Just got back from visiting (Republican) Senator Cory Gardner‘s office Denver with some other constituents from Boulder. Some reflections from that meeting.
1. You’re not surprising or upsetting any work going on in the office. Perhaps call ahead to make sure the office is open or to set up an appointment. We walked in and had a meeting within 15 minutes. Your tax dollars pay for staffers to be in these offices to listen to constituents’ concerns. There is a process and space and staff dedicated to this: office staffers won’t be surprised or upset by it. But don’t show up with 50 people with placards and brass instruments (though there are times and spaces for this) if you actually want to talk with someone: go in groups of 4-6.
2. Make sure you go with others. I was nervous and it’s so helpful to have other people there who are nervous or experienced as well. You can talk through a general plan beforehand and then debrief afterward. But most importantly, you’re not in a room 1-on-1 with an someone whose sole expertise is defending and dodging (see point 3). There’s safety in numbers so the staffer is in the minority and is listening most of the time.
3. You’re going to talk to a flack. This is a staffer whose livelihood and aspirations depends on expertly deflecting and dodging issues. They’re going to be much, much, much better at it than anyone you tussle with on social media or your cranky relative over the holidays. You have a day job doing other important things but you’re going up against an aspiring press secretary, policy advisor, or future candidate who is potentially a true believer, but more importantly has been doing this day in and day out for months or years. They almost certainly consume more news and social media than you—because it’s their job. You’re also not going to change their mind: this is a weird and elaborate performance of controlled confrontation for both of you. You’re going to walk out and 15 minutes later think of the perfect retort to the flack’s provocation. You’re also going to get better at this and will be more prepared the next time you go. (See point 6)
4. Prepare your own talking points and stay on script. This flack is going to push buttons or recite stupid talking points. Your fight-or-flight will kick in, but you are not here to win the war in a single meeting with a staffer. They have not only heard all your talking points before but they have counter-points ready to go to. Try to get a step ahead and anticipate their retorts, but see Point 3: they’re going to be much better than you at this. Cite specific facts from authoritative sources wherever possible so you don’t get into he-said-she-said pissing matches. Ask for clarifications on your Rep’s position and actions they intend to take beyond issuing statements. Bring personal stories about how this is affecting you. Bring different kinds of people: veterans, business people, working class people, immigrants, people with pre-existing conditions, etc. whose lived experiences do not make this meeting a bunch of hypotheticals. Maybe bring a small inexpensive item symbolizing something about your concerns to be given to your Rep as a gift so that it can’t be easily filed away like a letter, voicemail, or email.
5. Be polite and start from common ground. Acknowledge any of the good things your Republican congresscritter has done, however minor, as examples of courage. Encourage your rep to show more courage like that. You are engaging in politics so speak in political terms: both with the carrot of high ideals, common values, and lasting legacies but also with the stick of polling, fundraising, and elections. Make sure to thank the staffer who’s really just paying his or her dues and hoping to get tapped to jump up to the real game in D.C. rather than doing this objectively unenviable job. Save your righteous energy for your Saturday protests.
6. Make a plan to go back and bring others. It’s nerve-racking going in but feels really empowering afterward: you went into the lion’s den and came back out. Your Congresscritters and their staffers work for you. Make sure they’re doing the work.