Pagan Politics - What you Need to Know
Article ID: 12557
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Posted: May 4th. 2008
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Pagan Politics: A Primer for Successfully Contacting and Engaging Your Elected Officials
People often say that, in a democracy, decisions are made by a majority of the people. Of course, that is not true. Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote - a very different thing. ~Walter H. Judd, MD and Congressman
It is every American’s right to make their opinion known to their elected officials. Unfortunately, it is the manner in which this contact is made that most often determines whether or not your opinion or issue position will actually make a difference in the vote or position of your representative.
I have served as a staff person for a State Representative, a State Senator, and a U.S. Senator. I can tell you from experience that the way in which you present yourself to your representative’s staff goes a long way in whether you get the “standard reply letter” or a chance to actually meet with your representative. In this primer, I will give you a few do’s and don’ts to help you with your political advocacy.
Right from the start, you have to understand that your representative, whether they are a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, is a person. As a person, they have strong moral, religious and political views and biases that, if they are a good representative, they try to set aside when looking at the “hard” issues and in dealing with constituents that they do not necessarily see “eye-to-eye” with. They, actually their staff, hear from literally hundreds of constituents, lobbyists and activists on a weekly basis.
Professional lobbyists and activists have not only cultivated a relationship with the representatives, or with their political parties and caucuses, but approach their contacts with these officials in a very professional manner. Most, if not all, professional lobbyists were either former legislators or legislative staff. This is the professional world that they have been a part of for most of their career and they know all of the “ins and outs” of advocating for their clients and their clients positions. Unfortunately, the average constituent does not and makes all manner of errors in the way that they approach their representative.
Some rough percentages:
99.99% of elected officials (and their staff) will either be some denomination of Christian or Jewish
95% will have an unfavorable view toward Pagan religions (mostly due to ignorance)
50% believe that Pagans are “weird” or “kooks”
70% or so will have an unfavorable view of gays and lesbians
90% do want to call it a Christmas tree (no matter how they voted)
25% of them will be extremely fundamental in their religious views
99% will ALWAYS vote with their party on an issue, that is why they are in that party (which has always made me wonder about Log Cabin Republicans)
And 100% of them want to be reelected
So, what do these figures tell us? That as a Pagan constituent you will be facing an uphill battle in relating your position to your elected official. However, as a constituent you will have a much easier time in getting your views and opinions heard.
Let’s start with some basics on what to do and what not to do:
Do use your legal name, not your Craft name, and your address and phone number. Legislative offices track and respond to their constituents and keep a database of all contacts. So, if they ask for your name and address, don't worry, they won't be using it against you, it is common practice.
When you try to contact your legislator by phone or in person at their office, accept the fact that 95% of the time, you're going to end up speaking to their staff. Don’t get upset if the staff person does not connect you immediately to your representative. Staff people are the gatekeepers and one of their primary functions is to speak with constituents, take their issues, and then work on the issue for their boss. Staff people deal with all types of constituents and constituent contacts on top of their other duties and getting rude with them will NEVER help your cause.
Be polite and respectful, I cannot stress this bullet point enough. If you want someone to listen to your concerns and either relay them to your representative or actually act on them, you need to treat them as you would wish to be treated yourself. Do not be demanding – yes, they work for you, but being respectful of their time will go a long way in increasing your chances of actually having your issue acted on.
Unless it is absolutely necessary, try to keep your religious persuasion out of the discussion. Even in cases where religion is the main point (i.e. State Xmas/Holiday Tree, prison chaplain, etc.) the main issue is not your religion, it is the violation of the First Amendment (usually either the Establishment Clause or the Free Exercise Clause) or whatever the issue may be. Starting off by telling your legislator or their staff that you are Wiccan, Pagan, etc. will do nothing to help your cause.
Know your issue, do copious background research and then BE succinct, calm and even in making your point. If you are sitting on the other end of the phone from a staffer, raking them over the coals, for 20 minutes you may feel better, but I can tell you that what you are doing is hurting you, not helping you. As part of a staffer’s job is to listen to you, they will, but the second that you start to be disrespectful, they will tune you out. Oh, you’ll get a letter, but don’t expect the representative or the staff to put in a great amount or time or effort on your issue. Again, treat them as you want to be treated.
If you get to meet with your representative, or their staff, in person – DRESS PROFESSIONALLY. Do Not wear ceremonial robes; cloaks; all black clothing (remember Green is the new Black!); extreme make-up (or any make up if you are a male); or wear pentacles the size of hubcaps (this doesn’t just go for Pagans, Christians that come in wearing huge crosses get just as little respect).
Many representatives already think that our religious beliefs are part of a cult (mainstream entertainment and media really hasn’t helped) and dressing as if you just stepped off of a vampire movie set will just get you laughed at (after you leave) and dumped in the "crazy" file. This also goes for meetings outside the office, such as at town hall meetings and county fairs. If you plan on meeting with your representative, dress appropriately.
Do not attempt to contact legislators other than your own. It is both a waste of your time and their staff’s time. By law, only your elected legislator has a “duty” to represent you (and to act on your contact). When we get contacts from people outside the district, we simply forward them to their elected legislator. Since you have probably already contacted your legislator, this just gets you lumped into the “Frequent Flyer” file (for people that seem to have nothing better to do than contact their legislator on in and all issues).
Do not continually contact your legislator or their staff after making the initial contact unless you have something new to share. They already know your position on the issue and if you keep nagging them like a kid wanting a toy, you will just end up annoying them (and getting put into said Frequent Flyer file).
This is a big one – If your legislator does try to do a bill to help the cause, don't call and attack the bill if you feel that it does not go far enough or if the bill is stuck in a committee. Really good case in point, Mothers Against Drunk Driving came before the Senate Transportation Committee to speak in favor of a bill that would increase penalties on drunk drivers. Instead of giving it their “full” support, the MADD representative spent nearly her entire testimony on how it does not go far enough. Guess what? The bill did not pass out of committee. So, instead of getting something, the state lost and got nothing.
Don’t threaten your legislator, or their staff, by saying that you will work for their opponent in the next election, won’t vote for them, or will make sure that the entire district knows about this. None of these will motivate your legislator to help you.
Every legislator knows that their will be people working for their opponent, that won’t vote for them, and that trying to trash them in the newspaper is often an opportunity for them to make their point to the voting public without having to spend a dime. Threats don’t work. They just demean you and your cause – you might as well threaten to hold your breath, it would be as effective.
This one may be confusing - Open up your wallet and make a campaign donation – but DON’T say, if you vote for this bill, I’ll give your campaign money. The subtle difference is that it is perfectly legal to support a politician’s campaign, but predicating that support on having them vote a certain way is bribery.
Legislators are more likely to listen to you if you show an interest in keeping them in office. Politicians have to run for office every two, four, or six years to keep their job and every election is more expensive than the previous one. By helping them to buy a few more yard signs or literature pieces will help you get their ear when you need it.
Grassroots movements are great as it is refreshing to see citizens actually getting involved in their own governance. However grassroots moves are only as good as their planning and execution. Sometimes they are effective, and sometimes they do more harm to their cause than good. The sad fact of life is that the everyday citizen’s voice is being drowned out by the monied special interests. In order to make your voice heard, through the use of grassroots, get professional help.
Find people who have experience with planning and execution of grassroots movements and enlist their aid in yours. Do your homework on your legislators, find the ones that are, or may be, sympathetic to your issue and try and enlist their support. If the issue is too complex or, more importantly, too important:
HIRE A CONTRACT LOBBYIST. A professional that is a known commodity around political circles and has earned the respect of the staff and legislators you are trying to influence. A contract lobbyist will know the best way to present and get your issue to floor of the legislature with a chance for its passage.
Okay, what kinds of issues should you contact your legislator about?
First, determine what level of government has the purview over your issue, or if it is even a governmental issue. If you are having a personal problem getting your Social Security check, contacting your state legislator is going to be futile, as this is a Federal issue. Ditto, don’t contact your Congressman with complaints about your property taxes, which is either a city, county or state issue.
Don’t contact your legislature with a request for legal advice. That is what attorneys are for and if you cannot afford an attorney, contact your state Bar Association, as they will generally have a list of pro bono attorneys in your area.
Legislators cannot, by law, give you legal advice. Legislators can tell you about a law, try to amend the law, or try to have the law revoked. Even though the state has oversight responsibilities over utilities, these are private companies and any problems that you may be having with them can only be solved by dealing directly, or through an attorney, with them.
Copyright: Lloyd Clark 2008
(I have also provided this to Selena Fox at Circle Sanctuary for a proposed seminar)
Location: Beaver Dam, Wisconsin
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