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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > May/June 2004
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Information Today
Vol. 18 No. 3 — May/June 2004
Cover Story

How You Can Influence Your Local Legislators
by Julie Still

There are a number of factors involved in influencing elected officials, and they don't all involve money. We librarians don't always make a lot of money, and we probably aren't going to make a big splash politically with donations, the way lawyers and corporate special interests do. So we have to be a little more creative. Fortunately, librarians possess exceptional skills in areas that politicians need. Read on to discover how you, too, can wield influence in the halls of power, whether that be the state house, city or local government, or the congress.

Step 1: Know Exactly Who You Should Be Dealing With

Americans are notoriously ignorant about their elected officials. Do you know the names of your U.S. senator and U.S. representative? How about your state senator and representative? Do you understand the local political structure? Do you have city councilmen? Township commissioners? County officials? Before you can do anything you need to know names, parties, time in office, and so on. For officials who have staffs, take note of who is responsible for constituent service. These people are charged with handling the problems of those the official represents. In effect, they are the official's reference librarians. Some of these people are on patronage appointments and are of very little use. Others are dedicated workers who probably earn less than the average librarian. In fact, some of your elected officials may earn less than you do.

It is also important to understand the bailiwick of each level. If your public library is concerned about illegal activity in its parking lot after hours, then you need to talk with city or township officials. If you are concerned about funding for your state college or university then you need to contact state officials. If you are upset over certain sections of the USA PATRIOT Act then you need to contact federal officials. Complaining to the wrong people may feel good, but it isn't going to help.

Another thing to consider is whether you want to influence officials that represent where you work or where you live, if these are different at any level. Librarians who are defacto government employees will need to exercise caution when becoming politically active in the areas where they work. A state legislator or mayor is likely to frown upon a public library director who actively campaigned for his opponent. College library directors are in similar situations, as public higher education is funded in part by the state. I work in one state and live in another so my personal political activity doesn't affect my work but, on the other hand, any influence I develop doesn't do my employer any good. However, any effort put forth for libraries and education is, in my view, an overall social benefit, whether I see any immediate results or not.

It is generally considered good corporate etiquette to keep your political views to yourself while in the office, out of respect to those who might disagree with you. You don't want to give a co-worker a target for a grievance. That being said, regardless of how employees at libraries that depend in any way on public funding view their elected officials, it is important to make sure these officials have some understanding of how libraries work, how they are beneficial, and what issues are important to them. It is also important to know how to present your opinions in a positive manner.

Step 2: Look for Opportunities to Meet Officials and Their Staffs

One of the easiest ways to meet your officials is to go where they are. Nothing creates a connection quite as strongly as a face-to-face meeting. There are two paths to this destination—attending fundraisers and attending free events like meetings. During election years, all candidates, whether incumbent or challenger, hold fundraisers. These can range from $25 or so to thousands. For a state office, you can usually get into a fundraiser for $100 or less, sometimes much less. A federal candidate is likely to charge a little more. If you have contributed to politicians or parties in the past, try to figure up how much you send in during a given year. If this amount is over $100, then instead of sending in several small amounts, try to focus your efforts on one or more races, contact those campaigns and see if there are events you could attend for around that amount. At these events the candidates will usually work their way around the room greeting everyone. Make sure to introduce yourself and mention the library connection.

Nothing would make a legislator focus on library issues more than suddenly encountering a number of librarians or library supporters at a few fundraisers. If possible, coordinate your efforts. Find five friends and all go to the same fundraiser. Sit together and call it the "library table." Or, find five friends, split into two or three groups, and go to different fundraisers. Sit together and say you are the "library contingent." You will definitely get the legislator's attention. Make sure you have agreed upon one or two points to mention.

If you cannot afford to, or prefer not to, contribute financially, there are other ways to meet officials. Most candidates have volunteers who get into these events free in return for work such as staffing the welcome table and handing out nametags. Those involved in the campaign in other ways may be able to attend one or more fundraisers as a thank you.

The other path to getting to know your elected officials is to attend free events that they are hosting or are likely to attend. Community events that are likely to draw a big crowd or a crowd of likely voters are good places to find those in office or those who want to be. Politicians are gregarious so if you see one, walk up and introduce yourself. Be sure to mention your library connection. If you are active in community affairs in any way mention that as well. Find out what areas of interest your elected officials have and be sure to show up at events relating to that interest.

Most elected officials hold public or town meetings, especially in election years but often on an annual basis. These events are most often sparsely attended unless there is a current controversy that draws people out. Every 10 years, district lines may be redrawn and officials who are inheriting an area often hold town meetings in the new areas to meet their new constituents. These meetings are also sparsely attended. The same goes for "meet the candidate" or other forums traditionally hosted by local League of Women Voters' chapters. Attending these in a consistent fashion is a surefire way of coming to the attention of candidates and officials without spending a dime. In a group of 20 or less, it is easy to stand out.

Think of a good question you can ask. To really curry favor, lob a softball question on one of the official's or candidate's favorite subjects. If at all possible, make sure to introduce yourself afterward and again mention the library. I always tell people "It never hurts to know a good librarian." Make sure you speak not only to the candidate but also to the staff with him or her. These are the people who can shepherd through any requests you may have of the official's office. You want to get in good with the staff.

The lower the level of office the more likely you are to run into your elected officials in your daily business. I have seen both my state senator and my federal congressman in the checkout line at Blockbuster. The local bakery on a Saturday morning is a good place to find township commissioners. Like librarians, these officials hear complaints more often than compliments. If you like the job your officials are doing, when you see them be sure to tell them that. Just a simple "you're doing a good job" or "thanks for all your hard work" or "I voted for you" will be a real bonus for them. If you can give specifics, such as a compliment on a piece of legislation or a vote for their work on a particular project, all the better. Since most American voters are appallingly uneducated about public affairs, that means if you show a glimmer of knowledge and civic involvement, you are already ahead of the game.

Approaching your elected officials is a lot like academic librarians approaching faculty or public librarians approaching patrons. You need to go to where they are and talk to them in their language. They aren't going to come to you unless you make it worth their while, and until they know you and your talents, that isn't likely to happen. So at present, the onus is on you to seek them out.

If you are trying to promote the library you work at, be sure to mention whether you have an active Friends group and to imply that being friendly to the library is a good way of swaying those in your group. People who are active in civic affairs are more likely to vote, and regular library users tend to be evenly split among political parties (at least in the only poll I found that touched on this subject). You, as the librarian, can position yourself as the gateway to that constituency.

Step 3: Tell Them How You (and Libraries in General) Can Be Useful

The average person has a "mom and apple pie" view of libraries and librarians but very little real idea of what we do. How often have people said to you, "Oh, I'd just love to read all day!" or "I guess you check out books, huh?" The skills and abilities we have are not visibly apparent, and the general tendency of librarians to stay quietly in the background does not help our attempts at self promotion. There are a number of areas where our unique mind-set, values, and skills can be of immense value to candidates or officials. These are some of the things I have done on a volunteer basis: research on potential donors and opponents, fact checking, tracking down answers to questions, keeping donor databases and printing out labels, using campaign finance software, managing a Web site, managing an e-mail address list (reading and sending out relevant e-mails), checking the Web for references (both positive and negative) to the candidate, and generally keeping my eyes open for useful information. These sorts of things are going to be done by someone, and if you are doing them you can ensure that they are being done in an ethical and evenhanded manner. You can also bring added value to these tasks by virtue of your professional skills. For example, when keeping track of donors, I instituted a "See/See Also" list for households having two surnames. The campaign staff was amazed. It had never occurred to them to do this.

In addition to campaign work, all elected officials need to find information at one time or another just to do their jobs. Where do they go for that? If you could find one legislator who would say he goes to the library, I would be shocked. We shy away from politics when we should embrace it. Legislators who use the library will support the library. If an official is told there was an article in The New York Times on the subject of a bill they are sponsoring, I don't want him calling a lobbyist or a special interest group to find it, either could spin the article however they choose. I want that official to find what he is looking for, or an evenhanded selection of articles. I want him to talk to a librarian who knows how to find good information.

Don't overlook the trust factor: Much of what an official does is confidential, especially most of the internal workings of a campaign. Before politicians contact you they have to know you are trustworthy. Librarians are generally given the benefit of the doubt on this and we should capitalize on that stereotype.

Step 4: Let Them Know How You Feel

You want to let your elected officials know how you feel about important issues. While someone in the official's office is going to read letters and e-mails and take notes about phone calls, these comments may or may not reach the official. The absolute best way to express your feelings is to impart them personally, face to face. You may be handed off to a staff person, but at least the official has heard some of what you had to say.

To make your opinions even more effective, be sure that you are using the best words possible, and using them sparingly. Politicians are busy and a lot of people want their attention. If you are going to a town meeting and have a question or comment, practice it before you go; write it out if necessary. Seriously consider what points you want to make. Avoid long stories—imagine your remarks as a PowerPoint presentation with bulleted points of two to five words.

Of course, if the official, candidate, or staff person knows you personally, your comments may carry added weight—perhaps not as much weight as those of a really big contributor, but certainly more than the average person on the street. Writing an official and complaining bitterly about the state allocation for libraries or higher education will certainly let them know you feel strongly about it. But imagine how much more impact you could make if you see the candidate at an event and tell her face or face. You could significantly soften your words and have them mean even more if you are handing the official a time-consuming report that you did for her. Walk up, look her in the eye, hand over the work, and say "The budget you passed last week was really unkind to libraries and higher education." It is naïve to think someone would change their vote based solely on your comments, but politicians are people, too, and the respect of those around them is important.

Help Them to Help You

If you want your elected officials to make wise decisions, they need wise people around them. Be one of those advisers.

 

 


Julie Still is a reference librarian at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. She holds an M.A. in library science from the University of Missouri in Columbia and an M.A. in history from the University of Richmond in Va. She presented "Marian Goes to Washington: A Political Primer for Librarians" at the 2004 Computers in Libraries conference and has been a political volunteer for several years. Her e-mail address is still@camden.rutgers.edu.

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