How to Be a Year-Round Legislative Activist
Lawmaking doesn't stop during the
Utah Legislature’s off-season, neither should you.
Written by: Cash Mendenhall
From January to March every year, the 104 members of the Utah Legislature review, debate, nix, and pass hundreds of bills inside a Diet Coke-fueled bubble of lobbyists, advocates, and community activists. The hyperactive 7-week session is also the most popular time for Utahns to connect to their representatives.
But it shouldn’t be the only time. Just like it is unwise to run errands during rush hour, or fly the day before Thanksgiving, trying to raise issues and build relationships with lawmakers during the session is challenging. During the 45 days of the session, lawmakers face constant demands on their time. Fortunately, the calendar contains nine other, calmer
months when you can make an impression on Utah lawmakers. Follow this guide to build connections and lay the groundwork for success now instead of waiting until next January.
First, find out who represents you in the Utah House and Senate. The Utah Legislature website contains an easy-to-use map-based tool to identify your lawmakers—and displays their contact info. Sending an email is always a good way to connect, especially if you don’t know your lawmaker already. Keep your email confined to a single issue and about 3 to 4 paragraphs long to ensure they read it. Begin by mentioning you are a constituent (include your address or neighborhood for proof). Next, thank them for how they voted on a specific bill, or a comment they made about an issue you care about.
Introduce the Issue
The core of your message should address a specific issue that 1) you care about, 2) the legislature can address, 3) needs change or reform. Fortunately, the Utah legislature deals with a wide range issues, including many civil liberties concerns ranging from police reform to digital privacy to the legal system.
Be sure to mention any personal experience you have with the issue or impact it has had on you, such as your education, training, or career. Smart lawmakers are always looking for constituents with special knowledge they can learn from. Next, explain why the issue matters to the wider community. The more people you can connect to this issue, the more appealing it will appear to the legislator. Make your tone courteous, persuasive, and direct. Even if you know more about the specific issue than your Representative or Senator, don’t make them feel uneducated. Make them want to learn more.
Set up a Meeting
Lawmakers have more time to meet outside of the session, so conclude your email with a request for an in-person or virtual meeting. Even better, suggest that you can assemble a diverse group of stakeholders on this issue for a meeting. This extra effort allows lawmakers to hear multiple perspectives at one event. Prepare yourself before the meeting with relevant data and arguments and establish a clear goal that can be reached with a bill, funding request, or a regulatory change. If other states have passed similar legislation, bring those case studies, as well as specific information about the benefits of taking such action. Also, be aware that a lawmaker might invite a colleague to the meeting, especially if that other elected official has specific expertise in the issue you want to discuss.
A successful meeting ends with a list of next steps for both you and the lawmaker to pursue. Send the lawmaker a follow-up card or email or leave a voicemail thanking them for their time—and remind them of the tasks you agreed to complete. Stay in persistent but polite communication as you work through your assigned roles. Follow the lawmaker’s social media pages. Say hello at community and neighborhood events. Without the constant pressure of the legislative session, you might need to work harder and smarter to keep your lawmaker’s focus on your priorities.
Beyond meeting with elected officials, there are numerous ways you can advocate for your issue. You can join an issue-based group or nonprofit that holds events or rallies for an issue. You can write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, build a network with other people who care about the issue on social media, and organize a rally or attend a town hall meeting. You can also educate yourself on the legislative process to prepare for the next legislative session.
Use these resources to become a better community lobbyist.
Check out this six-page "how to" infographic to starting up, or stepping up, your community lobbying game at the Utah Capitol
How to Give Public Comment Virtually at the Utah Legislature - our new guide to testifying online during committee hearings (PDF)