The 2013 session runs
from Jan 9 - Feb 22.
Making Your Voice Heard
If all you want to do is comment or vent, it's easy to tweet, fire off an email or write a letter to your local newspaper. But if you are passionate enough to work for change or to elevate an issue out of legislative obscurity, there are ways to do this without making it a full-time job.
As an outsider, the General Assembly can seem like an impentrable fortress. How do you get your voice heard?
Actually, the General Assembly is far more accessible than Congress. It's not unheard of to stop unannounced at your Delegate or Senator's office and get a few minutes of his or her time. While it's true that the legislative session is extremely hectic and that lawmakers are outnumbered 5:1 by professional lobbyists, a constitutent has a special power – the right to vote. So it's best to start with your own representatives; you have two of them, one in the House of Delegates and one in the Senate.
Identify your legislators (at state.va.us)
Caveat: Your Super Power works only if you are a registered voter. If you have not gotten around to registering (shame on you), don't try to fake it. Some legislators know far more about you than you know about them. Some will have voter files that will not only indicate you are registered to vote but how often you vote.
If you don't know your legislator, find someone who does. A legislator is more likely to respond favorably with an introduction from someone they know.
Do some basic research, and you may discover you have some connection to your legislators. Where did they born? Where did they go to college? What do they do professionally? Who are their biggest campaign donors?
It can take a surpringly few number of letters from constituents – as opposed to mass-produced communications churned out by interest groups and phony “grass roots” organizers – to get a legislator's attention.
Legislators are so inundated with email during session. As a result, emails sent to legislators' state-issue email address are usually routed to a legislative aide or intern. Unless you have access to a legislator's personal email, the most most effective form of written communication can be a throwback – a personal, hand-addressed letter sent through the U.S. Postal Service.
Most legislators have two mailing addresses – one used during the General Assembly session and one used the rest of the year.
Mailing Address During Session
- Delegate X, House of Delegates, P.O. Box 406, Richmond, Virginia 23218
- Senator X, Senate of Virginia, P.O. Box 396, Richmond, Virginia 23218
District Mailing Addresses
As a stranger, phoning into a legislator's office at the General Assembly Building often can be a dead end. Members are busy, and each office has several levels of gatekeepers who screen calls:
Secretary: These are part-timers who do not work for the member, but are employees of the House or Senate. They take messages and write letters and keep people away. Avoid the secretary.
Intern: These are college kids who are used to talk or meet with people who are deemed sufficiently unimportant to warrant the time of the Legislative Aide or the member. Avoid the intern.
Legislative Assistant: These are full-time employees of the member who are the ultimate gatekeeper. (They also are know as “legislative aides”) They know the district, handle constituent affairs, often work in the campaign and often trusted advisors. Get to know the Legislative Assistant; he or she is your best friend.
Before you make a cold call, look up the Member and drill down to find the name of his or her Legislative Assistant.
When you dial a Member's office, act like they are expecting your call. Say something like, “Is (Legislative Assistant's first name) there? This is (insert your full name) from (insert a community or neighborhood from the district.)” Say no more. Make it sound like your name and neighborhood speak for itself.
Once you get the Legislative Aide on the phone, you can take it from there. Don't be defensive or rude. Remember, the Legislative Aide is your new best friend.
The most effective way to get things done in the legislature is to join with others who share your particular interest. Start with your neighbors and others in your community. Are there established groups that might be working on the same or similar issues that you could join forces with? Be creative – partners sometimes turn out to be a group that you have very little in common, but on one specific issue you can find common ground.
VPAP maintains a list of groups that are registered to lobby the General Assembly. Search for Coalition Partners
This advice may be too late for this year, but it's always better to contact your legislator several months before the annual General Assembly session begins each January. You are more likely to get an appointment and you will have more time to explain your position or idea. If your representative likes your idea, he or she will need time to submit a bill drafting request before the pre-file deadline in early December.