Lobbyists without moneybags

Citizens go one-on-one with their state legislators on family issues

Sandy Akins of Reno, left, met Kathleen Harney of Henderson when both traveled to the state capital to be volunteer lobbyists.

Sandy Akins of Reno, left, met Kathleen Harney of Henderson when both traveled to the state capital to be volunteer lobbyists.

Photo By David Robert

Barely an hour past sunrise on the first day of daylight savings time, about 200 people filled a conference room in Carson City. Mostly women, they took their places at round tables and chatted among themselves as they waited for the first speaker to begin.

This was the start of Grassroots Lobby Days, three days held by the Nevada Women’s Lobby each year the Nevada Legislature meets in Carson City. The primary purpose of the political training is to teach people how to be citizen lobbyists.

One of the women was Sandy Akins, a retired schoolteacher from Reno who has volunteered in politics since the last presidential election but who hadn’t yet learned the ins and outs of lobbying her state lawmakers.

“I want to learn what’s going on the 120 days our legislature meets, so if there is an issue I want to become involved in, what is the best thing I can do?” she said. “Is it to talk directly with [legislators]? Is it to e-mail them? Is it to fill the room [at a committee hearing]? Government needs to be more open, and we’ve got to start from an internal point of finding out what we can do to make it better.”

The Nevada Women’s Lobby also uses Grassroots Lobby Days in an attempt “to be a voice for those that don’t have a voice,” according to Pam Roberts, co-chair of the statewide organization. “That includes women, children and families. We … are dedicated to equity, non-violence and reproductive choice.”

Roberts agreed that such a mission presents a challenge in Nevada, a state that often places among the lowest in the country in national rankings of quality of life.

For example, recent studies put the state in the top 10 to 15 states in estimated illegal drug use and teen pregnancies. The state ranks second in suicides.

“We heard just yesterday, somebody made the comment that we don’t have enough money in Nevada to meet all the needs of these people, and I disagree with that statement,” Roberts said on the second day of Grassroots Lobby Days. “It’s not that we don’t have enough money. It’s how we spend the money and where we target it.”

She listed the lobby’s two areas of focus this legislative session as “families in poverty and youth at risk.” Some of the issues include full-day kindergarten for public school children and increasing housing opportunities for Nevadans without homes.

The group has held Grassroots Lobby Days every legislative session since 1991. This ninth event drew more than 250 people who registered from Las Vegas to Yerington, the largest number yet.

“It grows every single year,” Byllie Andrews said. She was the chair of Grassroots Lobby Days in 2005 and again this year. “It’s just wonderful to always have new people because the whole purpose of this event is to educate people on how they have a voice in politics and that just any old citizen off the street can come in and have access to their legislators and learn the process and make a difference.”

Not only that—Grassroots Lobby Days can inspire citizens to run for office. That’s the case with Barbara Buckley, who, as a result, became Nevada’s first woman Assembly speaker. She said that she decided to run after attending her first Grassroots Lobby Days. In 1994, Buckley was elected to her first term in the Assembly.

Throughout the three days, Grassroots Lobbyists hear tips and advice on effective lobbying from current legislators.

“Make sure you’re not just talking to your friends,” assemblywoman Debbie Smith of District 30 said. She shared the stage at that talk with three colleagues from the Assembly. “The [legislators] you really need to get to are the people who maybe don’t think like you do. … That one visit or one conversation could make a big difference.”

The participants were told that meeting one-on-one with their representatives can pack a punch—especially if they call ahead, schedule the meeting in the lawmaker’s office, and come prepared.

In fact, the citizen lobbyists were told, it’s how they lobby their legislators that can make all the difference. Individualize the message beyond the mass e-mails that bombard Carson City representatives. Be polite and professional. Listen.

It’s effective, too, to attend the committee hearings that precede the bill vote on the Senate and Assembly floors. Some participants even testify at hearings held during Grassroots Lobby Days.

Above all, many of the new lobbyists tend to find an open access in Carson City that may not exist so readily in Sacramento or Denver.

“We have a citizen legislature,” Jan Gilbert said. The Northern Nevada coordinator for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, she teaches Lobbying 101 to the Grassroots Lobbyists the first day in the Carson City conference room.

“There are no gatekeepers,” she said in an interview. “There are no people blocking your way. In fact, a couple of the young women [attending Grassroots Lobby Days] wanted to meet with Senator Raggio. … They actually rode in the elevator with him, and they told him who they were and that they wanted to talk with him, and he said, ‘Come on in my office.’ I mean, you don’t have that happen in California. You don’t have that kind of access. We have access, and our legislators are truly representatives of the community, and they want to hear from constituents.”

In these days following the Jack Abramoff scandal and amid calls for lobbying reform, it’s easy to forget that American democracy is based on citizen participation. It’s easy to think of lobbying as some kind of four-letter word. But Nevada legislators assured the Grassroots Lobbyists that trying to influence representatives in Carson City is a good thing. In fact, it’s desirable.

“We [legislators] need people to speak out,” Buckley said. “Get involved not only today, but throughout the entire session, whether it’s calls, whether it’s e-mails, whether it’s supporting your legislator for doing the right thing. We appreciate grassroots lobbying more than any other kind of lobbying.”

For Sandy Akins, who came to learn about her legislature, Grassroots Lobby Days showed her the strength of each voice in this state. “It led me to find out what I could do on my own,” she said. “This isn’t something just for a privileged few. This is for citizens of Nevada.”