Learning to Lobby

Lobby Day 2008

Courtesy Elana Richman

 

By Matt Freeman

Moving pro-environmental legislation through the legislature is almost always difficult—especially when politicians are pressured by lobbyists representing large campaign contributors. To counter this, our Chapter holds an annual Lobby Day, which turns Club members into citizen lobbyists who can effectively advocate for sound environmental policies.

For the past two decades, this one day “boot camp” for activists has provided members with practical guidance in the lobbying process, including how to introduce themselves to their representatives, outline an environmental issue, describe how an issue affects citizens in their district, and ask for the legislator’s support on the issue.

2008's event was kicked off with a conference call the night before to familiarize participants with the issues at hand. At the next day’s training, staff members and experienced Chapter leaders held two formal briefings to give fledgling lobbyists a crash course on the current pro-environment legislation being promoted. Participants were also provided with fact sheets and given briefings by Senior Chapter Director, Jeff Schmidt. For volunteer Dolly Meiser, this background information was a big help. A retired program specialist for the state, Meiser regularly dealt with policymakers as a union leader, but she, like most volunteers, appreciated the in-depth training on the environmental issues at hand. After the event, she said she was “bowled over” by the depth of the information provided and the confidence it gave the volunteers.

After the briefings, the new lobbyists were given time to talk about how they would present their arguments to their representatives. Chapter intern, Elana Richman, who worked for a month to organize this year’s Lobby Day, was “really excited about the energy participants put into that effort.” By the time the newly trained lobbyists met with their legislators, it was clear that they knew their issues and were arguing for lots of like-minded voters back home. At this year’s Lobby Day, which was held on June 3, some 30 members came from across the state to meet in the Capitol building.

After they received their Lobby Day training, members met with their senators to advocate for energy conservation and alternatives to fossil fuels. In some cases, senators were visited by multiple Club constituents.

To emphasize the Chapter’s presence at the Capitol on Lobby Day, the Chapter had Sierra Club signs and buttons prominently displayed in their meeting area. And that presence is growing. According to Chapter Coordinator Joan Wilson, the numbers of Lobby Day participants have steadily increased over the years. Past participants return and bring others with them, recruiting efforts have improved, and volunteer leaders, such as Chapter Secretary Bill Brainerd, spend countless hours getting commitments from legislators. Wilson also notes that gas prices, coupled with other, more-urgent environmental issues, are “raising awareness and spurring more people to act.” It also helps that participants enjoy the experience, “We got a lot of positive feedback that [participants] were really excited about the chance to do this lobbying,” Richman added.

Every year, organizers consider what went well and what could be improved. This has led to increased preparation time and more in-depth information packets. “Year after year, the system improves and the experience is more rewarding for all involved,” Wilson affirmed. For example, an innovation introduced last September is the pairing of new volunteers with more experienced leaders. Justina Wasicek, the Chapter’s energy co-chair, and Robin Mann, vice chair of the Club’s National board of directors, were just two of the leaders paired with inexperienced lobbyists.

While our Chapter may never have a cadre of paid lobbyists, Richman points out that we do have effective volunteers who can argue with conviction and “speak from the heart.” She also points out that the goal of Lobby Day is to teach our members how to lobby effectively at any time, on any issue, and at any level of government. The hope, she says, “is that people will use this experience and continue to lobby regularly.”

Meiser, a veteran of two Lobby Days says that’s just what she intends to do. “It’s important that I don’t just go there for a day,” she says. “This is something I’ll try to make the time for, because I think it’s one of the most important things we can do.”

Matt Freeman is editor of Sierra Watch, the Southeastern Group’s newsletter.