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Local officials explain how citizens can champion legislation

Mark Parker

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Matthew Liao-Troth (left), vice president for academic affairs at SPC, joined panelists Scott Dudley, legislative director for the Florida League of Cities, and Michelle Grimsley, a lobbyist with The Southern Group, on stage during the question-and-answer portion of Wednesday night's event. Screengrab.

With state legislators currently allocating a record-breaking $100 billion budget and considering legislation that affects 22 million people across Florida, the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions invited local officials to explain how citizens can make their voices heard in Tallahassee.

In light of the ongoing 2022 legislative session, St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions (ISPS) hosted a forum Wednesday night on how residents can organize and advocate on issues that impact their lives. Moderated by Susan Demers, dean of public policy and legal studies at SPC, the panel included Sen. Jeff Brandes, Scott Dudley, legislative director for the Florida League of Cities and Michelle Grimsley, a lobbyist with The Southern Group.

Brandes began the discussion by stating that the legislative session is “at a point where most of the bills are dead.” He said out of the remaining pending legislation, his top priority is criminal justice reform, specifically, with the prison education system he called nearly nonexistent. He added there are between 150 and 250 bills left to address, and while most are smaller measures or focused on a specific industry, some are bold ideas that have a massive impact on daily lives.

Sen. Jeff Brandes joined the forum virtually due to the ongoing legislative session.

“We’re at the point of the session, though, where most of the things are not moving,” said Brandes. “So, the point where people are looking to amend bills and try to get one or two final ideas through the process.”

For those interested in advocating for legislation, Grimsley stressed the importance of first thoroughly understanding the issue. She said when citizens speak to legislative staff, they should make specific points to conserve time. It is also helpful to leave a separate list of bullet points.

Grimsley said that as a legislative aid, she made binders for legislators with relevant information on discussion topics. She included the bullet points constituents left behind as a reference point during legislative meetings. She said legislators could meet upwards of 50 people a week, and it is difficult for them to recall every conversation.

“It’s not that they don’t care,” said Grimsley. “It’s just a lot going on. So, having that ‘leave-behind’ is always a really good idea.”

Dudley said that just as real estate centers on locations, politics centers on relationships. He explained the importance of building relationships with members of city council, county commissioners, state politicians and congress members.

Dudley said constituents should interact with their local officials, not just when they need something, but also to congratulate them for a job well done or provide them with a trusted source of information.

“Make sure you never mislead them – at all,” added Dudley. “The best way to make sure you never get another appointment with a decision-maker is to mislead them.”

Dudley said lawmakers are not experts on every topic, an impossible task considering the thousands of bills they encounter every legislative session. They rely on outside sources to provide solid information, and while viewpoints may vary, “it better be right.”

If a legislator makes a good point on an issue, Dudley said, it is beneficial to yield and let them prevail. They may offer something in return, and Dudley said that give and take is key to political negotiations. Most importantly, he said to communicate specifically and respectfully.

“So, you have to play the long game,” he said. “Whether it’s at the local level, the state level or federal level, you don’t want to demonize anybody or make anybody the enemy.

“They’re not the enemy – they just have a different worldview than you, a different approach to it and a different solution.”

Brandes said constituents should advocate according to a lawmaker’s preferences, and advocating for something they are against is usually a fruitless proposition. He agreed with Dudley that building relationships is critical and noted that many legislators hold office for eight years, providing ample time for a citizen to become a trusted source of information.

Brandes explained advocates should explain their broader vision to local legislators. That vision includes explicitly stating the problem at hand and then communicating a strategy.

“My big takeaway from Tallahassee after doing this for a decade is that in Tallahassee, everything is tactical, and not much is strategic,” he said.

“Effective advocacy really is building a relationship, finding your legislative champion and making sure they understand your vision.”

 

 

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