Don’t Be an Armchair Politician

Two-hundred thirty-five years ago our founding fathers built this country on the ideal of democracy. Democracy is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system. Today, the final decisions are made by a majority vote of the elected agents. It is during all the discussions and debates prior to the final vote that advocacy vests the supreme power in the people and gives them the opportunity to help their elected officials understand where they stand. By definition, advocacy is the active support of an idea or cause, especially the act of pleading or arguing for something. 

Let Your Voice Be Heard

We all advocate daily with our children, spouses, co-workers, clients, friends, etc.  Some of us are really good at it and love the challenge. We sit with our family and friends and discuss our opinions about myriad subjects, including the political decisions of the day. We complain when decisions don’t go our way. But how many of us take advocacy to the next level? How many of us contact our elected officials, at any level, to advocate for our beliefs or the beliefs of our friends, profession or association? How many of us even know how to do this or how to be effective? 

Four years ago, I was an armchair politician. I would banter with my friends, family and colleagues, come up with great solutions to the world’s problems and feel good that my contacts saw my point or bad if they thought I was in left field. Either way, nothing would go beyond that point. I aired my concerns, maybe got a little smarter, maybe raised my voice and blood pressure in the process, but I never talked to the people who had the power to vote on my concerns or present a new idea in the form of a bill.

Then I had an epiphany. I had the opportunity to become a BUILD-PAC trustee for the National Association of Home Builders and quickly came to understand the power of one voice and how to use that voice to advocate to lawmakers. One voice can be a singular voice or the combined voices of many people with a singular belief. This voice can be communicated by a single citizen, a group of citizens or a professional lobbyist.

Just to show the impact one belief and one group can have, look at the recent national election and how the Tea Party affected it. BUILD-PAC is NAHB’s political action committee and raises contributions from its members to support the campaigns of lawmakers who are sympathetic to remodelers’ and home builders’ issues and vote favorably on those issues. BUILD-PAC tracks these lawmakers and grades them to see how well they support NAHB’s goals. Then the lawmakers are given contributions accordingly and within the limits permitted by federal law. This past election cycle, 88 percent of the politicians who received NAHB contributions were elected.

Meet with Your Representative

Since becoming a BUILD-PAC trustee, I have had the opportunity to meet with lawmakers face-to-face to discuss issues and, in many cases, build relationships that have opened doors to future visits and conversations. In 2008, I met with then Congressman Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) two weeks before the election in his campaign office as he was working on his laptop in a cramped printer room. He was in a very tight race with Dan Seals and looked like he hadn’t slept in 48 hours, yet he agreed to meet with the BUILD-PAC trustees. We spent 20 minutes talking about his view of the upcoming election, and he listened to our concerns as small business people. 

I’ve also had many meetings with my congressman, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) in various places, including a parade route; his campaign office; his Washington, D.C., office; and, my favorite, the tunnels from his office to the Capitol Building where he was going to cast his vote. It doesn’t matter where the meeting is held or for how long. What matters is that the meeting occurs and your representative goes away with an understanding of your position on an issue that concerns you. 

You don’t have to be a trustee to visit your lawmaker, but it helps to be a constituent. It is very easy for a constituent to make an appointment at his lawmaker’s home office, satellite office, your state capital or in Washington. If you don’t know who your lawmaker is, do an Internet search. If you are a member of NAHB, call the Housing Information Center and ask for advocacy. The contacts there will give you everything you need and materials to help you accomplish your goals. Once you have this information and your list of issues to discuss, call your representative. You won’t believe how easy it is to get an appointment with him or her. 

Unfortunately, you don’t always get to meet the lawmaker. You may meet with one of his or her senior staff; this especially will happen if you don’t have an appointment. Meeting with senior staff still gives you the opportunity to voice your opinion and help to shape your representative’s vote. If this is your first time meeting with a lawmaker and you are a little apprehensive, take a friend or find someone who has experience meeting with politicians and ask him or her to join you.

Of course, face-to-face meetings are not the only way to get results. You also can organize an e-mail campaign, write a letter or visit your representative’s Web site and contact him or her through the “Contact Us” tab.

Remember, lawmakers are no different than you or me. They have families, bills, worries and get dressed every morning and go to work, too. Meet your politician on his ground, be prepared and get to the point. Your representative will respect you for not wasting his or her time. Here’s the best part: The next time you have that political conversation with friends or family, you can walk away with your head high knowing you are part of the solution and not just another armchair politician.