I attended a very informative State and Local Legislature 101 meeting hosted by the Women’s Democratic Alliance of Howard County last week. Many of us attending this meeting are new to or renewing our activism following an extended absence from the political scene. We heard from three women who are or have been very involved in the state and/or local legislative process. I had several energizing take aways from the night.
First and foremost, the state legislature is more accessible than most people think. Contacting and/or scheduling meetings with our representatives, as well as attending the open committee meetings are apparently relatively easily accomplished with a phone call or a trip to Annapolis. I personally find the drive to Annapolis a bit tedious and at times treacherous due to traffic, and parking and getting around Annapolis proper is tricky at best. But, those “barriers” to my involvement are clearly self-imposed and need to be discarded. I can and do go to Annapolis for work, so I can and will make the effort to go to the State House.
According to Executive Director of Community Mediation Maryland Lorig Charkoudian, there are an enormous number of bills competing for attention during each legislative session, which makes grass roots lobbying critical in getting bills you favor sponsored, then out of committee and on to a vote. She noted that the key to successful efforts can lie in getting people to pay attention to the bill you are fighting for and educating them as to why it is important for them. She believes that meeting one on one with your delegate or senator is important, but it is also essential to try to meet with the delegates and senators who most closely align with what you are trying to accomplish. Activists need to be prepared to stay engaged for the long haul.
At the local level, former Howard County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, spoke about the relatively quick 35 day cycle for bills. Ideas for legislation identified by local citizens must be sponsored by the county executive or a county council member to be filed. She stressed the value of contacting every council member not just your own in weighing in on a bill, as well as giving written or in person testimony at public hearings. She also noted that unlike the 90 day session of the state legislature, the county council is a 24/7 for 12 months a year position. Much if not all of the work done by the county council, public hearings and work sessions, is shown on television and on line.
Maureen Evans Arthur, who works with State Delegate Shelly Hettleman, knows from firsthand experience that the delegates are very responsive to their constituents. She also encouraged attendees to visit Annapolis during the 90-day session and sit in on committee meetings or meet with our delegates. She recommended that those with smart phones download the Maryland Government App (MDGov), which has a lot of information, including the names and numbers of delegates and senators.
The panel question and answer period highlighted the numerous ways constituents can stay in touch with their representatives, including calling by phone, meeting in person, attending forums, participating in post card campaigns, sending letters via the U.S. Postal Service or by facsimile. Yes, they get faxes at the state level! Ms. Watson noted that elected officials are on Twitter checking public reaction to legislation, too. The letters to the editor/opinion posts in newspapers are also on the delegates and senators radar. There are many ways an interested and engaged electorate can influence the bills introduced and the laws enacted at the state and local level. We also learned that the summer is a good time to reach out to state legislators, according to Ms. Charkoudian.
I am very energized to get involved in the process to a greater degree than ever in an effort to help the non-profit I am working with get legislation passed. We waded into the waters of this process at the state level without the benefit of prior experience. Learning about the potential impact of working from a number of different angles and gaining perspective on the time and energy it takes even to get a bill sponsored, has reignited my desire to try again.