Former state legislator Jenn Coffey has suggestions for how to effectively get your position across to lawmakers on all levels
By Hon. Jenn Coffey
Do you feel like your elected officials are out of your reach? Remember, they are elected by you and your fellow citizens to represent you. As a former legislator, I can tell you that your officials do want to hear from you and know about your concerns. During the four years I served, I paid more attention to people from my district who made the effort to contact me, than any other voices I heard.
But there are good ways and less effective ways to communicate with your legislators. I paid close attention to the people who took time to send me an e-mail message, call me or write to me. I didn’t pay as much attention to what we called “form letters” – information written by others and just duplicated without any personal communication.
Use your own words and stories to paint a visual picture for them. For example, I am a firefighter and I have had to use my rescue knife more than once to save a life. Current technology makes my tools safer for me to carry and use, reducing the risk of injury to myself or a person in need. But restrictions on my tools makes it hard to buy the best, so I have to settle for what is available – and that is not always the safest or most effective tool available. Telling my story makes me more real to the legislator or staff member reading my communication.
Elected officials are just like you and I, and they care about what is on the minds of the people they represent. We may hear about situations when out-of-state money comes in and seemly takes over, and that can be difficult and hard to overcome as an individual. But when a number of constituents – you, your friends, family and neighbors – contact a representative with similar messages, they hold great value.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say my state is proposing a bill to lift restrictions on tools — our knives. As an EMT, I can approach the topic to them by explaining how this benefits me in my profession. Maybe you are a firefighter or a carpenter. Or perhaps for you it is a hobby, like mountain climbing or boating, that makes it important for you to use knives as tools. So many different people use tools every day just to work. Helping your representative understand that is simply having that conversation with them.
Remember, they are not “above you,” and you do possess something that most elected officials care about: your vote. Most want to be re-elected. Many have lost their seats simply for being unavailable.
- Attend events they are going to, and just simply meet them and thank them for their service.
- Be respectful and honest in your communication and be to the point. You have the first 30 seconds to gain their attention, so don’t be “long winded.”
- Talk about your job, hobby, or sport in which you use your tools for and why lifting a ban or creating one will have a personal effect on you.
- Use the most convenient way for you to contact your representative. You can write them a letter if you have enough time before a vote, send them an e-mail, call or contact their office and ask for an appointment.
- Sign your name, include contact information with at least the town and district you live in.
- Make sure you know the bill number and title to include in your conversation or correspondence. Legislators have a lot of bills to look at and you need to clearly tell them which one you are reaching out to them about.
- Talk to local police and gain support. Remind them and officials that there are already laws on the books to deal with criminals, as any object used to harm or kill a person is deemed a “deadly weapon.”
- Follow them around or send them daily messages. You will not only lose their attention but become thought of as someone who is overzealous in his or her appeals.
- Do not threaten them with your vote. A sure fire way to get someone to stop listening to you is to threaten them.
- Don’t demand, ask! Just like Grandma used to say, “You catch more flies with honey then vinegar.”
- Don’t copy what someone else sends and just e-mail that out. Several times I saw the same subject line, with the same return address, sent to me hundreds of times. I might have looked at the first one, but the rest didn’t get my attention. If it is not personal to you, it is not personal to the elected official.
- Don’t make up stories — there are plenty of real life examples to use. If you see a news story then reference that, as that information can be verified. The “what if” or make believe stories cannot.
- Refer to knives as weapons. They are tools in the law-abiding hand.
Be honest and respectful. Talk to them as if you were having a cup a coffee with them, and they will appreciate your honestly and perspective. Avoid using negative tones or implications. As I mentioned above, don’t threaten them with your vote. Simply state something like, “Hi, I am one of your constituents. I work as a carpenter, and I have a concern I would like to talk with you about,” and then state your issue in the same way you would to anyone else.
If the issue you are raising is not being voted on right away (maybe it is weeks or months away), there is nothing wrong with a follow-up phone call, e-mail or letter to simply ask how they plan to vote. It lets them know you are paying attention to how they vote.
Share these tips with your like-minded friends and family members so they can effectively communicate with their legislators, too. “We are the People” and our voice matters. The more voices there are, the more attention there is to the issue. When people talk to those elected to represent them, it has a profound effect on getting their attention.
ABOUT JENN COFFEY
The Honorable Jenn Coffey has served in her state legislature, is a past winner of the Blade Magazine Publisher’s Award, is a published author and a volunteer EMT. Coffey is a respected member of The American Knife and Tool Institute and has taken on our cause as her own, and volunteers countless hours to ensure our right to create, own, trade and sell our tools is protected from over regulation. For more information about Coffey, visit her website at jenncoffey.com.