by Brad Fitch of CEO Knowlegis
The best political education I got didn’t come from a graduate school course or even from working the committee rooms of Capitol Hill in Washington during my time as a congressional aide. My best lessons came when I had to travel off “the Hill” and attend my congressman’s town hall meetings.
As a press secretary to a suburban Maryland congressman, I worked the legislative issues by day and went to more than 100 town hall meetings at night over the course of five years. It was at the VFW Hall in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and other venues like it that I truly learned how to influence legislators. I saw firsthand how constituents could press their case, face-to-face with their member of Congress, which strategies got our attention and which arguments led the congressman to say in the car ride home, “We have to look into that person’s issue tomorrow.”
I’ve also learned from our customers who are using our town hall meeting database to connect their members/supporters with legislators. So what are the best ways to use town hall meetings to advance your legislative agenda? Here is the top ten list:
- Be Prepared. Most people don’t present their member of Congress with a well-researched, well-rehearsed pitch. They just say what they think – which has value. But those who come to town hall meetings with thoughtful arguments, good data and persuasive stories always get remembered.
- Tell a Personal Story. This is why members of Congress hold town hall meetings – to get firsthand accounts of the impact of policies on their constituents. Think in advance of how a policy might affect you, your family, your business or your community. Whether the congressman supports you or not, they want to hear your story.
- Use Numbers If You Have Them. Politicians live for one thing: 50% plus 1. This keeps them re-elected and in a job. Nearly every person to come before a member of Congress represents more constituents either by a class or as a spokesperson. Use these numbers. “I have 50 employees,” “I represent 100 people in my union,” “There are 500 people in my community that think just like me.” The legislator is trying to do the political math the minute you stand up – make it easy for him.
- Be Respectful. You’d be surprised how many people start a conversation with “I pay your salary so you better listen to me.” It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to your grocer or a public official – starting any conversation with another person in a rude manner is no way to persuade them. Members of Congress want to hear your views, you don’t need to badger them to get your message through.
- Go in Groups. Nothing says “listen to me” to a public official like a mob. his is not to suggest that you should bring pitch forks and torches to your next town hall meeting. But a chorus is better than a solo performance.
- Talk to Staff. Every congressman brings staff to town hall meetings. They may seem to blend into the woodwork, but a sharp citizen seeks them out. Talk to them before the meeting, get their business card, and tell them your story (as well as asking a public question at the meeting).
- Leave Paper. Town hall meetings are usually staffed by district-office staff who do not deal with legislative issues on a daily basis. If you leave background memos or talking points, they’ll likely be faxed to Washington to the legislative assistant who covers your issue.
- Follow-up Politely. Politely persistent people persuade politicians. Congressional offices are harried, so they often respond to the squeaky wheel – the one who just follows up with a phone call after attending a town hall meeting.
- Get People to Multiple Meetings. This is a sure bet to get noticed. When we got the same obscure question in Glen Burnie as we did in Crofton, my Member of Congress said, “We’d better look into that.” Hearing the same thing in different places signals to a politician there may be a deeper problem afoot.
- Demonstrate You’re Not Going Away. If you continue to show your presence at town hall meetings, the legislator must deal with you…if only to avoid an uncomfortable encounter at a future town hall meeting.
Finally, do not underestimate the power of raising a question at a public meeting and getting a public official on the record. If a member of Congress says to a constituent in public setting, “I’ll look into it,” I guarantee you the issue immediately goes to the top of some staffers to-do list. Politicians are terrified of being accused of not following through on a promise. And a member of Congress making a pledge to a constituent at a town hall meeting is one of the biggest promises they can make.
The author is the CEO of Knowlegis, part of the Capitol Advantage family of companies. Knowlegis researches and provides data on upcoming congressional town hall meetings.