your message through is your highest priority
By William D. McColl, Director of National Affairs, The
Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation*
As a professional lobbyist, I would like to
make some suggestions about how to respond to an offensive letter
from legislators, or help you as you begin communicating in letters
and visits to your federal and state legislators. If your legislator
has made you angry, and you respond in anger, you have taken
their bait. An angry 'rant' in response, verbal or in writing,
allows them to dismiss you. Your job is to make it extremely
hard for them to dismiss you.
Essentially, the reason for any contact with a legislator or
a legislative staff should be to further your goal. When you
write a letter, or visit your leaders, think carefully about
the goal of your communication. Put yourself into a legislator's
shoes and ask some basic questions of your goals. Would this
communication have support from other constituents of this leader?
Are there other people with the same issue and requests? If not,
then perhaps your issue or request isn't reasonable, or something
without enough support to interest a legislator.
One thing you will need to do is develop several lines of arguments.
If you are talking to a conservative, your message is different
than if you are talking to a liberal, or to a moderate or to
a libertarian for that matter. Considering all you know about
your legislator is important. You may have initial correspondence,
or news quotes that reflect their opinions about your issue.
If you strike out with a message, go back and consider why it
failed. In light of the reasons why it failed, try to further
communicate your position a better way. If you can't think of
a better way to communicate your message, do not respond angrily.
Let things calm down before you go back to visit, or write again.
Give some thought to how you can successfully reestablish lines
of communication. Whatever you do, the very first rule of lobbying
(well at least my first rule) is that you never burn your bridges.
Respect people, making the best argument to them; your message
is the highest priority. It is more important than getting 'something
off your chest.'
Since September 11th, Americans have been told that they are
at war, that they need to accept a reduction in their civil liberties,
and that they must stand united. Anything that distracts from
those goals may appear divisive and will have the effect of placing
us in the category of "the enemy." We must be extremely
cautious in all of our actions and in our letters, but this does
not mean that we stop lobbying visits and letters to our government's
One thing that I've learned is to lower my expectations. There
are a lot of people on all sides of every issue. You may need
to accept that it might take years to demonstrate responsibility
and win legislators over. Have others make your case for you
or with you, enlisting family and friends to write letters on
your behalf, or take them with you when you visit your leaders
to illustrate you have support for your request or issue. Show
them that you have a large (preferably responsible) and active
constituency behind you.
Apologize if you offend them. Whether you think you were wrong
or not, you pushed a button and made them angry. If you anger
people, a sincere apology usually works to restore a relationship-legislators
are people, too.
Leaders of the government's war on drugs are attaining new and
unprecedented levels of power. We must act deliberately and temperately
to further our cause, remembering that our cause is larger than
our anger. Remaining a constant, credible, reasonable and responsible
voice will ensure that we will be heard.
*The Lindesmith Center and Drug Policy
Foundation have merged into the Drug