Members of the General Assembly are usually willing to meet with their constituents. After all, they are elected to represent you in Richmond, and they have re-election in mind. (Not sure who your state delegate or senator is? Look it up here.) Consider the following tips when you meet with a state legislator.
1. Schedule a meeting in advance. Politics runs on time, and members of the General Assembly have to be on the floor and at committee or subcommittee meetings at the appropriate times. Be willing to meet with your delegate or senator’s legislative aide if he or she is unavailable. You can also speak with your legislators at public meetings they often hold in your town or city before or during the legislative session (get on their e-mail lists and follow them on social media to find out when they are holding a meeting).
2. Bring a neighbor. Don’t bombard your legislator with a gang of people in their office, but bringing another constituent can help demonstrate that you are not just one lone voice. Numbers matter in politics. Plus, you may find the meeting less intimidating if you are not alone.
3. Be professional and polite. When you speak with a legislator, you are not just speaking for yourself. You are representing your cause. Dress, behave, and speak appropriately.
4. Build a bridge. Chances are that your legislator does not share all of your values and priorities, but you likely have some areas of common cause. Thank your legislator for voting correctly on a previous bill or for introducing a good bill, particularly one related to the issue you are discussing. Not only can this help establish common ground, it shows you are informed and paying attention to your legislator’s actions.
5. Ask your legislator to take a specific action on a specific bill. You have limited time. You will not be able to convince your legislator to change his or her mind on everything or adopt your ideology. If your legislator sits on a committee or subcommittee that is considering a bill you support, ask him or her to help advance the bill to the floor.
6. Be as knowledgeable as possible about the bill. At a minimum, know the bill number, the bill patron, and the committee and subcommittee of jurisdiction. Members of the General Assembly do not have time to read and track the progress of hundreds of pieces of legislation. Be an expert so they don’t have to be. If you have any questions about legislation or process before your meeting, feel free to ask Right Way Forward Virginia for help. If you don’t know the answer to a question your legislator asks, tell them you will get back to them.
7. Prepare talking points and practice them. Boil the issue down to the basics, explain the benefits of the policy to the district, and link the issue to the legislator’s deeply-held values. Anticipate questions or objections and prepare responses.
8. Follow up. If your legislator’s committee is hearing the bill two weeks later, send an e-mail a day or two before the hearing as a thank you for the previous meeting and a reminder of your position. Thank your legislators when they vote correctly. If they don’t, lobby them again before the next election — the time when politicians are paying the most attention to voters — and be sure to ask their opponents where they stand too.