It is easy to get turned off on politics, especially in view of the strident nature of recent political campaigns and the partisan intransigence that seems to have kept Washington in a stranglehold. Even more frustrating is the popular belief that deep-pocketed special interest groups can manipulate politicians with their checkbooks, leaving the average citizen on the sideline as a mere observer.
So, what happened to the notion of a government of the people, by the people and for the people? Well, believe it or not, it is still here. And, even more remarkably, individuals can make a difference and get their voices heard.
‘The biggest misconception that people have is thinking, 'I'm a constituent peon, and they're not interested in hearing my voice,'’ says David Lykken, managing partner of Mortgage Banking Solutions, based in Austin, Texas. ‘Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is that too many people on every side have that attitude, so the most vocal of the other side are the most vocal in the politicians' ears.’
"A single individual can definitely have an impact on the political process," says Dustin Hobbs, communications director of the California Mortgage Bankers Association. "Mortgage bankers are in a unique position to make their voice heard – they are not only residents and voters in their community, but employers and supporters of local nonprofits, and their products provide much-needed economic activity that generates benefits for local governments."
This leads to a new question: How can someone with little or no experience in political outreach make an impact on the political process? Ultimately, it boils down to knowing how to reach elected officials and presenting your message in a clear and concise manner.
Know your target
For starters, it is important to have an understanding of which people you are trying to influence.
"I would ask this question back: Do you even know who is your senator or representative?" asks Brian C. Coester, CEO of Rockville, Md.-based Coester Valuation Management Services. "Most people would say no. If you don't, it is hard to get your voice heard."
And while there is no shortage of elected officials to influence, it makes sense to aim specifically at the ones representing your local district.
"Legislators are typically much more receptive to hearing from their constituents than folks residing outside their district," says Hobbs. "In particular, local employers and businesses can provide critical feedback on issues and give the legislators a way to keep their fingers on the pulse of their communities."
Wil Armstrong, chairman of Cherry Creek Mortgage and CEO of Blueberry Systems, both based in Greenwood, Colo., recommends doing research on your legislators in order to get an idea of where they stand on issues and in which areas they can claim expertise.
"I try to understand the legislators' backgrounds," says Armstrong, who sought the Republican nomination for Colorado's Sixth District in 2008. "Some legislators have a great handle on the mortgage banking industry, while others operate at a more general level. I always find out the issues of interest to them and whether there is any synergy in what I'm interested in talking about."
Jeffrey Peters, an Annapolis, Md.-based political consultant, notes that some constituents do not have to go looking for their elected officials because the legislators frequently come looking for them.
"Many officials will host or attend forums to discuss various issues," he explains. "Elected officials prioritize what kinds of meetings they will hold with individuals, based on any pending legislation, their topic of interest and information that can be presented."
For those who are proactively promoting a message, the next step is to get face time with their legislators. But that raises the question of how to get in front of an elected official – is it as simple as calling the official's office and requesting a meeting?
"Are you a constituent?" asks Brian Anderson, director of grassroots outreach at the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA). "Well, there you go!"
"People drastically underestimate access to congressional people," says Coester.
Hobbs notes that the same attitude applies outside of the Beltway. "Local and state officials are typically very receptive to meeting with constituents, so it can often be as easy as calling their office to request a face-to-face meeting," he says.
How can the average person make this happen? David H. Stevens, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), recommends telephone inquiries as the most efficient first step for reaching out to legislators.
"The simplest way to do it is by phone," he says. "Pick up the phone and call. I was on Capitol Hill during the fiscal cliff crisis, and in every congressional office I visited, their phones were ringing off the hooks."
"Most email or phone calls are taken by an elected official's office," says Peters. "Mass emails that have generic information receive generic replies. A standard issue on a popular topic will receive a generic reply. If you have a concern and want to be heard, make sure it has information, is unique and presents something interesting."
Christopher Coutu, a former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, concurs while recalling his own experience from being on the receiving end of the outreach process.
"We always appreciated when individuals sent personal letters," he recalls. "We'd get hundreds of emails that have fill-in-the-name slots. When outreach was individualized, we would listen. Your outreach has to be real – it cannot be a template where you can change the name."
Coester advises that sometimes the process requires a bit of follow-up work before contact is established.
"Typically, the legislator's office may push back once to see if you are serious," he explains. "They would ask you to send a letter or email to explain why you want a meeting. But once you get your security clearance, you can walk into their office and ask what's going on."
However, there is a better-than-average chance that the legislator might not be available for a meeting. But do not consider this as a personal snub.
"For every person in a position of power, the most limiting factor is time," says Michael W. Robinson, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based strategic consulting firm Levick. "They have to triage time over any number of factors. And, unless a person is Warren Buffett, the odds of a legislator making time to meet every person are difficult."
Rob Zimmer, principal with the Washington, D.C.-based strategic consulting group TVDC, notes that some legislators are easier to meet with than others.
"With senators, you need to have a little more persistence," he says. "There are only two of them representing the whole state, so they are very busy. I know people who call up to see senators have to wait months. Not because they aren't important, but because the senators are so busy."
A successful meeting
Let's fast-forward a bit and assume that you are scheduled to meet with a legislator. There are a few things that need to be considered.
"It is easy to think that your legislator knows everything," says Coutu. "But legislators have thousands of bills a year, and sometimes they do not receive a 100-page bill until minutes before they have to vote on it."
"Members of Congress are juggling vast numbers of issues," says Stevens. "Their ability to be deeply knowledgeable on any issue, unless it is some core issue, is very limited. They are just spread too thin."
Peters adds that even the legislator's staff may not be up to speed on the issues you are eager to discuss.
"Most legislators lack enough staff to do research on every topic, so it is important that an individual comes well prepared to answer any of the legislator's questions and give them enough information to accomplish any tasks," he says.
Indeed, framing the meeting as an educational update may help the legislator appreciate the gravity of the situation.
"Tell the story as it relates to your customers and community," says Armstrong. "You can get a lot of bang for the buck when describing issues on very personal terms."
"Always relate what you want to discuss back to your district and your role as a constituent," says the ICBA's Anderson. "You could talk about a broad range of policy points, try to put how it impacts in the number of jobs and your local economy."
Hobbs recommends keeping the meeting's talking points succinct and cogent.
"It is important to be knowledgeable, and it's great to have figures on hand, but don't overwhelm them with industry jargon and unnecessary statistics," he says. "Prioritize and pick one or two that the official absolutely needs to know."
Lykken notes that if you are part of a larger visiting delegation, it is important to determine who is going to talk about specific issues.
"If you go with an industry group, you need to work on the talking points and determine how they should be coordinated," he says. "Each person can have a specific topic to cover. I would recommend that you rehearse what you want to say, so it sounds decent."
Stevens recommends that the meeting's conclusion should not be the final word on the subject.
"You should have something to leave behind that lays out your concerns in a professional way," he says.
But what about the popular belief that generous campaign donations are the fuel of today's legislative machinery?Â
"Put it this way: If political contributions did not equal access, people would stop making political contributions," says Robinson. "And they haven't."
But access is not synonymous with control.
"It is easy for the press to point to the picture that "money equals access equals influence,'" he observes. "I think that's overplayed. It certainly doesn't hurt [to give a campaign contribution], if you really want to do it, but it is not a substitute for going in and spending time with your representatives."
Armstrong concurs. "The ability to get in front of the legislators is not grounded by contributions," he says. "Politicians are kind of easy targets in that case."
"Every time I've been to Capitol Hill, I never had a sense that the legislators had a clue if I donated," says Lykken.
Stevens notes that the members of the House of Representatives are in a particularly vulnerable situation, given that their terms last a mere two years.
"Members of the House are constantly campaigning," he says. "I am not sure if they want to, but they have to. If you can make contributions through a political action committee (PAC) or individually, it often gives an opportunity to have a conversation. Whether they agree with you or not is a separate question."
Stevens adds that the MBA's MORPAC serves as a voice for the real estate finance industry in Washington. And although he encourages individual outreach, Stevens also points to the importance of industry peers working in unison.
"There is a huge power in the collective voice," he says. "That's the role we try to play – being a strong and powerful voice for mortgage bankers inside the Beltway."