Meeting Your Representatives
Senator John Breaux (D-LA) loves to tell the story of one of his first constituent encounters after being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972. As Senator Breaux tells it, Louisiana had recently been the victim of some torrential rain, resulting in flooding and significant property damage. One day soon after the rainstorms, a constituent phoned ? we'll call him Mr. Davis ? and asked to speak to then-Representative Breaux. Mr. Davis told Mr. Breaux that he was calling because the rains had swelled so much that he had water all over his yard and up to his front porch and he was worried it was going to cause further damage to his house and groundwater supplies. Naturally, Mr. Breaux was very sympathetic, but inquired as to why this gentleman was calling him. Mr. Breaux said, "I'm in the U.S. Congress now; you need to speak to someone locally like the mayor." The man replied, "Well, I didn't know I had to start at the top."
This is just one example of how many people deal with their elected officials in Washington. People outside the beltway aren't always sure who to call, so their gut instinct directs them to the U.S Capitol. Senators and Representatives are Zen-like after all! So what if your member of Congress isn't the right person to call ? and obviously they'll tell you that immediately, you can be assured of getting some attention and ultimately the help or advice you need.
Why am I telling you this story? Because I hope each and every one of you who reads this article (or hears about it by word of mouth) will make the effort to get to know your Senators, Congressman and locally elected officials. You just never know when that relationship might pay off.
There are numerous ways you can connect with those representatives. First and foremost, find out who represents your district. See if they have an office near you. Then pick up the phone and call. Chat with the staff. Tell them who you are, what you do, where you live and that you are interested in coming in to see the member the next time he's in the area. Even better, if you have plans to be in Washington and can see them then.
If you are unable to make a special appointment or don't want to because you really have nothing legitimate to discuss aside from simply introducing yourself, that's fine, too. Take it another step.
Find out if that member is going to have a Town Hall meeting in the near future. If so, make an effort to attend. Town Hall meetings are very informal, but one of the absolute best ways to get to know your representative on a one-on-one basis. When members are outside D.C., on their home turf, away from the rigors of their daily Washington schedule, they are much more relaxed. They don't have to make phone calls, worry about the next committee meeting or constituent appointment, or wonder whether or not they'll have to vote late, and thus have to reschedule or go late to a dinner or fundraising event. They are in friendly territory to tell you what's going on in the U.S. Capitol and find out what's on your mind.
Even if you don't participate in the discussions at the meeting, introduce yourself to the member and his or her staff afterwards. Make a point of telling them that you are happy to have them representing you and appreciate their support of a particular issue (hopefully you do) and suggest that you'd like to help in some way with the next campaign. You can bet that will catch their ear and the staff will be all over you for contact information before you can blink an eye.
Before long, you'll be getting more invitations to fundraisers and Town Hall meetings than you ever dreamed of ? or probably ever wanted! But if you get engaged in those activities, you'll be glad you did because sooner or later, you'll become an insider ? a trusted ally of that member ? and he or she will look to you for advice on certain issues. Believe me, not everyone has that privilege ? or for that matter, makes the attempt to earn it. Yet I promise you it reaps huge dividends, not just for you and your company, but for the organization you're a part of and want to help.
Aside from getting to know your elected officials on a more personal basis, you should know that staffs are vital to the process ? they are the people that do the leg work, the research, respond to your letters and phone calls, and make things happen for the member. Sure the member makes the final decision about how to vote, what legislation and initiatives to support, etc., but if you get to know a staff member very well, I can guarantee that you'll have much more access to the member when you absolutely need it.
So do yourself a favor. If you can't get in touch with your local representative immediately, find out who it is on their staff that deals with issues of interest to you and your organization. Take them to lunch. Send the staff donuts one morning. Take them to a sporting event. Have pizza delivered if you find out they're going to work late. They won't forget you. Staffs work long and hard.
In Washington, for instance, sometimes staff schedules are such that they hardly have time to eat anywhere but at their desks because they are required to monitor everything that's going on in the House or on the Senate floor. If there's an important committee hearing going on, even if the member is attending to other duties, staff are required to stay at the hearing and apprise the member of what transpired. Hearings can last a lifetime; they're often boring. So if staff come in one morning after a late night the day before and have breakfast waiting for them or a lunch, dinner or sporting event to look forward to, you'll be at the top of their list! Forever! They'll take your call before anyone else's and return it sooner than anyone else's.
I know. I worked on the Hill for 22 years. When you are in a position to do people favors, to draw attention to matters important to them, and they treat you how you know you should be treated, you remember it for a long time. Let the staff know how important they are to you.
Now, I can probably predict how some of you are reacting to these suggestions. I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR THIS! The image of Charlie Brown yelling that very phrase comes to mind!
PHOOEY! MAKE TIME! All it takes is one phone call. Mr. Davis from Louisiana did, and I bet he's never regretted it!
About the Author
Marian J. Marshall was the Director of Government Affairs for the Mason Contractors Association of America.