If You're Nervous About Contacting Your Legislator

President Reagan wearing sweatpants on Air Force One.
President Reagan aboard Air Force One wearing every traveler's preferred choice of pants. Wikipedia Commons

Us Magazine - which I don't read because I'm just too absorbed with the collected works of the French existentialists - has a section called, "Stars! They're just like us."

Stars, here, are not luminous spheres of hydrogen and helium (though some of us are quite like spheres of hot gas, at times). Stars are those gilded actors of stage and screen.

The section features - rather I've heard it features - photos of stars doing perfectly normal things like pushing $15,000 strollers and walking on George Clooney's private Lake Como beach.

And it can lead you to think that this is a rather deceptive heading because stars are not, in fact, just like us.

Now, legislators, on the other hand, are a much more familiar species.

I've been in rooms with legislators who've fallen asleep and snored through meetings (the guidance was best to let sleeping legislators lie).

Legislators go back for thirds when they meant to stop after firsts. Some talk trash, some talk with their mouths full, and some eat dark chocolate ice cream for breakfast.

They misspeak. Quoth President George W. Bush: "There’s a huge trust. I see it all the time when people come up to me and say, ‘I don’t want you to let me down again.'" And they lie. Quoth President William Jefferson Clinton: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

Legislators get stuff wrong. Sometimes royally wrong.

And legislators want to be seen as impressive, kind of a Big Deal. Why else would they sit way high up on daises backed by very fine wood paneling, gold fringed curtains, and paintings of noble people doing heroic deeds?

Some say these settings are to illicit awe and respect for the institution. And there's truth in that. But few is the legislator who opts for a folding chair in the peanut gallery instead of the dais.

But perhaps what makes legislators most like us is that they want to be liked.

And perhaps unlike us, their job security depends on hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people liking them.

So when we see these legislators in their just-so suits with their bulletproof confidence, remember this: they are not impartial to what we think. They want us to think a certain kind of way about them.

Legislators! They're just like us.

So when sending a note to these folks who are so plainly human, a few things can be helpful:

Lead with kindness
I wrote a councilor about an issue we disagreed on. She'd gotten quite a few scorched earth notes and I figured she might hear it differently if she was approached with a bit of tender loving consideration.

She got back to me immediately, thanked me for the respectful tone, laid out where she stood. She didn't change her stance, but she heard me out. And we still had a relationship. When I needed her help in the future, she willingly gave it.

Have one clear ask that's within their power to do
I can ask my U.S. House Member to confirm that splendid U.S. Supreme Court nominee until I'm blue in the face. But they don't have any say in appointments to the highest court in the land. That's the Senate's bailiwick.

Nota bene: The top floor of the Supreme Court building actually has a basketball court, making that the highest court in the land.

Make sure the person we're asking has the power to do what we want. And make sure we're asking for one thing: if we ask for many, they can choose which one they want to respond to and not get back to us about the rest.

Keep it to a tight five
I assume my email will be skimmed between meetings. I save my 22-page treatise for another time and keep this like a small vanilla ice cream: short, sweet, plenty of white space.

Sign off with thanks...
I rarely end dinner by sucking on lemons. Dessert has a better aftertaste. So, too, does thanks rather than, "If you don't do what I want, you'd better believe I'll be registering my displeasure at the ballot box, buddy boy."

It's a real bridge burner. If I do that in January and there's something I want them to vote on in March, I look a bit sheepish popping up again in their inbox.

Threats are an unkind, short-sighted way to get our message heard. And they rarely change hearts.

...And include your address
This shows we're a constituent. For Senators, our town is enough. For Members of Congress, town is usually fine, unless our town straddles districts and then it's good to include our street. Ditto for town councilors, school board members, and other local electeds.

Each time we don't strategically reach out to our legislators about something that matters to us, we amplify the voices of people who do. And too often, those voices have monied interest behind them.

Let's not give up our seat at the table to that.

Part of the reason we might be a bit intimidated when contacting legislators is that they can wield so much power. But remember: we help confer that power on them. "Government of the people, by the people, for the people..." Lincoln reminds us. .

The best legislators know that the people who elected them into office are their boss. These are the legislators who know they don't own their seat, they rent it.

So reach out. Be a part of democracy. And let that government of us know how they can do right by us.

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