The election is long over. By now the advocacy community is settling into 2013 legislative strategies and identifying key figures to champion their agenda. With one of the largest freshmen classes this century, which new Members will join your cause? Which Members may have a connection to your issue or your supporters?
Significant time and resources are required to reach these folks while they are still formulating their positions on the thousands of issues they'll vote on this Congress. If you oversee a grassroots operation it's important that you make an impression before freshmen Members have formed strong opinions on the issues and have put themselves 'on record.' It is much easier to bring along an undecided legislator than trying to get him to switch positions. Below are five ways to engage freshmen legislators and build relationships.
1. Schedule a Meeting.
When I worked as a freshman Chief of Staff, I was always amazed at the number of groups that just 'dropped by' unannounced and expected a meeting. I totally agree that government should be open and accessible - but it also needs to be efficient. Get off to the right start with the Legislative Director or Chief of Staff by asking politely for a meeting. Eye the congressional calendar and identify a recess period - well in advance. If you have a connection to the legislator's district (e.g., you represent constituents), it will be very hard for them to say 'no.'
2. Find the Best Way to Reach Legislators.
House members start their new job with few staff. While they have web forms and can absorb grassroots campaigns, because they don't have constituent mail operations set up, they may not be able to process the communications into the policy decision-making process. While phone campaigns are reliable as a way to deliver the message, again you have to be mindful that the office may not have a system for tallying those calls and providing them to the Member of Congress. You could do a quick survey of the legislator's social media tools. If they set up an official (not campaign) Facebook page or Twitter account, this may be the best avenue for communicating your group's views.
3. Learn About Them - At Home and in Washington.
New Members will expound on their views early - at hearings, town hall meetings, floor speeches. Track this data down so that during that first meeting you can 'wow' them with how much you are interested in their issues. Survey your own supporter/member-advocates to uncover any connections to the incoming freshman class.
4. Offer Help.
Freshmen and their staff are swamped, especially in the House. They need help from anyone. Offer to identify and organize local experts on your issue; offer to arrange a site visit in their state or district; extend research and white papers on related issues; even suggest restaurant and travel advice.
5. Be Patient.
Remember, slow and steady wins the race. Also recognize that some freshmen offices won't have their communications act completely together until March. View your relationship building as a marathon, not a sprint. But be sure to start early before they get overwhelmed with work. If you get them on your side now, you could have a very valuable friend for life.