Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: Coffee with Your Senator

My family with Senator McCaskill of Missouri
You might be looking at the title of this blog and thinking, "EASY? Coffee with a senator? Are you kidding me?" I kid you not. Some senators actually lay out clever, friendly traps consisting of coffee and piles of Dunkin' Donuts meant to lure friendly constituents to their offices for photo opportunities. Once you overcome the travel hurdle of actually getting to D.C., it's really not hard to attend one. Anybody from their state is welcome! The question is...what are you going to do once you are there? Can you prepare yourself to turn it into an opportunity to advocate? Yes. Yes you can.

How to schedule a coffee
Senate constituent coffees are often held on Wednesdays or Thursdays. (Maybe because it's easier for them to commit to being there midweek Mondays and Fridays when they might be headed to or from their home state?) When planning a D.C. trip, check the websites of your senators or call their D.C. office and ask if she or he hosts one. If yes, there is probably a sign-up form on the senators' official website. Just fill in your info a few weeks ahead of time and you're all set! They might have cute names. Senator Blunt hosts "Missouri Mornings" and Senator McCaskill hosts "Coffee with Claire." Back when I lived in Illinois, Senators Durbin and Kirk honored the long Illinois tradition of hosting a bi-partisan coffee together where they paid for the treats out of their own pockets and took questions at a podium together before doing a double senator photo...which is just about as rare as a double rainbow!

What will happen at the coffee?
The actual format will vary from senator to senator, but it will usually begin with a check in by staff or interns, loading up on snacks and coffee, and milling about with other constituents before the senator arrives. You'll likely be asked to fill out a form with your name and address, the number of people in your party, and a brief description of what you are wearing. The wardrobe question is because you're about to get a professional photo with your senator and they want to make sure they match up the right photo with the right guest. If you're with another family, fill out a form for each one so you each get your own photo and individual time with the senator. Show up early in case there are front row seats or a table where the senator will sit!

For Senator Blunt, we waited in a room in his suite of offices filled with friendly staffers for 15-20 minutes. This is a great chance to find out which one of them actually handles your issue as D.C. aides tend to be specialists. For instance, if you work on U.S. hunger...find out who the agriculture staffer is who works on the farm bill (and, therefore, nutrition programs) and introduce yourself. If you already speak to staffers about your issues regularly on the phone, find them and make sure they know what you look like. Give staffers any hand-outs of statistics or media that support your cause. When it came time to see the senator, only a few people got to speak to him in this setting. It was done one group at a time strictly as a quick photo op. Blunt did not address the group or formally take any questions.

Senator McCaskill's office guided us to a meeting room with a table in the center and many seats around the outside. It quickly became standing room only, so we were happy to be at the table. As people munched on donuts, a staffer led the room in a few rounds of Missouri trivia before handing the podium over to the senator. McCaskill spoke for about 15 minutes on her most pressing issues and then took questions to hear our most pressing issues.

Senators Durbin and Kirk used to have everyone seated in rows in a large room with a microphone and podium. After every question, they would each take a turn answering. It was genuinely heartening to see them answer on issues they both agreed upon and to see them engage in civil, friendly discourse on issues they did not agree on. Not what you see on cable news. Definitely glad we had front row seats for that one!

While you're waiting, you might have time for photo tomfoolery like this panoramic picture my kids took of me waiting in three places at the same time. Does it triple your effectiveness to clone yourself digitally? I guess not, but it was boring in the waiting room after we talked to all the aides we had business with...

How to prepare for your moment with the senator
The best thing you can do is to think of something to thank your senator for and also come up with a VERY BRIEF question for your senator. If you personally really can't stand their politics, you can always thank them for hosting the coffee. After all, they did put a donut in your hand. That's just polite. 
If your senator does a town hall format, this is an opportunity not only to lobby your senator, but to do it publicly in front of all the other constituents. You get to educate a room full of people on your issue and know that your senator's answer will be witnessed by other voters. The best rules of town hall advocacy still apply here...get your hand up first and highest (so you get to speak before time runs out), write your question down on a piece of paper (so you don't ramble nervously), and have a clear "yes or no" question request at the end. Refer to my Advocacy Made Easy: The Town Hall Meeting blog for more details on tips about how to make this work. Both of my daughters got to ask separate questions to McCaskill - one on global education and the other on climate change. 
If there is no Q&A session, you'll either only have a few brief words with the senator as he or she moves through the room or just the time that you will pose for the staff photographer together. Either way, you've gotta be super fast with your request. You probably will only have time for 2 sentences of exchange while you get posed for your photo. For instance, when we saw Senator Blunt just before the vote on the Affordable Health Care repeal, my moment pretty much went like this: "Hi Senator, thanks so much for having us here today and for all your help with global health funding. We spoke with your staff about health care, but I also wanted to tell you in person that I am very concerned about preserving Medicaid. It helps so many people in Missouri, including low-income moms and kids. We'd really like you to vote no on this health care act repeal." Boom. No time for a huge story while lots of other people were in line waiting, but I got out the important stuff and a very clear request. Then, it was up to him to decide how much time to allocate to an answer.

For our double senator meeting in IL back when the girls were tiny, both senators bent down to my kids like they were going to pinch their cheeks or something. The men were very surprised to have the kids thrust a sheaf of papers at them and say those were pictures and letters from their friends back home all asking them to support vaccines to end polio and other disease. Surprise! Little lobbyists! It was fun, funny, and I think it was the best part of everyone's day. 
After the meeting
The senate staff will either let you have your picture also taken on your own camera/phone or will email the picture to you shortly. Either way, you will have a digital copy of your moment. Post the picture on social media letting your followers know what you talked to the senator about and tag the appropriate organizations. Also, specifically tweet your senator thanking them for the opportunity to meet. After all, they are not required to do this at all and plenty of them do not!

The unexpected!
I'm happy to report that we got a fun surprise from Senator McCaskill this year. After she answered my 6th grader's question, she spoke directly to my girl about the importance of encouraging young women to run for office. She invited her to go over to her office and tell the staff there that the senator said it was ok for my girl to go into the private office and have a picture at the senator's desk. She urged her to get a picture "with your feet up on the desk and just get a feel for it." While my very polite 11-year-old declined to do that pose, we had fun seeing the inside of her beautiful, huge, airy, tasteful office and snapping a few photos. Did McCaskill's ploy work? Maybe! At least it convinced her to go big or go home...she said, "If I did want to run for office, I definitely want to be a senator instead of a representative. Their offices are WAY bigger and nicer!" (She's not wrong...)

Have you ever attended a constituent coffee? 
Tell us what it was like in the comment section!

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