Rep. Cheri Bustos' Blueprint for Fostering Constituent Conversations

October 17, 2017

Before entering politics, Rep. Cheri Bustos was a journalist. In order to meet and hear from her constituents, Bustos used the skills she learned as a reporter to create a three step blueprint for getting the pulse of her constituents. With the information she gathers from her three-step process, the congresswoman is able to set her legislative priorities.

“When you’re a journalist, basically your job is to ask good questions and weave all those questions together, but just sit back and listen,” Bustos said. “In my short time in Washington, I would say that not everybody who is in elected office really practices that.”

Here is Bustos’ three-pronged approach to building relationships with constituents in her district:

1. Supermarket Saturdays

Every Saturday, Bustos returns to her home district and stops by a supermarket with the goal of meeting the people she represents.

“We just stop by a grocery store, and it is a totally unscripted conversation that I have with people as I walk up and down the aisles,” Bustos told Quorum. “I’m not there to do my grocery shopping, I’m there to interact with people.”

Bustos brings a staff member who is present in case any constituents have questions about casework, but otherwise she allows organic conversations to sprout as she wanders the aisles.

“I typically just start out those conversations by introducing myself, I say I’m Cheri Bustos and I serve this region in Congress, and I’m going to be flying back out to Congress on Monday and I just wanted to know what’s on your mind, what do you want me to know before I head back out there,” the congresswoman said.

While traditional constituent interaction involves events like town halls, Bustos prefers the Supermarket Saturday method as it allows her to have one-on-one conversations. Too often, according to Bustos, people who ask questions or make comments at town halls play up their emotions for the crowd or the media, but talking to people at the supermarket allows a more organic conversation.

2. Cheri on Shift

“Cheri on Shift” is a job shadowing initiative where Congresswoman Bustos spends time experiencing what it is like to be an employee at different businesses throughout her district.

Bustos values these experiences both because they give insights into the lives and legislative priorities of local businesses, but also gives her another chance to interact with constituents. She makes a priority to get her hands dirty with whatever business she is visiting rather than just sitting around a table with the C-suite.

“The whole idea there is I stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are working hard to make a living. It gives me a great opportunity to speak with them about the struggles that they have in the family.” —Rep. Cheri Bustos

3. Economic Roundtable

Every year, Bustos’ team holds a series of economic roundtables to brainstorm economic policies, with the roundtables culminating in an annual economic summit. Each roundtable brings thought leaders in education, manufacturing, business, and agriculture together to work with city and county officials.

Bustos believes that her focus on jobs and economic issues has allowed her to bridge the partisan gap that exists in her districts which flipped by 18 points from electing President Obama in 2012 to voting for President Trump in 2016. When speaking with Quorum, she noted that a majority of the conversations that are started with constituents around the district involve the economy, so she organizes roundtables to create a formal legislative agenda to tackle these issues that her constituents are most concerned about.

Bustos also uses the economy as a jumping off point because it does not fall so succinctly on partisan lines.

“I think not everything has to be seen through the lens of a political party,” Bustos said. “While I’m pro-choice and always have been, I don’t go into a meeting starting out a conversation with something that in a congressional district like mine is a very divisive issue. I stick to talking about the economy, what we’re doing legislatively and back in our district to fight for people to have a better way of life.”

Bottom Line:

When traveling back and forth between Washington so frequently, Bustos believes there needs to be a significant effort to stay on the same page as those who live in an elected official’s district. Bustos’ district shifted 18 points in the 2016 presidential election, voting for President Obama in 2012 and President Trump in 2016. She credits her personal relationships with constituents, however, as the impetus for her continued success despite her district’s partisan movement. A member of Congress who wants to build stronger bonds with his or her voters should be making a concerted effort to create relationships through personal interaction in his or her district.

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