Day at the Statehouse

This Tuesday the Rhode Island Tobacco Control Network sponsored a panel discussion on how to lobby our representatives. In Rhode Island, there are many opportunities. You might, for instance, encounter a rep in the frozen foods section of the Stop and Shop, and bend their ear for a minute or forty-five. This is not always the optimal strategy.

You can meet them in The People’s House, when they’re supposed to be working.

Sadly, you must first talk to an officer with a metal detector. This is our post-9/11 world. But after that you are at home in one of the grandest civic temples in our country. This week’s panel was held in the State Room, so beautiful with ceiling murals, gilt carving, marble and antiques that you could sit happily through even the driest presentation just taking in the architectural beauty.

The five panelists gave expert advice on how to bring an issue to our legislature, some highlights,(not direct quotes, but the general drift)–

Peter Asen, Senior Policy Analyst, House of Representatives, formerly of Ocean State Action–

We have a part-time legislature. They make $14,000/year so all of them work other jobs. Time is important. One technique of lobbying is to find a spokesperson who will bring sympathy to your cause, which is why a big tobacco company will have a small store owner speak against a tobacco tax.

Sylvia Weber, Lobbyist, Rhode Island State Nurses Association–

Don’t let others dictate your behavior. The lobbyist is a link between a cause and the Statehouse. She reports back from the Legislature. Know what hat you’re wearing, and be aware of boundaries. Respect the Statehouse staff. You need to be clear and brief. People come to hearings with eight pages and start reading. Don’t do that, stick to your main points. You can get large groups of people together to write letters. We had a mailing campaign to allow prescription privileges for advance practice nurses.

Rep. Art Handy, District 18,Cranston–

Use the power of your vote. There are 2 kinds of power, money and votes. If you like a representative, consider volunteering in their campaign. Representatives need to know that you pay attention to what they’re doing. It makes a difference. Acknowledge small gains, it can take time. I have been supporting a bill for marriage equality for ten years.

Rep. Grace Diaz, District 11,Providence–

I get my priorities from my constituents, the issues they bring to me. We count on advocacy groups for research, statistics and contacts. Testify at hearings, check the Statehouse web site to follow the progress of a bill, and don’t miss deadlines. Don’t be afraid and give good testimony. Lobbyists can influence the legislature to change the language of a bill. Think about running for office.

Helen Drew, Associate Director of the RI Department of Health in Gov. Carcieri’s administration–

Tell your story, have your data, know who your friends and who your enemies are. You may be on the same side of an issue with someone, but on the opposite side of another issue with that same person. Be true to yourself and build honest, long-term relationships. The best thing you can do is to put sunshine on an issue.  The role of the lobbyist is often to provide information. If you hear something in testimony you disagree with, you can refute it in a letter and email it to your representatives.

Good advice from all. I took the point about brevity, having testified in the wee hours on marriage equality. Please, citizens, don’t be the one who brings eight pages and mumbles through them while the reps take a bathroom break.

Time to go to work, catch you all on my next cup of coffee.


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