Advocating Like A Boss

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Since 2016, we have seen a renaissance in local activism. I myself ran for office, having no previous political aspirations but concerned for the well-being of my friends and neighbors and looking for a way to give back.

As I knocked on doors through the 2018 campaign, I talked to so many constituents who wanted to know more about local government but were embarrassed to admit they didn’t have a firm grasp on the legislative process, and worse yet, they assumed everyone else did. As an artist and arts educator by trade, I was thrilled when I could offer a bit of education on the doorstep to make politics not only accessible but also fun.

Then, last year, I was the subject of false information on social media. Thankfully, a constituent from our district called to ask me about “the meme” (insert foreboding music here), because he didn’t want to take his information from Facebook, but it flagged a larger problem. As a grassroots candidate myself, who rose in the ranks through the work of local advocates with little experience in politics and fragmented knowledge of parliamentary protocols, I would love to make political engagement so exciting that it becomes the new book club. Our community has become more vulnerable to propaganda and misinformation.

“I’m Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock gave a pretty clear explanation of the legislative process, but he left out a few important details, without which, it is easy to fool the average part-time advocate if they don’t know what they’re looking at. It was on a second reader that my meme went out, and if you are scratching your head wondering what a second reader is, you’re not alone.

As you’ve probably gleaned, I’m a big advocate for transparency and education, so to that end, I want to help all our fledgling activists to advocate like a frickin’ boss. Here is everything you wanted to know about the legislative session but were afraid to ask because you thought everyone else knew already.

Readers are not glasses; they are how a bill is entered into the record. Each bill during the session has a first, second and third reader before we vote on it as a body. A first reader is when the bill is read into a chamber and is assigned a committee. We never vote on a first reader. This is the bill as it has come out of drafting and is a procedural read.

Second reader is when the bill has emerged from committee, including any committee amendments, and is read into the chamber. This is generally procedural but is also an opportunity for the body to offer amendments that were not offered in committee. The body must vote on the amendments, generally with a voice vote. For most bills, this is ceremonial and if the amendment is identified as a “friendly amendment” – the amendment is in support of the spirit of the bill as it emerged from the committee – the floor leader will accept the amendment.

However, it can also be a moment of political theater. When amendments are introduced and debated that contradict the intention of the bill, representatives can then request a roll call, where we formally vote on the amendment, and our vote becomes part of the public record. This is when it is important to understand the process, because this can be used as a way to create a false narrative about a legislator’s priorities or about the bill on which we are voting. This is also your opportunity to look like a seasoned legislator, when you can spot substance from propaganda.

Once the debate is over, the bill will be drafted as it emerged from the second reader for third reader – the bill as it emerged from that floor session with any amendments that passed. This is now a bill we will vote on as a body. Until this moment, the bill is still being worked and can be amended.

Third reader is the final vote, the big show, the floor session you want to witness. Emotions can run high and rhetoric can run long. It is also the moment when your representative is making the final decision for your district, when you can thank them for supporting your view or hold them accountable if they did not. Third reader is the vote that counts, when legislators will go on the public record, on the board and into the annals of history – for now.

Who can come? Anyone. We are here for you, and our process is open. Anyone can come to a committee hearing or stream online. Anyone can attend a floor session if space is available. Anyone can testify on a bill, or contact their legislator regarding a concern they have.

Here a few shortcuts to advocating effectively.

  • Know your representatives and contact them, all of them. Even if you think you know how they will vote. As you all (probably) know, I represent what is called a split district. In other words, in District 33 you have Democrats and Republicans representing you, but we collectively represent all of you. We need to hear from our constituents to know the pulse of our community. If an issue is personal to you, we want to hear from you, even if we don’t agree, because there might be a meeting in the middle we haven’t explored. More importantly, if we are at odds, we should be able to identify why. Most importantly, we are not allowed to blanket-mail our constituency, so we need to hear from you to keep you updated on the progress of a bill or project.
  • Know the purview of your representatives. We can’t address federal issues. A letter writing, email or phone campaign to our office regarding a federal issue isn’t worth your time.
  • If you aren’t sure, ask. I hear people say they don’t want to bother me because they know I’m busy, but I’m busy working for you. Our office is a resource center, so if we can’t help, we’ll try to find out who can.
  • Know the committees. If you have a particular bill you are passionately for or against, you can contact the committee members before the hearing and/or testify on the bill. Nothing makes it to the floor without being heavily vetted by the committee. We will not even see the final language of the bill until it leaves the committee, which is why you will often find representatives who support the spirit of a bill but don’t want to commit until they see the language. When we say this, it isn’t lip service. Sometimes good ideas can have unintended consequences. It is the job of the committee to anticipate those and push out the best product.

Of course, that’s not the full story. That is just the first step before the bill crosses over to the other chamber and the process begins all over again. But, that’s a story for another day.

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