Guide

Hold Your California State Representatives Accountable

A Practical Guide

Introduction

The Indivisible Guide opened people’s eyes to the importance of engaging our representatives in Washington to demand that they stand up for our values. California StateStrong aims to do the same with our state representatives in Sacramento.

Why do we work on state government, when there is so much work to be done at the federal level? Because implementation of federal policies often falls to the states, and many of the Trump administration’s harmful policies can be countered by state legislation, such as California’s sanctuary state bill that protects undocumented immigrants. Enacting truly progressive policies is a form of resistance that isn’t possible in Washington, because Republicans control all three branches of the federal government.

State legislatures are often the laboratory for leading edge policy change. If we can successfully implement legislation based on progressive ideals at the state level, we provide a model for other state and national legislators to follow our lead. Therefore, focusing grassroots activism on the California state legislature is an effective method to advance the progressive agenda nationally.

At California StateStrong, we’ve learned a few things about how to influence our state legislators. Here’s what we’ve learned, so far! We hope that by sharing what we’ve learned, we’ll help other groups organize more effectively.

Arm yourself with information

Our practices are adapted from the Indivisible Guide:

  1. Find your State Senator and State Assemblymember, their official websites, and their office contact information.
  2. Sign up on your representatives’ websites to receive regular email updates, invitations to local events, and propaganda to understand what they’re saying. Every representative has an e-newsletter.
  3. Find out where your representatives stand on the issues of the day—single payer healthcare, white supremacy, tax cuts for the rich, and so on.
  4. Review their voting history and biggest campaign contributors.
    For the legislation you care about, use the California Legislative Information website to find out how your representative has voted in committee or on the floor. Search for the bill number, and then view the “Votes” tab for the bill.
  5. Set up a Google News Alert—for example for “Senator Bob Smith”—to receive an email whenever your representatives are in the news. Here are instructions for creating a Google Alert.
  6. On Google News, research what local reporters have written about your representatives. Find and follow those reporters on Twitter, and build relationships with them. Before you attend or plan an event, reach out to explain why your group is protesting, and provide them with background materials and a quote. Journalists on deadline appreciate it when you provide easy material for a story.
  7. Learn how the California legislative process works! Check out our handy infographic below.

 

The California Legislative Process Demystified

 

Meet with your representative

[Adapted from the Indivisible Guide.]

Every State Senator and Assembly member has an office in Sacramento and at least one district office. Representatives with large districts may have more than one office in the district they represent. For example, Senator Mike McGuire, who represents the entire northern California coast, has district offices in both San Rafael and Santa Rosa. While representatives spend a fair amount of time in Sacramento, they are often “in district” on Fridays, and there are weeks designated for representatives to work in district.

Call the office and ask to schedule a meeting with your representative. You may be referred to the representative’s scheduler. If so, ask for the scheduler’s office phone number and email address. Be prepared to answer a few questions about your group, such as how many people you expect to attend. Try to muster as many as possible! Be persistent.

Prepare several questions ahead of time. Assign a member of your group to prepare and address each topic. That person should be able to speak about the topic and should know the content and status of any relevant active bills, and your representative’s position on each.

Prepare a brief one- or two-page summary to leave behind. If this is your first meeting, include notes on who you are, what you do, and why the topics you discussed in the meeting are important to you. Include a list of the prepared questions you asked at the meeting.

In the meeting:

  • Share the questioning. Have a few people address topics, rather than one or two group leaders.
  • Take notes. Don’t expect your representative or their staff to do this.
  • Leave behind your prepared summary. Your representative will have a record of how impressive you were!

Ask for a picture. Get a photo of your group with the representative and post it to social media. Tag @CAStateStrong on Twitter!

Ask for another meeting. Meetings should be at least quarterly, but monthly is even better.

Follow-up after the meeting. If the representative promised to get back to you with answers, make sure they do. Draw attention to their lack of answers on social media if they don’t. You have to hold them accountable!

Go to town halls

Town halls are a great way to interact with your representatives. You get to hear their opinions on multiple topics and can ask questions directly to them. The Indivisible Guide has a section on best practices for preparing for, attending and following-up on town halls.

Call your representative at the right time and be specific

Calling your representative is a time-tested way of making your voice heard. In contrast to your experiences calling your federal representative, you’ll rarely get a busy signal and you might find that the person who answers has the time to have a conversation with you rather than just registering your opinion in a database.

It takes only a few constituent calls to get noticed. As few as 100 timely, coordinated calls about a topic can make a difference.

These are some effective call strategies:

  • Be timely. It is most effective to coordinate large numbers of calls for bills at specific timepoints. There are two good times to call a representative about a bill:
    • Right before a vote: One hundred constituent calls trickling in over the course of a month has less impact than the same number of calls in one work day. Whether the vote is in committee or on the Assembly or Senate floor, calling just before a vote gives the impression that you are knowledgeable and watching.
    • Right after a vote: If your rep didn’t do what you wanted, call to let their staff know how disappointed you are that they are not representing your interests.
  • Be specific. Tell your representative exactly how you want them to vote on a specific bill or give them a concrete idea for a piece of new legislation. This gives you leverage to hold them accountable. Don’t make vague requests like “I want the Senator to protect the environment.” If the legislator votes against your wishes, he or she can still claim to have done what you asked. Without a request that is specific to a particular bill, you have no way to follow up.

Here’s what NOT to do:

  • Don’t call for thank yous. State representative offices are somewhat understaffed. That’s why a large number of calls gets noticed really easily. For that same reason, calling to say thank you can be disruptive. Send some love via email or social media instead.
  • Don’t call about a bill that your representative is not voting on soon. There are plenty of bills in the state legislature that are important, and you might feel tempted to call your representative to give your opinion on a bill that’s not yet up for consideration. However, many bills die due to the various deadlines in the legislative calendar. If you tell your representative you care about a bill that’s three months out, they won’t remember. We all only have so much time to dedicate to activism, so make sure your actions have the most impact. For greatest impact, call about bills just before or just after a vote.
  • Don’t ask your representative to support a bill they are already sponsoring. Before you call your representative, do 30 seconds of research. Look up the bill on the California legislature website and check the authors. You don’t want to call and demand that they support a bill that that they wrote!

We have compiled all the information you need to make these strategically effective calls! Go to our home page and enter your address. You’ll get information about your representatives’ contact information and call scripts for their forthcoming votes. Sign up for our mailing list to get notified of timely actions you can take!

Engage your representative on social media

It’s 2017 and most of the world is on social media. While this can be overwhelming sometimes, we activists can use it to our advantage. Almost all California state legislators have Twitter and Facebook accounts. Find your representatives’ social media accounts by entering your address on our home page.

Since there is so little citizen engagement with Sacramento, your state representative probably doesn’t have many followers and might actually pay attention to their Twitter account. We have gotten into full-blown Twitter conversations and arguments with our representatives!

It’s true that online action isn’t as effective as showing up for a meeting or town hall or making a phone call, but it’s a public way to get your representative’s attention. Representatives hate widespread negative publicity. At the least, posting sends the message that you are watching!

After calling their office, tweet at your representative, and encourage friends to do the same. Start a hashtag. Tag reporters from your local newspaper.

Remember to tag @CAStateStrong on Twitter so we can amplify you!

Conclusion

We hope that you can use some of the strategies here to lobby your representatives in Sacramento. We’ve learned a great deal about the legislative process and we know it can be really confusing! We are happy to answer any questions and to help you implement these strategies in your home district. Reach out to us on Twitter at @CAStateStrong or email us at contact@ca.state-strong.org.

A Partner of  Indivisible