The Joy of Citizen Lobbying

Trekking to Annapolis to lobby your legislators face to face is a somewhat scripted ritual, yes. But it often has an effect, and has other compensations.

 /By Woody Woodruff/ There are lots of ways to move your legislators in Annapolis in a more progressive direction (at least, that’s usually our goal – others have contrary ideas).

In an ideal democratic society, we should be able to just send a well-reasoned argument to each legislator (by snail mail or, these days, an email) in which the rationale for passing a particular bill with the particular wording you recommend is made with a power that no legislator could ignore.

Boy, won’t that be a relief when we live in that ideal democratic society?

In the meantime, the way to move a legislator appears to be by showing up in Annapolis and filing into his or her office with earnest but smiling faces. From behind the desk, an earnest but smiling face beams back at you and waits for your pitch.

It is the time-honored choreography of citizen lobbying, and it has been going on for so many years that when a bill is not accompanied by a host of citizens showing up on designated lobby nights, it has little chance. Instead, the bills written (largely) by big campaign contributors tend to make it through the fabled sausage-making process that legislation is often compared to, and yours don’t. As more than one legislator has said, “It takes three years to get a good bill through in Annapolis… it takes one year for a bad one.” Citizen lobbying, or lack of it, often makes the difference.  Lobbyists who do it for a living are in a different league, but they are beatable.

Yes, the trek to Annapolis is a routine and a ritual – one of the “weapons of the weak” as they are sometimes called, the ways that people who can’t write big checks to re-election campaigns or “slate” slush funds have of persuading legislators that they need to listen. One of the presumptions, not spoken aloud very often, is that if you have the energy and passion to show up in Annapolis to lobby, you may have the energy and passion it would take to unseat a legislator by backing a challenger. It’s probably the fact that this happens so very seldom that makes the prospect that much more terrifying for the average incumbent, who’s uncomfortably aware that her or his status as a member of the Maryland General Assembly is due mostly to inertia.

So, you lobby. But after all this grumping, I’m here to tell you that the ritual can be kind of fun.

If you have done this kind of lobbying in Annapolis during the session, you know that it takes place most often on Monday evenings. The Assembly – House of Delegates and Senate – don’t meet much during the day on Monday; the first formal session of the week is at 8 p.m. Monday night. The late afternoon and early evening are set aside for office hours for the legislators, and many advocacy organizations schedule one or more formal “Lobby Nights” on Mondays during the session, trying to round up all their activists for one evening and making a show of force.

These can be educational, stimulating and even fun. The organization – a union or several of them, a coalition of environmental organizations, concerned parents working on education funding – can generally get some space in one of the office buildings surrounding the State House. There, the top-priority bills are outlined for us and some of the bill’s best selling points are rehearsed. Organizations try to draw from as many different legislative districts as possible because there’s power in filing in to meet with a legislator who will need your votes and those of your neighbors to win another term. It sharpens their hearing quite a bit.

Once the citizen lobbyist teams venture out, things can get something of a touristy feeling for you. The area around State Circle, as night begins to fall, acquires big-shouldered office buildings with many lit windows as citizens line up to get through security. Inside the House or Senate office buildings the red and gold furnishings and décor stand out vividly in contrast with the uniformly dark clothing that seems to be the uniform of power, whether for a committee chair or the lowliest staffer. As you troop from office to office, other citizen lobbyists zoom past you in similar gaggles, some with those same-colored T-shirts that are the uniform of many citizen lobbyists. It’s a colorful spectacle, and the older parts of the complex – especially the State House, old enough to have housed Congress for a session while the capital on the Potomac was still under construction – remind you of the deep and rich history of democracy in the Old Line state. If you let yourself feel it, it’s pretty cool to be sustaining that tradition despite the amazing power of money that may be arrayed against you

When you’re done, you realize that in many instances you have not gotten a legislator’s promise to vote for your bill but just one to give it careful consideration. You rarely get more – but there’s always a little wariness in the eyes of the legislator to whom you are pitching your bill, the renewed understanding that she or he needs votes from people like you to stay behind that desk, and that puts an edge on your message.

When you return to the meeting room with the other citizen lobbyists to report on your visits, you notice how many more people you have met, maybe feel as though you know, than when you arrived. Whether it’s your first visit to Annapolis as a citizen lobbyist or you’ve been a half-dozen or dozen times, that does not get old.

The Annapolis dance is ritual, can even have its boring aspects, sometimes feels as though you are going through the motions. But there’s a feel to it that is irreplaceable and keeps a lot of people going back. Maybe it’s citizenship, maybe just a momentary hope of accomplishment. But it’s its own thing.

So if your organization sets up a Lobby Night and invites you along, give it a good look. You may find it more fun and interesting than you expect.