The art of giving legislators your two cents

Guest Columnist

The government had gotten my goat and, darn skippy, I wanted it back. So, I spent a lot of time verbally assaulting every politician from the Oval Office to the Mount Si Senior Center about what I thought were stupid, arrogant, ill-conceived programs and decisions. Then one day I realized that all this yelling at the TV and swearing at the newspaper didn’t really count as effective citizen participation. As long as I sat around in my pajamas and opined loudly from the anonymous comfort of my kitchen table, I was not actually giving anyone my two cents worth – I was just whining.

Betty and Dick Lynham, a.k.a. my mom and dad, brilliant civic leaders and solution providers in Medina, Ohio, would not be proud.

Coincidentally, around this time the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce restarted its Government Affairs Committee (GAC). I went to the kickoff meeting and emerged as the co-chair. I was elected to this role because I had political fire in my belly and a gobful of French fries in my mouth: I literally couldn’t say no.

Now, more than ever, I thank God for French fries. Through my involvement with the GAC, I’ve crammed about 27 semesters of Government 101 into my puny brain, with the most important lesson also being the most basic: “How to Communicate Effectively With Elected Officials.”

I’ve also had the opportunity to spend quality time with several of our state, county and local electeds. I’ve learned that for the most part they are caring, intelligent, thoughtful people who also agonize about stupid, arrogant, ill-conceived programs and decisions. They’re in office because they want to improve the system and they see working with the public as a vital part of their success, not as an evil necessity as I had so ignorantly assumed.

Working with the public means getting support, suggestions and real-life stories from us – you and me, their constituents, “we the people” affected by these programs and decisions. You don’t have to create a PowerPoint complete with expert testimonies to deliver your two-cents worth. You simply have to care about the issues and present your opinions clearly and concisely. Here are a few tips for communicating with our politicians that they’ve said work for them:

Be polite. Politicians are people, too, and the more respect you give, the more you’ll get. That doesn’t mean you always have to agree with them, of course, but you certainly won’t change their positions with nasty barbs and name calling.

Cite examples from your real-life situation. It’s one thing for electeds to hear from the chamber that many businesses will suffer if liability insurance rates don’t decrease; it’s quite another to hear a doctor – who has never been sued for malpractice by the way – say that his insurance went from $10,000 to $57,000 in one year and he nearly had to shut his doors. (True story.)

Be a reliable resource. Electeds face hundreds of issues every year and can’t possibly know every pro and con about every one. They rely on colleagues, staff and constituents to gather facts and recommend actions. Make sure you’re giving them 100 percent correct and truthful information though, lest you ruin your credibility and theirs.

Keep it short and specific. A 10-page report may be warranted, but it may never get read because it’s overwhelming.

Know what’s relevant when. Review city, county, or state Web sites to learn what’s on the upcoming agendas (see the snovalley.org, Government page for links) and schedule the timing of your comments accordingly. For example, the bill cutoff for the state Legislature was last week, so our state officials want to hear your opinions about those still alive this session.

Network and collaborate with fellow citizens. It’s powerful and efficient to communicate on behalf of a group, versus as an individual. Cases in point: the SKTF, Chambers of Commerce, the Sierra Club, the unions, the Master Builders, PETA, etc. Many of these organizations have legislative agendas and lobbyists that push them, so if you have a particular hot spot, check out various sites and see what information is available. You don’t necessarily have to join the groups, but they can supply data to help support your positions, or even provide sample letters to legislators about the issues you care about.

If you’d like to contact an elected official and you’re still not sure how to go about it, please feel free to call me. I’ll help you find the right person to talk with and guide you toward information that can help you get out of your pajamas and become part of the solution.

Jennifer Lynham is president of the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce and can be reached via e-mail at jennifer@lynhamink.com.