Becoming a lobbyist for progressive values in the Virginia General Assembly
My first day January 11, 2011
I have never lobbied legislators before and felt rather unsure about whether or not I can make any contribution doing this sort of thing. Basically I thought anything important probably took place out of sight—you know the cigar-smoke-filled-room image of how government “really” works. After a day guided by APV’s Public Policy Director Scott Price, I am ready to change my mind. Lobbying for progressive values can make a difference.
I took a bus to Capitol Square and arrived early about 8:30. Good thing because I tried to start my lobbying at the wrong building. Legislators meet in the Capital Building so that’s the obvious place to lobby—right? Well no. A call to Scott set me straight. About a block toward Broad Street from the Capital Building is an entrance with big letters GENERAL ASSEMBLY BUILDING. I entered by going through a metal detector (didn’t have to take off my shoes), found Scott, and started the orientation—coat room, elevators, rest rooms—all important stuff.
I was immediately struck by how open and accessible the GA Building is. No sign in sheets, finger prints, eye scans, SS numbers, credit cards—nothing. An accessible dress code too—a black or dark blue suit. I was told the building had Wi-Fi throughout and several people carried computers, smart or dumb phones, even cameras. Everyone looked busy and serious but not intimidating.
Most of the GA building’s floors contain GA members’ suites with an exterior window, small interior rooms for staffers and shared receptionists who moderate access. The lower floors contain Senators with House members above them. The 6th floor has a cafeteria. The basement contains public computers to check bills—tracking is computerized and accessible online–and a documents center to get copies. The first floor has committee meeting rooms nicely labeled A B C D with smaller caucus rooms throughout the building. Given how government gets tagged as wasteful and inefficient, I ended up being impressed by the thoroughly modern efficiency projected by this building and by extension what takes place in it.
Scott started showing Lisa Taranto and myself around by introducing us to legislators and staff he either knew or felt would be receptive to APV aims. Basically Scott would start with a receptionist to find out if the person was available. If so we’d be introduced, exchange contact information, Scott would explain APV and then pass the power to Lisa and myself. I’d guess I shook hands with three legislators and 15 staff on my first day. All seemed to be receptive to whatever support APV could give, while admitting that in this 2012 GA session progressives will be in rear-guard mode—more about opposing regressive legislation rather than promoting progressive actions. Vigilance would be needed.
We ended by watching the Senate opening on a large video screen. Again the openness of all this impressed me. We just walked into the room, sat down and watched. From press reports I gather that eventually interactions got testy as Republicans asserted dominance in the 20-20 split Senate, but what we saw was pure Virginia cordiality including jokes about ham with a double entendre about pork on the cash-and-carry honor system luncheon buffet.
These are my first impressions. None of this is meant to minimize what APV needs to do to have an impact: many bills to follow through committees and subcommittees; many terse and focused position papers; spending time to get the word out; and calls to mobilize when needed. I expect that the pace will be fast. I hope my experience encourages more APV members to join the effort to make legislators understand that treading on progressive values will have consequences they cannot ignore.
Ralph R. Sell
Ralph is one of APV’s citizen lobbyist for this year’s General Assembly session in Richmond. We encourage our members to get involved and to attend APV’s Lobby Day, January 24th. Details to come. Contact us at info@APVonline.org