Every politician is confident behind the invisible wall between him and his constituents. He jumps over the wall to exploit an issue that the grassroots has suddenly raised to public awareness. Citizens make the mistake of being pleased and excited when an elected official "comes aboard" their issue by appearing at their meeting or at an important public meeting related to the issue, and, often, being quoted in the media. The citizens fail to realize that the official has accomplished his objective by being recognized in the media, where his public statement will pump up his image among his constituents. They'll know that he is "doing something" about something important to them. The secret to organizing is to turn the tables on the official and force him to pay you back many-fold for the investment you've inadvertently made in his future by setting him up for some free publicity.
An Official's Quick Public Reaction
When an issue reaches the attention of the media, it is because of the work of citizens who see the importance of the issue. A government agency may reveal its intention to take homes by eminent domain for urban redevelopment or a state agency may release a proposed regulation that would make it expensive for people to heat their houses. Whether an issue has arisen gradually or suddenly, the citizens begin to express their anger. Their letters to the editor appear in several newspapers and a crowd may appear at a public meeting. The media pick this up and suddenly there is a headline: "Citizens Protest New Wood-burning Stove Regulation."
This is like an invitation to a free banquet for your elected official. If another meeting is planned soon afterwards, whether your citizen meeting or another government meeting, he is likely to appear in person. There is a good possibility that if your group calls a rally where a hundred or more citizens will be likely to appear, more than one state representative will want to address the crowd. The citizens will be thrilled: their representatives are on board.
The Real Meaning
As we used to say in New York City, "That and a nickel will get you on the Staten Island Ferry."
Back at the Capitol
That elected official knows something that citizens do not generally know: that audible, visible citizen reactions on issues pass quickly. He has done his thing and can settle back into his newsletter relationship with his constituents, announcing the latest state giveaway of taxpayers' money to yet another interest group that has pull, perhaps because the group has a professional lobbyist or perhaps because a large donor is interested in the issue, or perhaps because some day in the future the elected official will be at the groundbreaking or opening day to have his photo appear on television or in the local daily. He is part of the system at the capitol, where amounts of money go out to certain interest groups, where the budget has to be passed, and where there might even be constraints on spending that are occupying his attention. Constituent issues are not neat and clean. They do not fit into the system at the capitol, and, for that matter, they are safely isolated on the other side of that invisible wall.
Keep Up the Heat
Resolve that there will be "no turning back" on your issue for that elected official. While the elected official is confident that visible interest in that issue has peaked, or might have one, or at most two, additional outbreaks (somewhat like a contagious disease), you are back on the ground setting up a program of repeated visible hits on your issue. Some of your hits on your issue will be high profile. Some of them will just be a steady current in a stream demonstrating that there is strength and direction behind your issue. Some of your hits will be intrusive and cross the wall into your elected official's domain.
The Big Wave
Anything that will garner significant media attention classifies as a "big wave." Tactics that have proven effective include a well-publicized, large rally on the issue; a public outdoor picnic with music and speakers raising interest on the issue; a major speaker from "outside" the area speaking to a meeting hosted by your group; a significant, well-publicized protest at the headquarters of the agency against which the grievance is directed; and a large, loud, disruptive protest at the next agency hearing on the issue. Any tactics that amount to an invasion of the capitol space of the legislator (see below) can become a "big wave" if the organizers succeed in getting media to follow them on their mission.
An action qualifies as a "big wave" if either media cover the event or a very large crowd is involved, such as a large crowd at an open air picnic celebration-style event. But, chances are, the media will come to this event, also, if you are credible about giving them "tips" for a story.
The Steady Current
To keep the heat on, a steady current of action by like-minded people is essential. The two most established methods of keeping your issue before the public are also the best methods of steadily keeping your issue before the legislators you want to influence. These are letters to the members of the legislature and letters to the editor published in the local daily and weekly newspapers and in the capitol area newspapers that are read by the members of the legislature. These tactics are free. The legislators will have aides who clip newspapers for letters to the editor that are of interest. Sometimes it is effective to mention the name of a particular legislator in the letter to the editor.
The steady current of action by you and your group can also include call-ins to radio talk shows, the distribution of flyers, gathering of petitions that are delivered to the member of the legislature, house meetings, tables at fairs, guest speakers at monthly meetings held by established organizations, and many other types of activity. But remember, these are background activity, analogous to the wind blowing over the sea causing the wave to break on shore.
One of the most effective protests ever executed at the New York State Capitol was during the early days of the AIDS issue when homosexual activists spilled blood on the Capitol steps to call attention to their desire for more funding for AIDS research and treatment. The activists did not spill blood on the steps to the town hall here in the little cluster of buildings in Stony Creek, far from Albany. Instead, they got up close. And, indeed, they also got intense media attention.
On the more civil side, and more recently, my husband Peter and I were entering the Capitol from the Concourse under Empire State Plaza and found lines at least 25 individuals long at every security search station. We were behind busloads of personable social service activists from New York City who were making their lobbying visits for more funds for programs for their people.
But your invasion on behalf of your issue doesn't have to bring busloads of people and it certainly does not have to involve vandalism. However, your effort must display a group of five or ten people, people who are willing to go to a little inconvenience and visit their members of the legislature at the capitol. One person is an invasion, also, but, unless persistent and cogent, an invasion that can be ignored. Your personal visit should be a continuing effort that works as a feature of the group invasion. Your visit must be polite, but, the fact is that a group visit can be full of surprises, a little rudeness included. Remember, it is an invasion, not a hosted tea. And remember, most of all, your presence is not desired, and skills are required to keep to your agenda.
When you conduct an invasion, think of the sea again. The elected member of the legislature is basking on the beach with his friends, feeling the wind, and watching the waves break on the beach. A large breaker comes in view at the horizon, heading to the shore where they are lolling on their blankets in the sun. Suddenly, they have to grab everythingblankets, picnic baskets, coolers, shoes, neatly folded clothes, and the umbrellaand run for high ground. But it is too late. The sea has washed up on their spot on the beach.
Riding an Issue to Success
If you are trying to stop a bill's passage, you may have stopped it dead by now. On the other hand, is more difficult to pass a bill.
Once you have control of the flow of the issue that matters to you, you are in a position to ask for what you want. And, once you have a bill in the legislature, and you keep the movement going on your issue, your member of the legislature will be trapped into recognizing that your investment at that first event that he exploited has sucked him into figuring out how he can get rid of youlikely by complying with your vision, passing legislation that will restrict the agency from passing the rules you are opposing. He can't just appear at your meetings, making speeches. He has no excuse. He's been forced already to have you work with his bill writer. You know that he cuts deals and that others in the legislature have obligations to him, also. He cannot ignore you. You've also gotten the attention of more powerful legislators. Your issue lasts and lasts, keeping its intensity. Your issue is his paramount grassroots concern.
© 2008 Carol W. LaGrasse