/request as well as making sure you remember the details).
  • Call them for follow-up and ask for feedback on how your concern was presented.
  • If testifying before a committee as part of a group, limit the number of formal speakers to one or two but have as many supporters in the gallery as you want and point them out to the committee.

Other avenues for making your voice heard and learning about the process:

  • Attend local constituent hours for your legislator (check community websites and Facebook pages for time/place).
  • Join with a non-profit organization that already advocates in Augusta on an issue that is of concern to you. See attached list of advocacy organizations.
  • Take advantage of the various Lobby Days at the State House.
  • Attend ‘Eggs & Issues’ breakfasts organized by legislators.
  • Consider “shadowing” a legislator for a day in Augusta to better understand how the legislature works and how the legislator spends their time.
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