Grass roots go to Carson

Nevadans from around the state converge for a day of lobbying

Mary Skau, left, and Ashley Stieb lobby Assemblymember Randy Kirner, a Washoe Republican.

Mary Skau, left, and Ashley Stieb lobby Assemblymember Randy Kirner, a Washoe Republican.

Photo By Carol Cizauskas

Mary Skau felt nervous when she sat down across the desk from her state assemblymember in his office on March 14. But she mustered up the courage she needed to state her case. “I think my voice was a little shaky at first, but I kind of talked myself through it and got more comfortable,” the 23-year-old public affairs intern for Planned Parenthood said.

Skau wanted to tell Randy Kirner, freshman Republican representing Washoe County district 26, why she supports standardizing sexual education across the state. With Nevada owning the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, the recent college grad wants legislation to require better education of her younger peers.

“There are 17 counties,” Skau’s mentor Patty Elzy said of Nevada. “There are 17 [sex ed] curriculums. They’re not consistent. And so what we’re trying to do is to make sure that it’s consistent and that it is medically accurate and age appropriate.” Currently working for Planned Parenthood in Reno as public affairs director, Elzy has plenty of experience lobbying her elected representatives. She’s been involved with Nevada Women’s Lobby since 1999 and currently serves on its advisory committee.

Elzy accompanied Skau and another intern, Ashley Stieb, when they approached their elected representative. The interns put into action the skills they had learned and practiced the previous day in Carson City at Grassroots Lobby Days.

Since 1991, Nevada Women’s Lobby has organized the three-day conference for Nevada citizens to learn how to advocate for their causes to their lawmakers. The organization supports issues of education, health care, child care, and mental health.

More than one hundred people from Washoe, Clark and the rural counties attended this year’s event. The Nevada Legislature welcomes the lobbyists each March of the legislature, which meets every other year. About a committee hearing on domestic violence, state senator Sheila Leslie tweeted, “Yes! The committee is full of Grassroots Lobby Days attendees!” Pamela Russell, co-chair of Nevada Women’s Lobby told that story to illustrate not only the buzz the grassroots advocates generate, but the power of social networking, a prevailing theme at this year’s conference. “Social media connects us,” she said. “It’s instantaneous, it’s broad-based, and we can keep each other informed of what’s going on and respond.”

The importance of collaboration through networking is not new to Nevada Women’s Lobby, though the evolving technology makes it easier. The group has proven its value over the years, arguing that “there’s power in numbers,” according to Russell. “When you get people collaborating across groups and supporting each other [and] working together, you can make a much bigger impact.”

The impact grassroots lobbyists this year hope to make centers on the budget. With Nevada facing a $2.5 billion deficit and many programs facing the chopping block, attendees at this year’s conference were deeply worried. Katherine Souza of Community Chest of Virginia City said she supports Democratic deputy whip Peggy Pierce’s “revenue-generating bill drafts that would make it such that we would not have to be draconian in the cuts that are being proposed.” Souza is a therapist working for the social services agency. She said of cuts being proposed to mental health services, “People could die as a result of some of these cuts. It is that important.”

But why lobby? That was the question Catana Barnes of Reno faced: “I was one of those people that thought lobbying was a bad word. It was nice to know that it’s more of an empowerment.” Attending for Independent Voters of Nevada, Barnes decided to try the conference to learn more about how to advocate for her issues, including women’s and children’s rights, “fixing the budget [and] opening up the primaries” to all voters.

What she learned encompassed more than empowerment through voicing one’s concerns to the legislature and through collaborative networking. In a training session that included role-plays of meeting your lawmaker face-to-face, Barnes learned the importance of “the 20-second elevator speech and being concise, to the point, being polite, and making the ask.” Several grassroots lobbyists reiterated “making the ask” as vital: letting the elected representative know precisely what to support or oppose.

Can just a day or two of lobbying have any substantive and enduring impact on the way lawmakers vote during a four-month-long legislative session? Preceding the ask, lobbyists were taught to build a case with statistics, a personal story, and letting their lawmaker know their addresses. During a panel discussion of four legislators, Clark County Sen. Valerie Wiener said, “When I receive phone calls, correspondence, emails, … it catches my attention more quickly when I see a zip code from my district … and I go, ‘Oh my gosh, I have walked that street.’ ” Wiener, an assistant Democratic floor leader continued, “When legislators hear overwhelmingly from people who are actively engaged … who live in their district … we pay attention to that in a very big way.”

In the same panel discussion, Democratic Assemblymember David Bozien, chief deputy whip from District 24 in Washoe County, urged grassroots advocates to share “those individual stories and the things that you can speak to. Sharing those with those representatives over and over and over again—maybe it will be the … five hundredth story that they hear before they finally say OK.”

On that Monday at the legislature, Planned Parenthood intern Skau, who is planning a two year hitch in the Peace Corps, took all that advice to heart. Speaking to her district’s Assembly representative, she mentioned a close friend of hers and said that statistically, one of the two of them is likely to have a sexually transmitted disease between 23 and 25.

“So I think it’s important for young people to get sexual education so that we can represent our country in things like the Peace Corps and go help other people with our full health and not be sitting there worrying about an STD because we weren’t educated well enough on it before.”

Skau noticed a change in herself during a day and a half learning how to lobby at the grassroots level. Although she describes herself as having grown up in a family that discussed politics at the dinner table, she said she finds it “really demoralizing right now how negative everything is.” But by the mostly women attending Lobby Days, she was inspired “to see these accomplished people and that they’re still out there and still fighting. … It’s really encouraging to me to keep going and know that I can be one of them someday … and make a real impact.”