Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA-11) has made it a point to have frequent town halls since his early days as a local official in California. But he’s noticed a shift in the last year—his town halls are more widely attended and host more diverse attendees.
“Obviously a much bigger response since the election in people’s interests and their knowledge,” DeSaulnier said. “You can see [their knowledge] growing about what happens here and what doesn’t happen here.”
Whether it’s town halls in the district or an organized fly-in on Capitol Hill, here are three tips from Rep. DeSaulnier on how to make the most of an interaction with your elected official:
DeSaulnier’s number one tip when coming to a town hall and stepping up to the microphone is to be prepared with a researched question or comment. Specifically, DeSaulnier remembered a time when constituents asked why he didn’t vote against a nominee for the Supreme Court, only to have to explain to them in front of the crowd that the House does not get a vote in confirming Supreme Court justices.
“It’s good that people are engaged but we need them to be further engaged as they go through the process and understand how the process works,” DeSaulnier said. “They are not supposed to have the same level of interest or knowledge that I and my staff have, but to the degree that they have an interest and have done a little research online is helpful.”
While acknowledging that constituents may not be fluent in every policy area, they should do some preliminary research on a member’s stance on an issue and the steps that have been taken before asking a question at a town hall meeting.
When asked about a meeting with constituents that stood out, DeSaulnier immediately remembered a group of community college students from his district who came to his office to discuss the rising costs of textbooks. To make their storytelling effective, they related back to prior California initiatives to make community college more accessible, then described the impact that expensive textbooks has on their bottom line. They included specific costs that they incur, grounding their story in data.
Before a meeting, advocates should prepare their story so they are comfortable delivering the details to the member they are meeting, but not be overly prepared so that they sound inauthentic.
Finally, have a specific ask of the legislator that they can work on after the meeting is over. In the case of the community college meeting, the students who met with the congressman had specific asks of why are the textbooks so expensive, and what can be done about it? They discussed how DeSaulnier could help improve relationships between students and publishers and how he could work with the administrators to resolve conflicts of interests.
If your organization hosts fly-ins, consider what specific asks your advocates can make of the legislator or staffer they are meeting with and prepare them in advance.
Town halls are key for DeSaulnier to maintain a pulse on what his constituents are looking for from their representative, but one of his biggest challenges is melding the issues of the Bay Area with those of the rest of the country.
“Going home always re-energizes me because I get energy from my constituents from the place I live which I think is appropriate,” DeSaulnier said. “But key to coming back here is trying to remember that that energy has to fit in a much larger context in the United States of America.”
In-person interactions with legislators are some of the most effective ways to move the needle on issues your organization cares about. To take advantage of opportunities to meet face-to-face, advocates should be prepared with research on their question, tell an authentic story, and have a specific ask for their legislator.