Arlington resident Miriam Stein still remembers the day her boss at the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition, pushing for a clothing allowance for kids on welfare, told her to call 17 State House legislators.
“I wasn’t about to tell her that I had never phoned a lawmaker, spoken to one, or even seen one up close,” Stein writes. “That morning, as I dialed the first legislator’s number, the palm of my hand that cradled the phone was getting damp. ‘Please, please let him be out of the office,’ I pleaded silently.”
Many people are afraid to approach lawmakers, Stein explains in her book “Make Your Voice Matter With Lawmakers: No Experience Necessary,” published in 2011 by Another Look Publications. They think politicians are too busy to listen or more interested in those who are wealthy, powerful and educated, Stein said. They assume a lawmaker might listen to a large group, but not to one person who doesn’t know what to say or how to say it.
But after years of social work and talking to legislators, Stein has gotten over her fear of the State House — and anyone can do the same, she said.
It’s important to remember lawmakers don’t know everything and they’re often too busy to do in-depth research, Stein said. Thorough presentations and concrete plans give a legislator more to work with than a half-baked proposal.
Recognize the factors that influence lawmakers, Stein advised, including constituents, legislative leaders, advocacy groups, financial contributors, the media, even family and friends. Ask for something the lawmaker can realistically give and show you understand they’re conflicted, Stein said. Consider making a campaign contribution, she added — even $25 gets you noticed.
Also, remember legislators have different personalities and motivations, said Stein. One lawmaker in “Make Your Voice Matter” was inspired to support the Head Start program after a visit from preschool kids who begged to sit on his lap, but another cut off Stein’s tale about a poor woman who could benefit from a job training class and asked for statistics.
Get to know how your legislators think and accommodate them, Stein advised. Find out what they care about and make your case in a way they can appreciate.
Stein also encourages building positive relationships with legislative aides, forming groups of like-minded people in your district, and bringing representatives from relevant groups when you approach your lawmaker.
State Rep. Sean Garballey, D-Arlington, who represents the 23rd Middlesex District, said he’s constantly in touch with many of his constituents.
“Certainly whenever a constituent contacts me personally through email, a letter or a phone call, I take it extremely seriously and try to learn about the issue,” Garballey said. “I try to develop a positive relationship with the constituent and work on the issue. I think it’s extremely valuable and important.”
Making an impact
It’s hard to get your program funded when everyone else is looking for money, Stein said, and it takes a lot of time and effort to get a law considered. Sometimes your legislators can’t or won’t support you.
“I bought my 9-year-old daughter roller skates today. They cost $20,” Stein wrote after a frustrating day early in her social work career. “Two miles away children eat cereal for dinner. It’s all their family can afford.”
But while you can volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, comfort and counsel families and write all the poetry you want, Stein said, nothing creates widespread change like the law.
“It’s all we’ve got,” Stein said. “It’s the only game in town.”
Garballey said he works to be accessible even to people who are not used to speaking with legislators and encouraged people to contact him.
“I absolutely love hearing from the people I represent. I love talking to them, hearing their opinions and building partnerships with them to make Arlington, Medford and the whole Commonwealth a better place to live for all of us,” Garballey said. “The only way I can accomplish my goals is to build a strong partnership with the people I represent.”
After the annual clothing allowance for welfare children was approved, Stein remembers, she called the office of a legislator who had voted for the allowance. He was still on the floor, but she gave her message to his aide: Thank you.
“The aide was so grateful. He said, ‘You’re the only person who called,’” Stein said.
Just as citizens want help solving their problems, Stein said, legislators are eager to hear they have helped.
“We’re all in this together,” Stein said.