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March/April 2020

A Step-By-Step Guide on How to Be an Effective Veterans Advocate  in Your State Legislature

Elected officials make important decisions that affect our daily lives. We do not need to be silent spectators as they make these decisions. We can play an active role by communicating our concerns and ideas. It could be argued we have an obligation to express our concerns. If we are to advocate for veterans, we must express our concerns.

Even in these days of rampant cynicism, we can influence the political process by contacting politicians. At the end of the day, our lawmakers work for us. We elect them to protect our rights. If enough of us stand up for what’s right, we can sway votes.

There are many important determinations that must be made in order to work with elected officials. They are:

  • Who are your local representatives?
  • Who among them are members of veterans’ legislative committees?
  • Who controls legislation?
  • Which legislators are veterans themselves?
  • Can you track legislators’ votes on issues?
  • Can you track legislators’ sponsorship or co-sponsorship of legislation?
  • Have you developed a list of media contacts (newsprint, radio, and television)?
  • Can you prepare statements?
  • Are you willing to be seen? 
  • Can you work both sides of the aisle, staying above the fray?    
  • Can you create handouts and information sheets?
  • Do you understand the legislative schedule?

In New Jersey, we have a Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the General Assembly and a Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the Senate. However, not every military or veterans bill goes directly to these committees. Can you track military and veterans’ affairs legislation?

The question has arisen as to how do we as veterans get our elected officials on the side of veterans. There are many methods that can be employed by veterans organizations. This can be a collaborative effort of several organizations to share the costs, logistics, and operations. It is good for public exposure, recruiting and retention efforts, and can convey the idea of veterans working in concert to advance common goals. 

Inviting local legislators to veterans’ events such as Memorial Day, Flag Day, July 4th, National POW/MIA Recognition Day, and Veterans Day is a good way to provide them with exposure to the veteran community. Simply introducing them as being in attendance can work for your chapter or state council.

Inviting elected officials to participate in veterans ceremonies hosted by veterans organizations can provide an opportunity for the officials to work with the veteran community. When inviting them, it may be good to advise them to keep their comments within a reasonable time limit and relevant to the reason for the assembly.

From time to time, veterans coalitions host informational gatherings for veterans where health check-ups, advice on veterans’ benefits, registration into the VA health care system, and other beneficial opportunities are available. This can also provide an opportunity to interact with elected officials.

Hosting an event to discuss legislation and receive updates on legislative matters at both the federal and state levels provides an opportunity for interaction between elected officials and the veteran community. It may pay to also include VA officials from the local Vet Center, community-based outpatient clinic, and VA Medical Center. It should be noted that some controls need to be installed so that the event does not turn into a bitching session about individual service at the local CBOC or VAMC.

Candidates for office can be invited to a large public forum hosted by veterans’ organizations to discuss veterans’ concerns. Each candidate can be allowed a brief opening statement and a brief closing statement. Questions can be prepared and presented in advance to the candidates. It is wise to keep reasonable limits on the length of answers and statements. If several veterans groups sponsor the event, it might pay to have an individual from each group take turn asking questions. Use individuals who are articulate and well-versed on the issues.

Here in New Jersey, the Veterans Executive Legislative Action Council, which is comprised of ten veterans service organizations, holds a meet and greet with members of the New Jersey General Assembly, Senate, and their staffs in Trenton. It is best to pick a day when both chambers are in session. Develop a list of bills, issues, and concerns, then print and distribute that overview in a handout to those who attend. Working together, you can develop common goals and share expenses while conveying a sense of unity on these issues.

Elected officials do not shy away from opportunities for public exposure. It may be something as basic as your organization recognizing a scholarship winner or it may involve county elected officials supporting veterans legislation at the state level.

County Veterans Advisory Boards. With representatives from veterans organizations in communities across the county working in concert much can be accomplished. Here in Atlantic County, New Jersey, where I live, we have achieved goals such as:

  • Establishing an Atlantic County Veterans Service Office
  • Creating an Atlantic County Veterans Medal
  • Expanding qualifications for burial in the Atlantic County Veterans Cemetery
  • Expanding and relocating the VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic
  • Expanding and relocating the South Jersey VA Vet Center
  • Obtaining improved transportation for veterans to the Wilmington VAMC
  • Expanding the Atlantic County Veterans Cemetery    
  • Establishing an Atlantic County Veterans Museum

These efforts have benefited veterans and provided public opportunities for the elected officials who were involved in these programs.

In New Jersey, we have developed a scorecard for the Senate and General Assembly members that tallies votes for military and veterans’ affairs legislation. A point is awarded for yes votes and for sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation that is voted on. Abstentions, not voting, or voting no is also charted. Then a total score is developed for the chambers due to the fact that a different number of bills may be passed in each chamber. Then grades from A+ to F are assigned. Explanatory notes are listed, along with additional information. Scorecards are distributed and posted on the VVA New Jersey State Council website.

When the scorecard was first developed, many state officials were surprised to learn we were tracking their votes and sharing that information. These elected officials are now aware that we are fully engaged in the legislative process.

Some Considerations

When engaging your elected officials, there are several important considerations.

Pick your battles. We have only so much energy and support within our organizations. As much as we would like to take on every battle and win every time, the reality is that there is a limit to what we can achieve. Be thorough, know the legislation, and be able to defend your position.

Know your opposition. This applies to those in elected office, as well as outside interests who may oppose the position you are taking. Don’t get caught in a situation that was unanticipated. The odds don’t always have to be in your favor. However, it helps if you know the strength of those opposed to your position. You only need a majority of votes to prevail.

Know the key players. Sponsors of legislation, committee chairs, and the heads of the chambers all have a great impact on the likelihood of passage of legislation. Learn who these people are, their respective roles on moving legislation, and how to work with them—or in spite of them.

Safeguard your limited capital. Not every bill that is introduced will be enacted into law. Too often a bill is introduced to appease constituents, even though the person introducing the bill knows it will never be heard in committee, much less voted on by the full body. 

Build a consensus. Other veterans organizations may support your position on a piece of legislation. Other agencies that address specific issues can be of great assistance. Let your elected officials and voters see that there is momentum behind your issue.

Be realistic. Not every idea will be seen with the same passion that you have. Not every effort will have the desired outcome. Sometimes a foothold will lead to future developments, and accepting a small victory is better than none at all.

Acquire credibility through efficiency and good common sense. This sounds obvious, but experience has shown that some veterans will pursue every piece of legislation that comes down the highway. Set realistic priorities. Either we work with what can be achieved or we will never achieve a thing. Our reputation reverberates among elected officials who are always looking for a good cause and a good public-exposure opportunity.

Work the media. In supporting good legislation, it is important to involve the media. This can be as much work as developing the legislation, but it is essential and it is surprising how few veterans groups actually work with the media. It may be embarrassing to “toot one’s own horn,” but this is the best way to let elected officials know your veterans organization is a good cause.

Befriend all elected officials. No matter how powerless, junior officeholders have a way of coming up through the ranks, and all elected officials talk to one another. This does not mean you have to agree with their politics. Often, elected officials have ambitions for higher office and may some day be in very powerful positions. It would be best if they remembered that you were kind to them at an earlier time in their political careers.

Help elected officials recognize opportunities to be supportive with letters of support, phone calls, and statements of support. They can’t always help in substantive ways, but most elected officials want to be seen in a positive light. Take advantage of that situation. Give them the chance to participate, even in ways that may, in fact, be meaningless. Every track star started walking with steps that were neither fast nor impressive. Let elected officials know it sure would be great if you could call this person or sign a letter to this effect. We may recognize that sometimes these small acts will achieve next to nothing, but it gives the elected official a chance to participate, and those seeds may yield bigger things later.

Thank elected officials for the smallest things. Elected office does not always allow incumbents the chance to do big things. Thanking them for even the small things, no matter how inconsequential, is a way of making certain they know they are appreciated. When given the opportunity, they may feel inspired to do bigger things. Simple gestures involving a thank-you may pay dividends later for your organization. Don’t pass up an opportunity to score a few points with those who may be able to assist you down the road.

Cultivate staff. You will only rarely be friends with elected officials, but you can be friends with their staff members. Seek out those of like mind, particularly those working for elected officials inclined to be antagonistic to your cause, and make certain they know how much you appreciate their efforts, even (or especially) when they fail. This might sound exploitative, but it needn’t be. It doesn’t hurt to thank them and their bosses for the small things. That works doubly for spouses. Positive contact is positive contact.

Let staff and elected officials know it’s okay if support is not possible and that you’ll still like them. This is building for the future, and is important and effective. For example, there is no harm in asking your representatives for support for legislation you favor, but always let them know it’s okay if they can’t or won’t. Explain that it was something you needed to ask, but that you fully understand their position and that you do not want them to compromise their position.

Recognize that some elected officials will never be supportive and keep an appropriate distance. This is a tough one, because to be too far removed eliminates opportunities for later progress. Better to maintain some distance than to create enemies.

Focus on the issue. There are a lot of problems that must be dealt with by elected officials. Some are huge, like hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation. Some are small but affect everyday life, such as the low quality of your local school, an unsafe street corner in your neighborhood, or library closures. All of these items are important. But remember that as important as we may feel an issue is, our elected officials have many other concerns they must address. In order to be effective, you must focus on the issues at hand.

Show up. Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” This could not be truer than when trying to effect change on an issue. Showing up at public hearings, community meetings, workshops, or social gatherings will do wonders in making headway toward your cause. You get to meet people who share your interests (and possibly form coalitions). Plus, those who might be able to help you, such as elected officials, see you. These types of events are also great opportunities to spread the word about what you are trying to accomplish.

Be persistent. Keep in mind that the status quo is easy and most people, no matter what they say, would rather keep things the way they are. They prefer, or even benefit from, stability rather than change.

Form coalitions. When you work with others in trying to effect change, you gain credibility in the eyes of those you are trying to convince. You could have the best argument in the world, but if you are the only one who is making it, it will be harder for you to be listened to. It is wise to take the time to form coalitions with groups or individuals who share your cause. This will boost the number of people who can help you and also show politicians and voters that there is momentum behind your issue.

Organize. Anytime you can create email lists of those who support your cause, it helps. That way, when there is a crucial vote on an issue, you are able to get the word out quickly to many people. Also, email lists will help keep people up to date on your issue.

Do your homework. Find out all you can about the issue you are trying to work. That means pros and cons of your issue. Do not assume that the other side is just crazy or mean or aloof or stupid. If it were that easy, then the issue would have been dealt with a long time ago. Change can only happen through people. That means it is important to know not just the facts and figures about your cause, but the players as well.

Get political. Oftentimes, the only way to have your cause move forward is to get actively involved in the political system. Work to elect people who agree with your cause. You may even want to encourage someone to run for office. Or run yourself. Sometimes when you can’t change a decision-maker’s mind, you have to change the decision-maker. Getting political also means voting. When you vote, wear your VVA hat or jacket and encourage other members to do the same.

Be respectful. Always be polite when dealing with an elected official. You will never get action by elected officials if you hurl insults at them. This doesn’t mean be a doormat, just make sure you acknowledge their humanity and the tough decisions they have to make. Contrary to popular opinion, most politicians ran for office because they wanted to make the world a better place (at least in their eyes).

Research your elected official’s interests. Get to know the elected officials you are trying to lobby. Save yourself time by knocking on the right doors. For example, if you are interested in increasing the availability of affordable housing for veterans in your city, it would be helpful to know which elected official has experience in that area and will be sympathetic to your cause. That person can then help you strategize.

Be willing to compromise. There may be times you will have to compromise to get what you want. This doesn’t mean you should water down your goal to the point where it is unrecognizable, but it may mean that you will have to negotiate to get something at least close to your original goal. Otherwise, you run the risk of making no headway at all.

Lighten up. It is always helpful to keep a sense of humor when trying to effect change.  Appearing passionate about a topic should not be confused with being angry or bitter. It is often necessary to become angry to become motivated, but keep that anger in check when dealing directly with those you would like to convince of the worthiness of your cause. Oftentimes, people will simply see, or get distracted by, the anger and not the good information you are trying to provide. They generally want to deal with positive activists who have hope and drive, not with negative cynics.

Best Use of Meetings

There are many tools that can be used to get elected officials to support veterans’ issues. Small, individual meetings with elected officials can establish credibility for your group, gauge the officials’ support for or opposition to the issues the group is working on, and get a sense of other issues they are working on. Larger meetings can focus public attention on issues your group is working on and put pressure on elected officials to vote in favor of your positions.

Here are some ideas to get the most out of small individual meetings with elected officials.

As a group, decide on a clear purpose for your meeting with an elected official. You may have more than one objective for the meeting, but these should be clearly stated.

Use your list to discuss with the group the order of the agenda for the meeting and which members of your group should attend.

When meeting with an elected official make sure that most or all of the members of your chapter are actual constituents who live in the district the official represents. Show that you are local. Legislators pay particular attention to constituents. You need to show that your support can help this person get reelected. 

Decide on the best way to contact the official. Sometimes a member or members of your group know the official and will volunteer to make the contact. This is acceptable, but always follow up with a brief, one-page letter confirming the date, time, and place of the meeting and a list of the items you want to talk about. Another way to set up the meeting is to send the letter requesting a meeting first and then have a member of your group contact the official to arrange the time, date, and place.

You can send the official background information for the meeting, but don’t overdo it. Your one-page letter should clearly state the items you wish to talk about and reasons for wanting to talk about them. You may include information about your issues or the group itself, but don’t assume that the official will read attached materials before the meeting.

Make sure that the small group of people you are sending to the meeting meet in advance to go over the order of the agenda and decide who will speak on each item. If you have asked the official to meet with you for a half-hour, make sure that you can cover your agenda in 15-20 minutes. Make sure that you address your most important topics first in case the official is called away to another meeting.

During the meeting be sure to ask lots of questions. Draw the official out if he or she is opposed to your position and ask if the official has information to document his or her position on the issue. Also ask the official if there are any conditions under which he or she could support your position. If the official is in general support of your issues, use the meeting to discuss the best ways to move forward. Conclude the meeting by asking the official what other issues he or she thinks are important and what he or she plans to do about them. Try to end the meeting early if you can, and on time if you can’t. Let the official know in this way that your group is focused on making progress on issues in a business-like way.

Do an after-action report. Compare notes with group members who have met with other officials before deciding what steps to take next. Make sure the small group who met with the official takes a few minutes to talk right after the meeting about how it went and what you learned about the official’s positions. Keep notes on what happened at the meeting. Also talk about how the meeting went in general.

Some groups hold small meetings with individual elected officials on a regular basis, often twice a year. In this way the group maintains public contact with the official on key issues and establishes an ongoing public relationship over time. Never meet unless there is a clear reason, but also look for opportunities to build working public relationships with elected officials through small, face-to-face meetings. For example, it’s a good idea to sit down with state legislators each year well in advance of the legislative session to go over issues you will be working on in the upcoming session and identify key bills the legislator plans to work on as well. These small meetings make it easier to make contact with legislators during the legislative session when schedules are very busy. By laying the general groundwork early, it’s more likely you will be able to get the legislator’s focused attention on your issue when you need it in the middle of a busy legislative session.

Robert McNulty is the Government Affairs chair for the New Jersey State Council.





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