How to become a citizen lobbyist.
—by Carol Koleman
In the 1939 Frank Capra movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart stars as a naive junior senator who goes to Washington and ends up showing Americans that one person can make a difference. If you haven’t seen it, do, it’s one of the most thrilling movies made about our legislative process. Yes, I said, “thrilling.”
Last month, I had the opportunity to experience our political system at its best—that is, I exercised my right as a citizen to speak to my representatives.
There are many opportunities at all levels to become an animal advocate, but it seems clear that until legislation is passed supporting animal welfare issues, it’s a lot like Sisophys endlessly rolling a rock up a hill.
It all started when the Humane Society of the United States invited Utahns to volunteer lobby at the state capitol while our elected officials were in session. This was unprecedented on two counts: It was the first time volunteer lobbyists were rallied in Utah on animal welfare issues, and it was the first collaboration between the three great animal welfare organizations in the U.S.: the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and Best Friends Animal Society (a Utah organization that has in recent years become national). Utah Humane was also involved as the local chapter of HSUS.
Every year, the HSUS posts rankings of where each state lies on animal welfare. Utah is a shocking 38th. (On the positive side, we were 43rd last year.) The primary reason for this is our large agricultural population. In a farmer’s eyes, if we start changing the laws to ensure that animals are treated humanely, that will of course include farm animals and well, that’ll cost more for them. So many are not interested in considering animal welfare.
We lobbied three bills; Restricting the sale of dogs in unregulated public places: This diminishes unlicensed and irresponsible breeders such as puppy mills, which is a big issue. I’ll address that next month. The second is to prohibit longterm tethering of dogs. You know that dog in the neighbor’s yard that is tied up and barking 24/7 with little water or food? Third: Felony penalties for cockfighting.
Sixty-five of us—a surprisingly large number considering the size of the voting population of Utah, and this being the first volunteer lobby effort—joined organizers at the state capitol, where we were trained in basic lobbying procedure and etiquette. We then made our way to the rotunda to invite our respective representatives out of session to speak with us. We later gathered and shared our experiences. We’d all had positive interactions; most our representatives were agreeable to supporting the bills we presented.
Lobbying during our legislative process is just one aspect of how we may exercise our first amendment right. In fact, it is really a building block for establishing a lasting relationship with our representatives. The more positive contact you have, the more issues may be addressed. this is a process.
• Contact your representatives by calling, emailing or hand writing letters (this is a favored method). Always be polite and professional; avoid getting emotional or angry. You want them on your side, and truthfully they want to be on your side. You elected them, remember?
• Volunteer lobby. Visit the state legislative website, webwatch.com, to view bills and updates. When you speak to your representative, be informed and concise, as you will only have a few minutes, if at all. Identify yourself and where you live (so they know you are a constituent). Refer to the bill by its name; they are voting on hundreds of bills and are unlikely to know them by their number. If possible, have a copy of the bill to hand out. Explain why this issue is important to you and include a personal story pertaining to it.
• Schedule meetings outside of session. You may only get to meet with staff members but that’s a good thing as they have tremendous influence over issues. They are your gateway to the elected officials.
• Attend town meetings where you may publicly speak about current issues.
For more tips on volunteer lobbying, go to: http://humanesociety.org/action/toolkit