Thursday, February 7, 2013

What Can We Do About........?

The Secret of Getting the Grassroots Growing
(c) 2012 by Tom King

You hear it every day in places ranging from the supermarket checkout line to Facebook to the nightly news. What can we do about ___(insert public issue here)___?  Most of the time we just talk about stuff like this and never really do anything about it.  We hope the politicians will get the message when they see the polls, but we block our phone numbers to robocalls and refuse to do "surveys" which is where the pollsters get their information.

Well, I hate robocalls in the middle of supper as much as anybody, but I also would like to get my way in Washington, Austin or Olympia (or wherever my statehouse currently is). The thing is, if you care about an issue, you can do something about it.  I did and apparently what I did and the group I was leading at the time did, made a difference.  I actually spoke with the head of a committee who asked me what I'd done to get him all those phone calls, emails and letters. I think he believed I must have hired people to write all those individual letters because he got hundreds of letters, each individual and most handwritten. He got dozens of phone calls stretching over weeks.  As a result, he sent the bill we wanted voted on out of committee to the floor for a vote. He's a Democrat.  I'm a Republican. Our group was made up of people on both sides of the aisle. That's what a true grassroots movement looks like.

If you want something done about an issue you are interested in, be prepared to work.  You can't get a politician's attention by chaining yourself to a bus. The media loves that.  Politicians hate it. If you really want to get their attention at the state capitol or even in Washington it can be done.  Washington's a tougher row to hoe than the statehouse, but not as impossible as you might think.  It takes determination and focus, but anyone can do it and thanks to the miracle of the Internet, it isn't as expensive as it used to be.

Starting the Grassroots Growing

Step 1:  Gather a like-minded crowd of local voters. The reason conservatives like me like smaller, more local government is that it makes it easier for real people like me to get to them.  It's a lot easier for me to get a face to face with my state rep than with my Congressman.  And my senator in Washington?  Fuhgettaboutit!

Step 2: Establish communications.  Set up a weblog, a Ning website with a forum, a Facebook group or some way for people to meet and share in cyberspace. Don't leave out the technically illiterate.  Use the telephone and snail mail to engage these folk.  In a way, they are your group's most powerful allies.

Step 3: Create your message.  Do some public forums, attend meetings where folks are likely to be like minded.  If you want school vouchers for instance, here's how you create your message:
  1. Hit the PTAs, haunt the soccer fields and Little League games.  Talk to everyone about vouchers. Hand out cards to people who agree with you and ask them if you can contact them to help you get a bill passed.  
  2. Get the emails or phone numbers of people who "get it" and collect their contact information in a database. Send them a message immediately after you talk to them, thanking them for their input and letting them know about your website and any upcoming meetings, events or pertinent information. Handwritten notes are powerful, but even an email works.  
  3. Create a 30 second "elevator speech" you and your trusty lieutenants can use so that you have a quick, clear description of what you want done and why it should be done.  That way, like a commercial, you repeat a coherent message and when people see something about vouchers in the news or someone brings it up in conversation, they remember what you said.
  4. Find a bill or ask your local rep to start a bill through the legislature in favor of school vouchers.  It's likely some organized group already has that information and likely has a bill written.  Hook up with them, even if they aren't members of your favorite political party, if they share your belief about this one issue, find common ground with them.  Your efforts are far more powerful if they are bi-partisan. Remember every politician believes they win or lose by the moderate vote and they will confuse bi-partisanship with being a moderate. Don't confuse politicians, let them believe what they want about who you are.  Just make sure they know what you believe.
  5. Create a model letter/phone speech.  At each point in the battle, you need to tell people what's happening and why they should contact their representatives.
  6. Ask people to call and write about specific things at different points along the way. If the bill is stuck in committee, as people to call and write about getting it unstuck.  If there's a vote on the bill coming up, encourage your rep to be there for the vote and vote "yes".  If there's a public forum about the issue, call and write people and ask them to come.  Give people rides.  Old people have more time than busy parents, so they often will come along to support your issue if you'll give them a ride.  The personal contact is the key.  Ask people to do things. Remind them and then check up to see if they did it.
  7. Let people know when you've succeeded.  In doing the work I did on the state funding formula for rural transit, we let people know when the bill reached each stage toward passage.  People sent letters thanking their representative for his work on the bill and we told everybody when it passed and followed up later to let them know what changes were made as a result of their work.
I spoke with the chairman of the committee that initiated the transportation bill we worked on.  He couldn't believe how many ordinary people had contacted him.  He asked what we'd done.  I told him we talked with each other and passed around his address.  It was a little more than that, but I didn't want to demystify the process.

"You know," he told me, "I've changed my vote based on no more than a dozen unscripted letters in the past."  The kind of letters and calls we dumped on him and the rest of his committee got our attention, because they weren't form letters and they weren't canned speeches, scared the heck out of him and got them to act."

The dirty little secret of politics is that politicians are afraid of ordinary voters.  If they think regular voters are hacked off enough to simply pick up a pen and write a letter or call their offices on their own, they sense votes shifting away from them and can change a vote overnight. They'll vote the way a campaign donor asks in most cases, but not against a groundswell of his voting consitituency.  It would be political suicide to do so.

What can you do?
  Plenty.  Pick up the phone and call your representative or senator.  If it's a federal issue, call both your senators and your congressman.  Ask everyone who believes like you do.  Make you some cards to give people so you can contact them.  Keep a small pad to write down names and phone numbers and then nag people to write and call too.  Best thing you can do!

I'm just saying.

Tom King

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