How to “Do Something”
Rather than gritting your teeth at the antics of government, follow this advice from 2 former Texas state representatives on how to have an influence and “do something” useful.
By Ellen H. Brisendine
When you hear the phrase “somebody needs to do something,” what comes to mind? I often hear it on radio or television call-in talk shows from listeners frustrated with the government. So, what can someone do when they want to do more than complain about government? What does “do something” mean?
Two directors of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) are former members of the Texas House of Representatives. It’s fair to say they’ve “done something” and they offer suggestions on some things regular folks can do to influence public policy.
Meet your politician
Dan Gattis, Georgetown, served district 20 from 2002 to 2010, and Bennie Bock, New Braunfels, served then-district 46 from 1973 to 1983. Both agree that the first useful action a citizen can take is to actually meet their elected leader, regardless of the level of office.
Gattis says, “The biggest thing that anybody can do to influence public policy is to get to know those who actually represent you. We need to have a direct communication with them and it’s much easier to do than anybody thinks.”
The easiest to meet are usually the local elected officials. Members of U.S. Congress may be less accessible and state senators and representatives are probably in the middle of the continuum.
Look for opportunities to meet elected leaders. Do you attend the same church? Are you a member of local civic clubs? Are they coming to speak at a club meeting?
Gattis says, “When the club meeting is adjourned, walk up to them, thank them for being there, shake their hand and get their card.”
After the event at which the elected leader spoke, write them a note thanking him or her for the speech. Thank the leader for his or her service and then ask for “5 minutes for coffee the next week. I will tell you,” Gattis says, “There are not many of those people who are going to turn that invitation down.”
Bock agrees, “If you go to church with somebody in office, get to know him or her more. How do you do that? You can call the person and say, ‘I don’t know you well, but I’d like to know about your concerns and how you view some of the things that are happening in the world today and in Texas.’”
Gattis says elected leaders will be likely to accept a short meeting because you vote and “they have to go through an election again. They need people in the community saying they did a good job and they are accessible.”
Keep up the contact
After the short meeting with your elected leader, the next “something” to do is to keep up the contact. Build a relationship, provide support and make yourself a source of information for that elected leader.
Gattis suggests following up the first meeting with a letter thanking him or her for taking the time to meet with you. When the elected leader has a fundraiser, send a donation. Any amount will be appreciated, Gattis says. “I got a lot of $25 and $50 contributions from my local people. They wrote the $25 check because that’s what they could afford. That contribution meant a lot more to me than many of the $1,000 or $5,000 contributions I received because it came from someone who wanted to show their support for me, not necessarily influence me.”
Personal communication with elected leaders is the best method, Gattis and Bock say. Gattis adds, “A letter that you have signed is more influential to me as an elected official” than a form letter or form email.
Stay informed and share your opinion
Another useful “something” regular folks can do is to keep up with issues that are facing the elected leaders.
Pay attention to the news reported by TSCRA, or other associations or credible news sources you trust. When you see a bill making its way through the state legislature, Gattis says, “Pick up the phone and call your representative.”
That leader will take the call because he or she “remembers having coffee with you, and remembers the 2 letters you sent,” he says.
Quickly explain why you are calling, ask the representative’s opinion on the bill and respectfully offer your opinion. “That carries more weight because they are there to represent their local people,” Gattis says.
Bock says the opinions of people back home were vital to his decision-making process. “The thing that I found most effective was if there were any bills that had agricultural component I would send them to ranchers in my district and ask for their comments.”
If the elected official is not seeking input from the constituents, offer input to them. “Ask your elected leader or their staff to please send you those bills and let them know you’d like to have a committee of people interested in agriculture” to provide input, Bock suggests.
He also stresses the importance of providing useful information and not just vague opinion. “You have to have facts and figures to back you up,” he says.
Gattis says, “Every day I was on that floor of the Texas House, I called somebody in my district with whom I had a relationship, to ask them about a bill that was up that day. Reaching out to constituents had the double benefit of furthering the relationships that would help him stay in office, Gattis says, and kept him informed so he could do the job of representing the district.
Be their on-call expert, even if you voted for the other candidate
“Everyone is an expert in something,” Gattis says. “I will repeat that. Everyone is an expert in something.” Let your representative know about your field of interest, or your area of knowledge. Be his or her resource in that area of expertise.
No elected official gets 100 percent of the vote. Can those who voted for the other guy “do something?”
Gattis says yes, they absolutely can provide useful influence. While he won most of his races by a significant majority, there were those who opposed him. “But I still represented them.”
He says he and his opposition voters chose to respectfully disagree on partisan issues, but “on those day-to-day issues that really affect how we live, work and go about our daily lives, most of us are usually together on those. What I as a representative was looking for was how an issue affected my people in my district. I would absolutely listen to them,” and came to rely on the informed opposition for a different perspective on an issue, Gattis explains.
Recruit or run for office
Keep your eye out for community members who would serve the public well and recruit them to run for office. “When you help get somebody elected, when you knock on doors or make phone calls for them, or help put up signs, or put a sign up on your property for them, you develop your relationship with that elected leader,” Gattis says.
If you feel the need to “do something” more, “and you’re left at the end of your rope, you tried to get to know your current representative, you realize they aren’t any good and nobody was willing to run, then you need to look in the mirror and decide whether or not it’s you who should run for office,” he challenges.
“It is about the relationship, pure and simple,” Gattis says. “It doesn’t take that much effort to get to know elected leaders. It really doesn’t. Therefore, it doesn’t take that much effort to influence them.”
Bock says, “There are pretty smart people in public office. We ought to have the fortitude and the enthusiasm to make sure that the people who are elected know what ranching is about and how they can be of benefit to the people in the industry. The way you do that is to try to become a close friend and confidant” to the elected leader. -TC
"Define Do Something" is from the October 2016 issue of The Cattleman magazine.