Indivisible States: Tactics for State Legislative Advocacy

Once you have an overarching strategy to guide your actions, you’ll need to decide what specific tactics to use at each step. The difference between strategy and tactics is that a strategy outlines how you will accomplish your goal, but tactics are the specific actions you will take. You can think of your strategy as the road that leads to your destination, and the tactics you use as the car that you drive on that road — the former guides your progress, and the latter is what actually moves you forward. It’s important to consider what tactics you will use that fit with your strategy. For example, if you want to pass a bill through a committee, you’ll want to use effective tactics that will target the members of that committee — not other legislators who do not have power in that committee. Selecting tactics that align with your strategy is key to achieving your goals.

The more effort you put into your advocacy tactic, the better. When you show up at an office in person with a group, it signals that there is real passion for an issue among constituents. On the flip side, advocacy tactics that don’t take much effort, don’t come from the target legislator’s constituents, and don’t generate attention aren’t impactful. You should feel free to be creative and tailor your tactics to your district and group. It’s important to use a variety of different tactics so that the legislators and the local media keep paying attention.

The original Indivisible Guide laid out some core tactics for influencing your members of Congress (e.g. town halls, local public events, district office visits, coordinated calls). All of these tried and true tactics apply to your state legislators as well. However, as a state legislative advocate, you also have a few other items in your toolbox.

Impacting the Committee Process

In state legislatures, the committee process is extremely important and a time when you can be enormously impactful. If your member is on specific committees of interest to you (or, even more importantly, if your member is the chair of a committee), you can wield enormous influence over the fate of the bills heard in those committees by pressuring your member. Because you have to convince fewer members at the committee level in order to change the outcome of a vote, your activism can go a long way. You can also participate in any committee’s process as a member of the public by:

Submitting Written Letters of Support/opposition to A Committee

A coordinated letter about a bill from a coalition of Indivisible groups across the state to a committee can be powerful. Written testimonies often appear in legislative analyses that are written by committees.

Giving Public Testimony at A Legislative Hearing

Public testimony at a hearing allows you the opportunity to be heard directly by the decision makers who will be voting on a piece of legislation.

Lobbying your legislators

Lobbying is organizing with the intention of influencing a lawmaker’s decision through direct interaction. You can lobby in your home district office (if your state has local district offices) or at the capitol.

District Office Visits

A bread and butter Indivisible tactic that allows you to meet with your legislator’s staff. Not all states have district offices for state legislators, but if yours does, take advantage of this to stage an impromptu town hall meeting by showing up with a small group.

Organizing a Legislative Lobby Day at The State Capitol

A lobby day is a powerful tactic that many organizations utilize to influence the state legislative process. For a lobby day, you gather a group of people to take a trip to the capitol and hold in-person meetings with legislators and/or their staff. This tactic is powerful because you are showing commitment to your cause and meeting lawmakers in person in their place of work.

Town Halls

Another bread and butter Indivisible tactic. The February 2017 recess town halls were the first time Indivisibles were noticed. Who will ever forget Tom Cotton getting confronted by angry constituents?

Local Public Events

Like town halls, these are opportunities to get face time with your legislators and make sure they’re hearing about your concerns, while simultaneously changing the narrative from “Legislator Shows Up at Event” to “Legislator Confronted By Constituents About [Issue] at Event”.

Coordinated Calls

Mass calls to offices doesn’t take as much time as in-person action, but it can have a huge impact at the state level, where staffers are not used to getting a large volume of calls.

A Note About Targeting State Legislators Who Don’t Represent You: DON’T DO IT

There are NO exceptions to this rule. Even if that legislator is in leadership, even if they’re on a relevant committee, and even if they’re making a decision that affects your whole state — state legislators simply do not care about calls and pressure from non-constituents, and calling them anyway will be counterproductive. We know it’s tempting, but it’s important not to do this. Read more here about why you should never call MoCs who aren’t yours.

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Getting Local Media Coverage: Why It’s Essential and How to Get It

State legislators care enormously about maintaining a good image in their hometown media. Every legislator wants to generate positive local press coverage that makes them appear hardworking and responsive to their constituents. They want to appear in-touch, well-liked and competent. They want to get local media coverage of their work on certain policy issues whenever possible — and talk about other issues as little as they can. They want to avoid negative attention that suggests they aren’t listening to their constituents and are facing backlash, which will make it harder for them to get re-elected. Splashy cable TV shows are nice, but local media is where a state legislator’s career lives and dies, and where their legacy matters most. Generating local media coverage forces your legislator and their staff to spend time reckoning with your issues and your stories.

When you can get media coverage of your actions, it increases the impact by orders of magnitude. By reaching out to statehouse reporters at different points in your campaign, and getting your position inserted into their coverage, you can crank up the pressure you’re putting on your lawmakers.

A Note About Statehouse Reporters

Every state government has a small community of reporters who cover it. These are different than reporters that cover federal issues; it may even be easier to get the attention of state/local reporters. But statehouse reporters are some of the most overworked and under-resourced reporters in journalism. They normally work for print publications and their jobs are always on the chopping block when budget cuts come. They often cover all of the branches of state governments with no help, and normally only have capacity to cover the biggest stories. This means you need to make their job as easy as possible if you want to get coverage.

Remember that reporters want to hear from you. Working with media can seem like a black box if you haven’t done it before. Remember: It’s somebody’s job to tell the story of the bill you are working on or the policy you’re trying to change. It’s their job to keep track of developments, talk to experts and activists, and write interesting stories that can help illustrate why it matters. You’re helping them do their job.

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Here are some tips for getting local media for your actions:

  • Build a media list. When you get started on your campaign, Google around and read the recent news stories about your state government or your issue. You’ll find a lot of the same reporters’ names come up over and over again. Start gathering a list of those names, and look for their email addresses as you go. That’s your new “media list”!

  • Record everything. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: if it wasn’t recorded, it didn’t happen. Take photos of your group visiting legislators’ offices and post them on social media. Take lots of photos and videos of big events you have, and send them to the media after the event if they aren’t able to make it.

  • Make the reporter’s job as easy as possible. Because statehouse reporters are so under-resourced, you need to make it easy AND interesting for them to report on your story. Package everything for them — basically write their story for them. Give them quotes, photos, videos, statements, contact information of other people to call, and pre-packaged stories of how the issue affects real constituents (whom they can then interview) — then boil that down to the snappiest, shortest pitch you can.

  • Assign a press point person from your group. If possible, assign one or two people to be in charge of your communication with the media. This ensures that reporters know who to go to when they need something.

  • You can learn more about tips and tricks for getting media coverage here.

You also have some specific media tactics that you can use to bring awareness to your state legislative campaign:

  • Letters to the editor: letters to the editor in your local newspaper that mention your legislator by name are a great way to get their attention. State legislators and their staff regularly review press clips that mention them, including letters to the editor — meaning that your advocacy will get noticed and discussed in the office.

  • Op-Eds: the op-ed section of a local newspaper is some of the most valuable real estate in media. State legislators regularly use local op-ed pages to craft their own narrative, shape public opinion, and showcase their leadership. By writing your own op-eds in local papers, you can be a part of telling that story, too. Whether you support or oppose your state legislator, getting into the op-ed space is a great way to hold them accountable.

Run for Local Office Yourself!

Around the country, we've seen Indivisible leaders and members use their new-found organizing skills to run for office. Sometimes, when your representative — no matter their political party — won't listen to you, the best thing to do is run for office yourself! Over the last two years, we've been inspired to see local Indivisibles raising their hands to run for office at every level of government: county boards, city councils, state house and senate, and even the U.S. Congress.

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Indivisible States: Empowering States to Resist the Trump Agenda by Indivisible Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.