When the Utah legislative session begins, how can citizens influence decisions made in that grand building on Capitol Hill? We’ve elected representatives and senators to represent us. How best to influence their votes?
We can "like" a Facebook page or sign an Internet petition — and watch the total satisfyingly tick upward. We can join a rally, send an email, call an official’s office — but what works?
At a 2013 hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources, I waited my turn to comment — as a citizen. Kraig Powell — a Heber Valley Republican — had proposed a "very small step," directing the state forester to consider climate change in plans for wildfire management.
A handful of constituents convinced the conservative Powell to call for action. Powell knew he would likely lose the vote (he did, 11-4), but he wanted to educate his colleagues — as his constituents had educated him. Powell is "amazed that you can have rational human beings so violently disagreeing on what seems like overwhelming scientific evidence."
I called Powell to ask how citizens can influence policy. He said, "The most effective are average citizens, lay people — especially constituents — who feel strongly about an issue and who want to meet with me. The Legislature discounts activist groups."
I know what he means.
When my turn came to speak at the hearing in support of Powell’s resolution, Chairman Mike Noel, who came to office from Kanab "to take a stand against radical environmentalism," listened to me for a moment and then sidetracked the conversation by booming, "I know you’ve been a big SUWA supporter."
Though I’m not a staffer at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) or any conservation organization, I’ve long been a citizen activist. Noel was civil, but he accomplished his goal — flagging me with the label embedded in his comment: "Environmentalist, environmentalist, environmentalist!"
In his second inaugural speech, Barack Obama asked "you and I, as citizens" to lift our voices "in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."
When the president spoke to the Israeli people last year, he spoke to the center: "Your voices must be louder than the extremists who would drown them out." President Obama was speaking to the American people, as well.
But what if the elected official comes from the fringe? Is it worthwhile to express an opinion to my senator, Mike Lee — one of the most extreme members of the U.S. Congress — when I know he will ignore my comments?
President Obama would advise me to make that call and to be strong and engaged but polite.
So I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep testifying in hearings. I’ll heed Powell’s advice to remain calm: "Nobody likes to be attacked. Nobody likes to be called stupid. Tone is important. Be passionate but don’t impugn and belittle other people."
Powell told me, "I listen when I get five or six emails from people in my district who I don’t usually hear from. I listen when a common citizen gets off the couch and says, ‘Oh my gosh, what is the Utah Legislature doing?’ — and for the first time in their life makes contact. If that person sounds restrained, moderate and rational, and writes a commonsense letter to ask me not to vote for something, I listen."
I’m predictable. The legislators know what I’m going to say. Now is the time for my fellow citizens who haven’t yet spoken to take action.
If you are concerned about our poisonous air, our squandering of millions on losing legal arguments, our neglect of education, now is the time to talk with your legislators — especially if you don’t usually contact them. Speak up, and they just might listen.
Stephen Trimble, writer, photographer, and conservationist, teaches in the University of Utah honors college.
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