Editors' note: Frequent guest blogger Monica Helms is the president of the Transgender Americans Veterans Association.
'Tis the season where new Senators and Representatives begin getting used to their new jobs, while the cherry blossoms bloom in the springtime. Capital Hill has become ripe for the pickin', so we need prepare ourselves to talk with them on our needs. It won't be easy, yet a lot of new activists beam with enthusiasm to descend on the Hill to add their voices to our causes. I welcome them all.
Since a lot of people want to get involved, then they should be absolutely prepared for this new adventure in exerting their rights as American citizens. I have been to the Hill several times since my first visit in 1999 and at each lobby day I learn something new, and each time I bring with me a new weapon in educating people on our issues. I am not the absolute expert in lobbying, because many who read this will have done it more often. A good example is Ethan St. Pierre and his piece on TransFM. I just feel a need to impart some of what I learned and in a complete presentation. But please, ask others who have done this often because each of them will add something new to your knowledge.
It is true that most of the time, I've been to the Hill for trans issues, but I have also been there for Don't Ask, Don't Tell. A lot of what I plan on covering falls into "generic lobbying hints," so it doesn't matter whether you go there for LGBT issues, or for other non-LGBT stuff. You will also be able to use a lot of this when lobbying local and state politicians, as well as when Congress members come home.
This is easy, especially if the organization you want to lobby with has set aside a day or two to arrive at the Hill in a large group. They have picked the date and have all the documentation you need to take with you, sometimes they have tee-shirts, and will even set aside time to train you in lobbying. Attend the training. This is important. I cannot emphasize that enough. Being with a large group can be good, because it makes the experience more exciting and enjoyable, especially when sharing those experiences. But, if compelled, you can pick your own time for lobbying.
Not all organizations will preset appointments with your Reps and Senators, so you'll have to do it yourself. Each office has the same procedure which everyone needs to follow, because that is how they do it on Capital Hill. You need to know who the Congress person's Scheduler happens to be, their first and last name, gender (for those with gender-neutral names,) direct phone number and fax number. For the most part, you make appointments via fax, unless you know the member personally, or the office deviates from this procedure.
If you plan on meeting several Congress people, make sure you schedule all of the House members first, then Senators later, or visa versa. The distance between the buildings that have the House members and the buildings that have the Senators' offices can be very long, and you can't get between them unless you have at least 30 minutes between appointments. An hour would be better.
Three buildings house each of the House members on one side of the Capital Building and three for the Senators on the other side. Also, if you can, schedule the House members who reside in the same building in chronological order, because getting around in those three buildings can be a long process as well. The Senators' buildings seem to be a bit quicker. There are 435 House members in about the same office space as the 100 Senators.
You need to start making appointments no earlier than two months from the time you'll be in DC, but three would be better. Fax a request to the Scheduler and wait a day. On your request, give them at least three possible start times so you can be assured to speak with someone there. The next day, call to confirm if the Scheduler got the fax and if any of those times will work for them. You may need to call several times, because they may not be in the office very often. Be persistent. This is why I suggest to start three months before the lobby day.
Don't expect to get an appointment with the actual member unless they know you, or you provide the Scheduler with a compelling enough story for them to schedule a meeting directly with the member. I remember back in 1999, when I lived in Arizona, I scheduled an appointment with the very conservative J.D. Hayworth. In my previous life, I spent a little time as a cable puller and cameraman for the Diamond Vision screen at the Phoenix Suns games and J.D. Hayworth worked as a sportscaster. We talked several times back then and when it came time to set the appointment 12 years later, Hayworth had to meet with us just to see who he knew as a man was now living as a woman. The story worked in getting us to see him, but he still didn't care about our issues.
Since you don't want to overlap your appointments, you may need to set it with one Rep at a time, because you can give the next Scheduler the times remaining. Figure 15 min in each office, but block off 30 min. If the next office is near by, you can arrive within 15 min after the previous one. If not, then give yourself more time. Knowing the location of each office building can help. It becomes a juggling act that the Ringling Brothers would envy. Also, call each office a week before arriving in DC to reconfirm the appointments.
The Actual Lobbying:
You made it to DC, got your hotel room, figured out the Metro schedule, made it to training and the day has arrived. With organizations, they have a breakfast meeting before you storm the Hill and in there, they will give your final instructions. Wear comfortable shoes. Is that loud enough? If you don't do a lot of walking normally, you will be wiped out. If you do walk a lot, this will still tax your stamina more than anything else, so the right shoes will be important. I have a pair of black tennis shoes that I can easily hide under long slacks.
Dress business-like, unless the organization supplies tee-shirts and they suggest dressing casually. Personally, I will not wear a tee-shirt or dress casually. That's just me. Bring something to carry any papers, pens and other things, as well as bringing back things from the offices. All Georgia offices have little bags of peanuts that I stock up on for the plane ride home.
Don't lobby with a backpack. Use either a briefcase, a large purse or satchel, but no backpack. A camera is good, but don't be too obnoxious with it. Always ask permission to take someone's picture. Also, if you represent an organization and have business cards as part of that organization, bring many of those cards for this trip. You'll need them. And, be prepared when you walk into the building, because they have metal detectors and guards at every entrance.
Personalize Your Lobbying
Get to know as much about the individual Congress member you have a meeting with, even if you get scheduled with a legislative aid. Know their personal history, marriage status, children, previous profession, hobbies, military history, and their voting record on your issues. If you meet with a new member, then check on their record while they served in local or state politics. You never know when some of those tidbits of information can come in handy when framing your presentation.
When you arrive at an office, take a moment to absorb as much as you can, taking notice of the various items in that office. Every office has pictures, plaques, awards, mementos, as well as models of ships, cars, planes and other items of interest to the member. Do they have a picture of a son or daughter in uniform? What sports teams do they support? What vacation or local scenery pictures do you see? Again, these can become highly useful in framing your presentation.
Finally, personalize your story having to do with the issue you came to discuss. If you are a hate crimes victim, use that. Lose your job for being gay? Use that. I have a perfect one when it comes to hate crimes. My oldest son spent four years in the Marines and did two tours in Iraq. On his first tour, he happened to call back to Arizona to speak with my mother. In the conversation, he said, "Grandma, I sometimes worry about the safety of my father."
Think about what he said. He was a young Marine, patrolling the streets of Bagdad, where he could get killed at any second and he was worried about the safety of his transsexual father walking the streets of America. He made such a powerful statement from a war zone that when talking with legislative aids or Congress members on hate crimes legislation, their whole demeanor changed in an instant. I even brought a 5 by 7 photo of him in his Marine dress blues. You can easily see that they went from not understanding to understanding the importance of this legislation and how it affects others besides LGBT people. Friends of mine even used that story. You may also have a compelling story to tell, so don't hesitate in using it.
This can be important in how well you deliver the message and how well you respect the people you speak with. I like lobbying in a two-person team, when the other person has also had a great deal of experience. I call that "Tag-Team Lobbying." Organizations may want to send several of you in at a time, but don't follow the crowd. Too many people dilute the message. A newbie can also be there, making it a three-person team. They can learn, listening carefully and stepping in when it becomes appropriate. Always be on time or a bit early. Each person on the team gets to talk, discussing the area that they know about the best. You don't have a lot of time, so don't steal that time from the other team members.
Speak concise, almost in a fashion that Toastmasters teaches, eliminating as many "ahs" and ums" as possible. That means, practice your presentation. Leave time for questions and listen to the feedback, speaking only when the Congress person or aid finishes. Don't talk over them or your teammates because that shows unprofessionalism. If you have handouts, make them no more than two pages. The Congress member and their staff get inundated with work, so don't overwhelm them with packets of information. The exception would be if they ask for it ahead of time. Also, dropping packets off at many offices without speaking with anyone has proven to be highly ineffective. The packet will get tossed. I call this "shotgun lobbying" and it has never worked in the past. And, never, ever protest in a member's office or even in the three House or Senate buildings.
Don't become a "rogue lobbyist." That occurs when a person decides to lobby at the same time as an organization, but didn't attend the training and didn't set up any appointments. A rogue lobbyist goes from office to office without a plan and can show up before you arrive or worse, when you arrive.
A rogue lobbyist sometimes says they represent an organization, but they don't, nor did they join the group's training or preparations. They will not be informed on the specific talking points to the issue at that time and can confuse the members. If a rogue wants hook up with your team, discourage them because they can ruin the meeting and just take over the conversation. I say this from personal experience. I seen it happen to me and I heard of someone that said they had a rogue lobbyist saying she represented TAVA when she didn't have all the issues correct, nor asked us what she should talk about. I don't mind if someone wants to lobby for transgender veterans and I encourage it, as long as we are all on the same page. One person can easily ruin years of preparation for any organization.
Lobbying can be a fun and rewarding experience, especially if you change people's minds or enhance their education. You can walk out of an office on cloud nine when everything clicks so beautifully. Keep records of your visits, who you spoke with, their reactions, even their body language, because it all can come in handy later. Make sure you send a "Thank You" E-mail, fax or both to the Scheduler and the person or persons you spoke with in the office. On your way home, you will experience a feeling of empowerment. I always do. Enjoy yourself.
Anyone want any peanuts?