As we begin the climb toward the peak of Florida’s 2020 Legislative Session, Michelle’s schedule has been booked to the brim with presentations on advocacy best practices. In this solo episode of Ubben Talkin’, she offers advice to those visiting Tallahassee to petition their government. Listen in to hear how to best navigate the halls of the Capitol and make your voice heard.
Ah, legislative session. It’s that time of year when all of the tables at Andrew’s are filled, the fourth floor is crowded with lobbyists, and my favorite sign of the season – when real Floridians come to Tallahassee to petition their government.
I love nothing better than to see the streets or the Capitol courtyard, the gallery filled with uniformed firefighters or nurses in white lab coats, or teachers carrying signs. That’s democracy in action.
If you’re part of a profession or a citizen group that is coming to town to influence legislation, here are a few tips for you. First, as a personal favor on behalf of all of us who live in Tallahassee, please don’t use the word “Tallahassee” the way you would “Washington.” That is to mean the legislature. As in, “the trouble with Tallahassee is too much influence peddling or wasteful spending.” Tallahassee is a lovely city and we love it. And we hate it when Tallahassee is used like a dirty word.
Okay, you’re here and you want to make a difference. First, don’t be intimidated. Remember, it’s your government. The education and real-life perspective that you bring is not only useful, it’s necessary. Term limits mean a constant turnover in elected officials, which requires a constant re-education process. There are more than 2,000 registered lobbyists walking the floors of the Capitol, on behalf of more than 4,000 clients. They have a lot of access and a lot of influence, but never underestimate the power of a single constituent with a compelling story.
Don’t shun the staff. Tremendous power resides with legislative staff. If you can’t get in to see a lawmaker or talk to them on the phone, gladly talk to a staff member. They will register your opinion, shared that you called or visited, and if your information or story is powerful enough, it may even find its way into the legislative debate.
Pick your battles. Lawmakers are inundated with issues and information. You may support six bills, but if you get a few minutes with a lawmaker, pick what’s most important to focus on. You can always leave behind a one-pager listing your position on multiple issues.
Focus your messaging. The messaging cocktail that is most powerful is when you can combine credible data with human stories. The data shows the scope of a problem, that it affects many Floridians and it deserves priority attention. The story brings it down to the human level and creates an emotional response. A strong message should check the boxes of importance and relevance. Importance means why an issue matters. Relevance is why it matters to me. For lawmakers, that means their district and their constituents. Above all, be concise, be correct, and be fearless, but friendly. You have one opportunity to establish your credibility or lose it. If you share wrong information, you will not be a trusted source again. And, sometimes you have to correct the record. Sometimes false information flies around here, but focus on the informataion that’s wrong and don’t resort to personal attacks.
Connect with the right lawmakers at the right time to be influential. Thank the bill sponsor when the bill is filed. Reach out to committee members right before a bill is going to be heard in committee. And thank those who voted your way after the vote. Do the same thing for each committee stop. Remember local voices matter most, so match members of your group with the committee members who represent them. When a bill comes up for a floor vote, show up in mass to the gallery, preferably in matching attire, and let the bill sponsor know you’re there so that you can be recognized. Be a show of force in solidarity. When one chamber passes your bill, shift your focus to the other chamber and do the same there. And don’t neglect the governor. Your bill can make it all the way through the process only to be vetoed when it hits the governor’s desk. Let the governor’s staff know where you stand throughout the process.
So, how do you reach lawmakers? Well, there’s nothing like an in-person visit, especially in the district when there’s more time. That’s why beginning your advocacy in the off-season in district is best. If you’re visiting a lawmaker’s Capitol office in session, don’t be surprised when you get ten minutes or less.
Know the points you plan to make in advance. Be prepared and concise and leave behind a summary on paper. Besides in person, you can call a legislator’s office in Tallahassee and leave a message with staff, or have a conversation. Letters and emails are other great ways to register your support or opposition. And don’t forget about social media. More than 86% of lawmakers are active on social platforms, and they notice comments or reactions.
Take a long-term view. Remember, last year 1,658 bills were filed, and only about 10% were passed. Often it’s a multi-year effort, so don’t be disappointed if your bill doesn’t pass the first year, or even the second, or the third. And don’t ever scorch the Earth in disappointment. Remember, someone who voted against your position on one issue might be your champion on another. And in the end, it’s all about building relationships. Get to know your lawmakers, praise them in public, follow them on social media, show up at their town hall meetings back in the districts. Correct the facts if necessary, but don’t ever attack the person. Your end goal is to be a trusted advisor, to be influential, and that means you’ve got to form a relationship. You’ve got to prove yourself to be credible, you’ve got to say thank you when thank you is due, and you’ve got to be a trusted source of information. So it’s not over at sine die, it’s only the beginning of forming a multi-year relationship so that you can be an influential citizen in support of the causes that matter most to you.
Welcome to Tallahassee, we’re glad you’re here!