How to Make Your Voice Heard With Politicians

Socks, President Bill Clinton's cat, standing at the podium in the White House Press Room.
Socks Clinton, President Clinton's cat, owning the podium in the White House Press Room. Nat'l Archives

There is a cat I know who is a relentless self-advocate. Inhumanely early caterwauling for breakfast. Staring the human awake. Pawing at the human's stomach.

And the human, who is after all human, breaks. She sets out a bowl of tuna, while muttering about feline entitlement.

But the cat is not well pleased. Tuna was not what she had in mind. Now in annoyance deluxe, the human gives the cat whitefish. Which is inhaled, without thanks.

The cat will win no advocacy awards.

She centers her needs without any sense of the human's needs or context. She bullies and prods and needles the human. She won't accept half a loaf. And when she gets what she wants, there will be no acknowledgement.

Hers was a pyrrhic victory. Next time the cat comes to call, the human's door will be closed.

The way to make our voice heard with politicians isn't to blow torch them with phone calls, form emails, social media posts. Those tools have limited utility. When overused, they can backfire, irritating legislators, perhaps souring them on our cause, or worse, leading them to ignore us.

In Congress, I handled foreign policy, budget, banking, small business, taxes, and trade. Many staffers in part-time legislatures (40+ legislatures are) staff multiple legislators - I just met a staffer who works for 12. And part-time legislatures have part-time legislators, many of whom hold down another part-time job. Flooding the zone with any of these folks is neither strategic nor respectful. We'll get into what can move the needle below!

Despite all outward evidence, politicians are human, too. And one of the best ways I know to make our voice heard with legislators is the same way we would with any human: build a relationship with them - or their staff - before we need something from them.

For state and local legislators, we could help with the campaign; many are pretty home-grown affairs. We could email the candidate, offering to put out or make yard signs (in a sea of blah generic signs, is anything sweeter than a homemade plywood valentine to a candidate?), host a backyard friendraiser, write an op-ed for a district rag, or if we're comfortable, drive them while they knock doors. Even if they don't need help, we're now on their radar, and in a good way.

You can find legislators' contact info on their campaign website. If they're running for re-election, don't use their government work email for anything campaign related. Legislators have to keep clear lines between campaign work and legislative work.

If it's not campaign season, we could find a way to thank the politician in public. Perhaps go to a town hall and speak up with gratitude or write an op-ed in appreciation of a vote taken, statement made, bill cosigned.

If we go the town hall route, why not try to catch the legislator or a staffer at the end to thank them face to face. It's a lovely way to make a direct personal connection. If an op-ed, send it along to the legislator or staffer with a short note; we want to make sure they see it.

Most folks only show up at town halls or in op-ed pages when they're royally ticked. And that's well within their right. But rare is the soul (who isn't a paid lobbyist) who shows up to thank a legislator for their work. We may earn ourselves a sweet slot in the legislator or staffer's heart.

Every so often, legislators take votes they would rather not have amplified; it puts them at odds with their party or key constituencies. In 2017, when Republicans made repealing Obamacare a top priority, Senator John McCain cast the deciding vote against a repeal (it's high drama worth a watch).

Democrats on the floor started to clap and were immediately silenced by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who knew Sen. McCain had already bucked his party, he didn't need to be seen as an ally of the opposition, too.

If the politician isn't touting the vote themselves, perhaps send a short thank you email directly to them (or their staffer) instead of coordinating thank you skywriting and a ticker tape parade.

If we invest in this relationship now, when crisis strikes - whether on guns, Gaza, abortion, emissions, immigration or otherwise - we have a more direct line to the legislator's ear.

And when we email them with our ask, a few things can help make it pop:

  • Be kind and be brief; go heavy on white space. It's easier on the eyes and increases the chances it'll be read.

  • Timing, Timing, Timing: send it on a day when the legislature isn't in session (i.e. working at the capitol or town hall). This means folks are likely to have more time to digest it. Legislatures have their calendars on their websites.

  • If there's political complexity (maybe it makes them a pariah in their party) or difficulty to what you're asking of them, acknowledge that. It signals that you get their reality. And it shows you're a smart cookie who understands the political landscape they're living in.

  • End with thanks. Being an elected official is a dark shade of brutal right now, from exhausting party politics to attacks on social media to being threatened with violence or even death.

If you're reading this thinking, "That's all well and good, but my legislators are coldhearted boneheads," that can be so hard. And I am sorry. But take a bit of (warm) heart; you have a great number of legislators to choose from.

  • Federal Legislators: One U.S. House Representative and two Senators, known collectively as our Congressional delegation. By virtue of how many constituents they represent, these folks can be a little harder to build a relationships with. But...
  • State Legislators: We've got one state Rep and one state Senator. Given that 44% of the 117th Congress (2021-2022) was made up of former state legislators, if we build a relationship with our state electeds now, we've got a much more direct conduit to them should they head to D.C. Legislators often love people who knew them when.
The four corners of Congressional leadership - House Speaker Mike Johnson, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell - all cut their teeth in state government.
  • Local Legislators: Town councilor and school board member, to say nothing of County Commissioners, water board members, district attorneys, probate judges; and local elected office is usually a feeder for state office.

This year, it's so easy to spin out in anxiety and despair, isn't it? Building a relationship with a legislator is one gentle antidote to all that.

And if the legislator does do what we ask of them - even if it's only half the loaf we hoped for - sending a "thank you for what you did" email goes a long way.

This shows the legislator that we who care about our cause are smart, decent folks who are easy to work with. Which may inspire the legislator to continue engaging on our issue. And help get us the rest of the loaf.

Epilogue: the human has secured an automatic feeder for the cat. Mornings are now a far more pleasant affair for both species.

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