Academy helps citizens get connected
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Relationships, relationships, relationships.
That was repeated again and again by legislators and speakers at a Jan. 6 State Capitol conference designed to teach ordinary citizens how to influence their state legislators. Upwards of 100 people were in attendance from all over the state.
The Capitol Legislative Academy was held in one of the building’s hearing rooms and was jointly sponsored by Missouri Eagle Forum, Missouri Family Network, Concerned Women for America of Missouri and Families for Home Education.
The program was interspersed with brief appearances from legislators who dropped in throughout the day as time permitted.
Among them was former U.S. Attorney General, U.S. Senator and Missouri Governor John Ashcroft. He told the group, “The genius of America is that the people of America impose their values on government. Government does not impose its values on the people.”
Janet Engelbach, legislative director for Missouri Eagle Forum, coordinated the program and served as its moderator.
Ronny Margason, former president of Missouri Federation of Republican Women and a member of the Electoral College, was the first speaker of the day. She offered several points of advice for visiting legislators in their offices.
She began by reminding the assembled group that “It ain’t what you say, it’s how you say it.” As Christians, she said, “we need to act with kindness and goodness to others. The office is entitled to that respect.”
Margarson said it is important to get a current copy of the bill you want to talk about and to know what you want to say. She advised making a reservation with the legislator’s office ahead of time.
She reminded attendees to be respectful of the assistants who work in the legislators’ offices. “Always have a smile on your face. Thank them for their time,” she told them.
When talking with your senator or representative, she said, have a copy of the bill and highlight the parts that concern you, along with your notations. This can be left with the legislative assistant if you don’t have the opportunity to speak with the legislator directly.
If going with a group, designate someone who is articulate to do the talking rather than having everyone speak.
Margason urged the audience to wear the best that they have and make sure it is in good shape. She cautioned to turn off cell phones and electronic devices.
Bev Ehlen, a Missouri Baptist who serves as state director of Concerned Women for America of Missouri, echoed the relationship theme. “The relationship is the most important thing to have with your legislator,” she said.
“We’re here to represent Christ and His standards and His righteousness. We’re not here to twist arms, but to represent Christ.”
Ehlen encouraged attendees to pray for their legislators, send cards, and encourage them.
She displayed what she takes with her to each legislator’s office – a colorful folder (so it won’t get lost among all the others), a copy of the proposed legislation, a highlighter, background information, and a card for notes.
Mary Jo Fahrni, legislative assistant for Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, and a member of Ballwin Baptist Church, advised the group on how to prepare for a visit and gave some insight into the work schedule of legislators.
“State your topic. Be succinct. Have a statement in writing,” she said, explaining that legislators deal with so many people and topics that it’s hard to keep them all straight. “Present your facts in a positive manner.”
Fahrni said legislators’ time is limited with every individual and on most topics. They work 18-hour days, and their schedules change constantly. She suggested to be prepared to leave a message.
One final piece of advice she offered was, “Look at the person you are speaking to. If you don’t, it discredits you.”
Kerry Messer, president of Missouri Family Network and a member of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Board, also hammered home the relationship theme.
“The reason conservatives don’t get along with legislators is because we don’t take the time to become friends,” he said. He suggested inviting your local legislator to dinner and to planned events in the community so that you are not a stranger when you approach him or her about a bill.
When you go into an office where the senator’s or representative’s viewpoint is different from your own, he said, don’t go as an expert on the subject or that person will write you off. Instead, project that you are willing to work out a solution on the conflict.
Messer said that citizens should get to know the members of committees handling the bills they are interested in. If they are planning to attend a hearing, he advised individuals to assemble a folder of information and take it along to help acclimate themselves to the proceedings. This would consist of committee members’ pictures, biographies, and the bills they’ve introduced in the past, all of which are available on the Internet.
Messer reiterated the philosophy of the other presenters that “I am here as Christ’s ambassador. This is the mission field the Lord has put me in. I’m supposed to be helping that person, even in a disagreement. It really is a ministry.”
A mock hearing was staged to show what to expect if one wants to attend or be a witness at a hearing concerning a bill. At appropriate points throughout the hearing, Engelbach instructed the audience regarding format, procedures, expected audience behavior, and other aspects of hearings.
The group was given guided tours of the House and Senate chambers before the final wrap-up.
Legislators dropping in during the day were: Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville and a member of Laura Street Baptist Church, Maryville; Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis; Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville and House floor leader; Rep. Kenny Jones, R-Clarksburg; Rep. Sue Allen, R-Town and Country; Rep. Ed Emery, R-Lamar and a member of First Baptist Church, Lamar; Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston; Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City; and Rep. Mike Dethrow, R-Alton.
All urged the group to be active in knowing and contacting their legislators through visits, e-mail, calls and letters.
This article is reprinted from the February 3, 2009, issue of The Pathway, the newspaper of the Missouri Baptist Convention.