Communicating with Elected Officials
Concerned about a statewide issue? Then it’s time to get in touch with your State Representatives and State Senators.
You should always start with the legislators who represent you or your watershed, but also focus on legislators who have proven to share your concerns, legislators you already know well, and those who chair the committee your bill will enter later.
No matter who you’re reaching out to, visit their website first to learn more about where they stand and their background.
When you call, it is unlikely the legislator will pick up the phone. Instead, you’ll speak to a staff member in their office. The staff serve as liaisons to the legislator, and often act as a clearinghouse for information. Legislators have packed schedules, and rely on their staff to relay important policy information.
In both the state and federal legislatures, the size of a legislator’s staff depends on seniority, leadership roles, and whether the legislator is a senator or representative. In general, more junior legislators have smaller staff (sometimes as small as one person for a newly elected state representative), and more senior legislators, those in leadership roles, and senators (who cover larger districts, or in the case of the U.S. Senate, the whole state) have larger staffs.
In larger offices, the staff are able to specialize, with different staff assigned different roles (scheduler, legislative director, constituent service, etc.) and different issues. In smaller offices, one or two people must cover all issues and jobs. In most offices, the staff research issues, set up meetings, and draft bill language.
Ideally, you should establish a close working relationship with these important staff. In addition, both state and federal legislative bodies have committee staffers, who report to the committee chairs, and work on bills assigned to the various committees for review. These staff tend to have deeper knowledge of the committee’s issue areas, and their tenures often outlast those of committee chairs and other legislators serving on the committees. They can be great allies!
Whether you are calling an individual legislator or a committee, always start by asking “Who on the staff handles my issue?” to make sure you find the right person.
When you email a legislator, always loop in their staff as well. Legislators’ “official” email addresses receive huge volumes of mail, and are often monitored by staff anyway.
To make sure your communication doesn’t get lost, always cc the staff person who is working on your issue.
Your Legislator; cc: Their Aide
Drought in Our Community
In Any Communication
Include your name, your organization, and if it’s the official who represents you, tell them that you are a constituent! Legislators usually prioritize constituent issues and concerns over other requests.
Describe your concern as succinctly as possible, include your specific ask, and conclude with letting them know they can reach out to you with questions. Be sure to leave your contact information.
You are more likely to get a meeting scheduled if you organize several constituents together to meet with the legislator. These can be members of related non-profits, or concerned members of the public.
Meeting in Person
To set up the meeting, call the legislator’s office:
"Hi, my name is [x] and I am from [town or organization]. I would like to set up a meeting with Representative/Senator [X] to discuss legislative and budget priorities for our watershed. Thank you!"
You can enter the State House through the Visitors Entrance to the right of the main gate if you are facing the State House. Visitors proceed past the statue of Civil War General Joseph Hooker and go through security to enter the building. If that entrance is crowded, there is another entrance, at basement level, around the corner on Bowdoin Street.
Bring a notepad, water, and informational handouts to leave behind. Wear professional attire. The best handouts are one or two-sided with succinct, clear points. Add photos and color to make it pop, and be sure to include your contact information!
If you’ll be going as part of a group, discuss in advance who will say which points, and in what order, so that you appear organized and unified, and the conversation flows smoothly.
Do Your Homework!
On the legislator:
Find a recent success they’ve had and thank them for their work.
What does this legislator care about? If there is an alignment with your issue (say public health, leveraging an economic benefit, social justice, or something specific to the legislator’s district), be sure to bring this up at your meeting.
Figure out how they can help you achieve your goal. Is this legislator in leadership? On a committee that will review the bill? Would you like the legislator to sponsor, co-sponsor a bill or amendment, or just support it? Know this going in.
On the issue:
Know the status of the issue, the bill number, the supporters & opposition.
Be prepared to rebut, politely and with data, opposition arguments.
During the Meeting
Whether your meeting is with the legislator or staff, expect a meeting of about 20 minutes. A typical meeting will consist of introductions, brief chitchat (thank the legislator for recent successes, or for their work on an issue you care about), thank them for meeting with you.
Be crystal clear on what you’re asking them to do and make your ask early in the meeting. The legislator may get called away during your meeting before you've made your ask - so be as efficient as possible with everyone's time.
What if my legislator asks me a question I don't know?
That’s okay! Be honest. Say you’re not sure, but that you will find out and get back to them on it. (Then really get back to them on it - quickly!)
If they ask you if there is opposition (and there always is), be honest. Be prepared to explain the efforts you have made to work with the opposition, but don’t let the meeting get bogged down in that if you can help it. It is important, however, to be prepared to rebut, politely and with supporting data, any arguments the legislator may have heard from your opponents.
End the meeting by thanking everyone and repeating the follow-up actions to make sure there is a clear understanding of what will happen next and who you should be your main point of contact. “So, you’ll get back to us by Thursday with a decision about whether you’ll sponsor the bill? And if I have questions I should contact Emily?” Make sure the legislator and staff have your contact information as well.
Following Up After the Meeting
End the meeting by thanking everyone and repeating the follow-up actions to make sure there is a clear understanding of what will happen next and who you should be your main point of contact. “So, you’ll get back to us by Thursday with a decision about whether you’ll sponsor the bill? And if I have questions I should contact John?” Make sure the legislator and staff have your contact information as well.
Say Thank You! Traditionally done in a letter, but an email will do the trick. Make sure to cc any staff that joined or helped facilitate the meeting. Do it immediately after the meeting.
Repeat the ask! They may have forgotten or mixed up what you said. Putting your request in writing in their inbox brings the issue top of mind.
If you have an organizational social media profile, consider saying thank you on that platform, so the meeting is on record. Be sure to tag the legislator’s official page, not their campaign page.
Keep up the communication! Now that you’ve made contact, repeat your emails and calls when you have updates or just to check in, to make sure your issues remain on their radar.