In the months following President Donald Trump's inauguration, civic engagement — in the form of marches, rallies and boisterous town hall meetings — was all over the news, as it was in 2009 after Barack Obama was inaugurated and America saw the nascent stirrings of the tea party movement.
Public gatherings are actually a small (but important) part of civic engagement. Just as cobbling together legislation can be a dry affair and often opaque to constituents, figuring out how best to influence your lawmakers — at the national, state and local levels — also can be puzzling. Which is more impactful: a letter, a personal visit, an email or a phone call? Does adding your name to an internet petition accomplish anything? What about social media?
"Communication must be individual," wrote former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank in a recent essay for Mic.com. "It can be an email, physical letter, a phone call or an office visit. It need not be elaborate or eloquent — it is an opinion to be counted, not an essay. But it will not have an impact unless it shows some original initiative."
At the state and local levels, it doesn't take much to make a difference. Just a few emails or calls on an issue are enough to get a politician's attention.
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser estimates his office gets 200 phone calls and 200 to 300 emails a week from constituents. "Getting 100 letters in the mail [about a specific topic] has an impact," he says. New Orleans District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry reports similar numbers — about 100 emails a day.
That's small feedback compared to the response on Capitol Hill, where Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's office estimated the Senate got 1.5 million phone calls a day in early February — an average of 15,000 a day for each senator. (At issue were both the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the confirmation of lightning-rod pick Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.) Congressional aides posted on social media to warn of heavy call volumes and wait times.
Snail mail or email? It depends, but when contacting members of Congress or the White House, email is your better bet. Over the years, postal mail addressed to federal officials has undergone increasingly stringent screening. The Secret Service has screened White House mail since the 1940s, but after 9/11 and the anthrax scare of 2001, a dedicated screening facility was set up that further delays mail delivery.
"The best way to reach out to my office for timely issues moving through Congress is email," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, wrote in an email to Gambit, "because I can respond quickly to explain my position and give you an update on legislation you might be tracking." In a note on his website, Scalise warns, "Please note that postal mail is the slowest method for contacting me. All postal mail sent to my offices must be scanned for security purposes, which means it will take an additional two weeks for me to receive it."
For individual constituent issues, Scalise suggests phoning his office. "Phone calls are best for people who need our help cutting red tape, whether they are veterans, seniors with Social Security issues or anybody else who is having problems with a federal agency."
State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, is Speaker Pro Tempore of the Louisiana House of Representatives and represents District 91, which includes much of the Garden District, Central City and Carrollton. "Nothing beats a telephone call," he says. "It is the most personal way to connect besides an in-person meeting."
Guidry says she prefers email to calls "because I'm more likely to personally read it, while a call will go to whatever staff person handles that area. If you have a constituent issue, like a problem with a leak in the street — something that is a visual — send an email with a photograph because I can send it on to the person who should be handling it."
Direct communication works best, says New Orleans Councilman At-Large Jason Williams.
"Phone calls, emails, handwritten letters or typed letters or somebody just stopping you at the grocery store or the park — I think all of those things are [just] as effective as how they're communicated," Williams says. "Emails, fundamentally, are probably the most impersonal of all of them, so I think they probably [have] less of an impact than face-to-face or a phone call or letter. With the way social media is and the way people in our community email, you could literally have thousands of emails on an important issue."
"We respond to all emails," adds Nungesser, who said he was personally calling back constituents who contacted him about the Confederate monument issue in New Orleans. "But whenever you have an opportunity in person at a town hall meeting, or catch [a lawmaker] walking out of the state Capitol, that's the most effective way."
- Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser says his office responds to all emails, but adds personal meetings make the biggest impact.
Ryan Haynie works with his father, veteran lobbyist Randy Haynie, at the Baton Rouge firm Haynie & Associates. The firm represents a large array of businesses and nonprofits and publishes the quadrennial Louisiana Legislature Grass-Roots Guide, a hefty digest for professionals and trade groups, as well as a pocket-sized (and, at $10, much more affordable) citizens guide called the Louisiana Legislative Directory. Both are available at www.louisianagovernmentalstudies.com.
"A face-to-face meeting in the legislator's district is the most effective [way of communication]," Ryan Haynie says. "After that, a constituent coming to Baton Rouge to meet with their representative, then a personal phone call, then personal email or letter. A mass-generated form email, letter or robocall is less effective.
"For some legislators, social media contact made on their public social media page can have a strong impact, especially if your point is made respectfully and with strong factual arguments," Haynie adds, warning, "Cursing out a legislator on social media will only get you blocked."
Another veteran lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that social media "can make a difference, especially if you are not a squeaky wheel that is always one sided in your thoughts. An articulate, unique and well thought out argument will inspire others to chime in and help clear through the clutter."
Some politicians seem to be addicted to social media via Twitter and Facebook (in the former case, our current president), while others wouldn't know what a retweet was. "Some members are very sensitive to social media, almost overreacting to a vocal minority," Haynie says. "Other members are more astute and realize that one person saying something loudly on the internet doesn't necessarily represent their constituency. Other legislators either are not on social media or ignore it. It's changing daily and is a moving target but growing in importance for grassroots organizing."
"I try to be diligent about checking social media," Leger notes, "but during the legislative session there are times when it is just not possible to keep up with social media, emails, letters, reading bills, drafting amendments, attending committee meetings, participating in floor debate and negotiating around legislation that is pending."
One thing that's not so effective? Petitions. District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who responded to Gambit's questions by email, wrote, "One doesn't know how the topic has been presented to those who are signing the petition."
As for form letters, Cantrell wrote, "They are considered as well, but we research to see if they are all coming from one person or to see if they are indeed from multiple parties. With this type of correspondence it is like robocalls, then we are not truly sure if it is legitimate."
"It is much more impactful for a single constituent to share particular and personal experience about an issue than to receive an online petition with numerous faceless signatories," Leger says.
"Petitions can look a lot of different ways," Williams says. "If you've got a list of names on several pieces of paper, the petition should clearly be on each one of those pieces of paper. You want to make sure everyone who signed this knew what they were signing."
"As a rule, I don't [read petitions]," Guidry says. "They're not usually related to something local, and I'll just read the subject line."
Do politicians check to make sure letters are actually from people who live in their districts? Generally, yes.
"There are a lot of things that have come up in the three short years I've been here in which you've got people in other parishes weighing in on things that are happening in Orleans Parish," Williams says. "If you're getting 1,000 emails saying 'Don't do X' and 900 of them are coming from Jefferson and St. Tammany [parishes], you need to know that. We like to ask those follow-up questions, and we like to go back and check. ... I think it's important to know who you're talking to, and a name is not the end of that."
One exception to the district rule, noted Barney Frank, is politicians who have their eye on higher office. They will be "sensitive of voters throughout their state."
And if you get support from a legislator on an issue that matters to you — particularly if the legislator changes his or her mind, or crosses the aisle to vote — a thank-you note always is appreciated, whether it's a private communication or a shoutout on Twitter or Facebook. Guidry has one wall in her office reserved for thank-you notes and emails from her constituents.
"It makes your efforts and all your trips to the legislature worthwhile when you get a thank-you," Nungesser says.
"[The thank-you note] is one of the most underutilized tools to building a relationship with the legislator," Haynie adds. "They appreciate being acknowledged more than people realize. Legislators, more so than most folks, want to know that they are appreciated and taking the extra time to thank them can pay big dividends."
Leger says earlier this month a server in a restaurant thanked him for his work, and "it makes me smile even now. A thank you is always welcome, a comment on the street, in the grocery store, a call or a note of thanks is incredibly uplifting and means the world to me."
"Sometimes you may feel like your voice isn't heard," Nungesser says. "The old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the oil is absolutely true.
"Most elected officials want to get re-elected, and whether you manage to change their mind or not — you may not always win — the only way you're gonna make change is to get involved."
— Additional reporting by Clancy DuBos and Alex Woodward
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