Michelle Quist: How to make your legislative lobbying more effective

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Senator Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, in the Utah Senate, Thursday, February 21, 2013.

“You have to drive me to and from school tomorrow also I have work at 3 you need to drive me to that and pick me up at 5:30 and then drive me to ACT by 5:50 and pick me up at 8:30.”

As you can imagine, this text late last night didn’t go over very well. Partly because our relationship was already strained from an incident over the weekend that involved me driving up to Sundance at midnight on Saturday in search of my mortified 16-year-old daughter.

But mostly, the text wasn’t successful because of its inherent nature. It was a demand, devoid of any respect for me, my schedule, or even the circumstance that had her asking for a ride.

Sometimes legislative constituent messages look like this one from my teenager.

Hide your kids and your wallets, the Utah Legislature is in session. And it’s time for a Citizen Lobbying 101 primer.

State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, posts examples of the rude messages he often receives from citizens and associations trying to influence legislation.

One of his tweets, albeit a benign example, helps to offer perspective:

“Unsolicited advice for engaging the #utleg: texting me ‘Vote no on SB XX’ is not particularly helpful. I’m not smart enough to memorize 800 bill numbers/titles every session. Also, tell me the reason why you oppose it.”

While at least the message wasn’t rude, it gave the legislator zero information about what the constituent was concerned with. With more than 1,350 pieces of legislation per session, legislators cannot memorize the numbers of each bill.

As he later tweeted, “If you don’t tell me at least your first name and what city you live in I can only assume you’re a Russian bot.”

I have three suggestions to make your legislative lobbying more effective.

First, don’t assume anything. Don’t assume the legislator knows what you’re talking about. Don’t assume the legislator doesn’t know what you’re talking about. Just explain your position and give reasons why you hope the legislator agrees with you.

Second, do your homework. If you’re advocating for a bill, make sure you know the history of the issue, who sponsored the bill, what the purpose of the bill is, and even what the unintended consequences may be. Be a source of information rather than another talking head.

For instance, before you ask a legislator about the ongoing opioid crisis and what they intend to do about it, are you up-to-date on the attorney general’s legal strategy? Do you already know that a state agency has issued a citation against a pharmaceutical company for violations of Utah’s Consumer Sales Practices Act? This administrative proceeding will hopefully allow the state to prove its claims and obtain a judgment.

Before complaining, with legitimate outrage, to Rep. Merrill Nelson about his bill that would disallow citizens to make gender changes on their birth certificates, do you know that Weiler ran a bill last year, and is again running it this year, that would facilitate the process by helping judges understand a clear basis for allowing such requests? Instead of just complaining to Nelson, tell him that you support Weiler’s bill, and that you think he should, too.

Third, be civil. Even if you think the person you’re talking to is the worst person on the earth, or has the worst intentions possible, you won’t be effective if you can’t be civil. Save the yelling and name-calling for some other time. Or never.

We ask our legislators to do an impossible job – be experts in every subject, and work 24/7 for three months of the year, and part-time throughout the rest of the year. We ask them to do this for a paltry sum. They do their best. The ones who don’t get replaced, hopefully. They may think differently than you. They may value different things. But I believe they are all interested in your perspective, as constituents.

It only makes sense that if you’re going to take the time and effort to reach out to your legislator, that such efforts be effectual. Make a difference, and help our citizen Legislature shape legislation. Add value.

And be a good person while you’re doing it.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a Salt Lake Tribune columnist.