Like so many other folks, I was driven by the results of the last election to become more involved in the political side of things. I joined/rejoined organizations, donated money, read blogs, subscribed to magazines. But then I thought about it some more, and for the first time decided I wanted to take it one step further. I had followed so many discussions in which it was stated that work at the state and local levels had become even more important, and tried to think of what I could contribute.
One of the organizations that I had rejoined was the Sierra Club. I had always loved the outdoors in general, but in addition I had come to care about the region of northeast Illinois in which I lived–the local state and city parks and open spaces had come to mean a lot to me, and the area as a whole was faced with a number of environmental issues. So I read the Club newsletters, combed through the websites, and decided that I would apply to join the local state lobbying team.
This was definitely a few steps outside my comfort zone. I’m much happier behind the scenes, interacting with others as little as possible. Data entry or paperwork? You betcha. Knocking on doors or phone banking? Um, no thanks. And yet I decided that I would take on the task of visiting elected representatives in their district offices or during Environmental Lobby Day in Springfield to try to convince them to co-sponsor legislation. It helped to learn that as a rank beginner I would work with experienced lobbyists and that we visited in teams, usually groups of three. That’s important because even though you have notes on legislation, it’s difficult to remember all the points you need to make. Other team members may have more knowledge about particular bills, or may have known the representative or senator for years and have thus built a rapport. On my first in-district call I accompanied two veteran members on a visit to a representative they both knew—while they handled most of the discussion, I took notes and listened. It helped to learn that these discussions were informal and friendly, and that you didn’t need all the answers right away but could follow up with additional information.
This year, Environmental Lobby Day took place on April 6th at the State Capital Building. Prior to traveling down to Springfield, we were assigned to teams, and received both online and in-person training on the legislation for which the Sierra Club wanted to express support and gain commitments to co-sponsor. Those of us who arrived on the 5th were invited to attend a gathering at the Illinois State Museum. There, we had the chance to connect with our team members and talk informally to legislators and more experienced Club lobbyists. We received packets containing information about the legislation, handouts to give to legislators, and lists of office locations and maps of the Senate and General Assembly.
Lobby Day began early. Legislators arrived in their offices around 8am, but they often didn’t stay there long because they have scheduled committee meetings and other obligations. So I and the rest of my team hiked back and forth, checking schedules with assistants, then hurrying up and down stairs and through underground walkways to meeting rooms to try to catch legislators entering and leaving. It was driven home how the term lobbyist came to be as we really did spend a good deal of time waiting outside offices and conference rooms. I was lucky enough to snag some time with my district representative in her office. One of the team members took notes as we talked, then filled out a form on which he noted whether the representative had agreed to co-sponsor particular bills or if additional information was requested.
After four hours, my knees ached from walking on stone and marble floors, and I felt hungry and a little fried. We broke for lunch, then attended a short outdoor rally. After that, some folks headed home while others continued to try to meet their reps. I had decided to stay in Springfield overnight, so I returned to the hotel, listened to music, and pondered the day. I was told that it takes three years to build the skills and knowledge necessary to be a good lobbyist. We have to hold our own against the people who do this for a living, who’ve been doing it for years. While I felt good about what I had experienced to that point, the proof is in the legislation that passes, and that process can take years and is at the mercy of the push and pull that occurs with any negotiation. At this point, I think I want to try and stick it out. It’s how things get done.