“If you don’t support my issue, then I will never vote for you,” is about the least effective comment you can make to someone in public office when testifying on an issue.
The first thought that goes through the mind of the politician is something to the effect of, “You probably don’t vote for me anyway — why should I even care?” The second thought that passes through is probably not suitable for a community newspaper.
Threatening not to vote for someone during public testimony is at the top of the “Do not do list” when it comes to public advocacy 101. It is right up there with publicly calling the lawmaker a crook or implying that because someone related to the issue gave them a campaign donation, they are somehow corrupt. While all of this may (or may not) be true, making these statements as part of testimony on any issue will only hurt the cause.
A room full of committed citizens requesting that the legislative body “do the right thing” and backing up that request with solid facts, is intimidating enough on a political level. Harsh and ugly rhetoric is unnecessary and counter-productive.
Conversely, if the policymaker is offered solid facts supported by genuine but reasoned passion and presented by a broad community coalition, they may indeed seek ways to alter their original position.
The best testifier will be someone whom the policy-maker knows and respects, and someone who is active in the community where the policymaker lives, works or recreates.
Think about it for a moment. Who is the person with the absolute most influence on any politician? The answer of course is the husband, wife, children, mother, father, you get it — close friends and family. Next will come the equivalent of neighbors and co-workers, and people who have helped on the campaign or donated money.
If someone who has helped campaign by holding signs or knocking on doors for days on end in the hot blazing sun testifies, you can bet the politician will not only listen politely but will (within their personal integrity parameters) do whatever they can to support that person.
There is a hierarchy of influence with family and close friends at the top. People without any personal relationship at all and bonafide enemies are of course at the bottom. Those that publicly insult the decision maker are normally grouped with the enemies at the bottom.
It is human nature to want to help your friends and to be influenced by friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and people who have helped you. It is the way the world works.
A mature policymaker with a strong moral compass will balance this basic nature with the needs of the greater good.
Fortunately, we live in a community small enough where the average citizen can have a personal relationship with their local representatives at the state and county level. Hawaii is still small enough where you can meet your local elected government leader in person, face to face, and talk to him or her about issues that are important to you and your community.
Simply by requesting and participating in a meeting with your councilmember, state representative or state senator will automatically vault you into at least the middle category of the influence hierarchy. One meeting is the start of a personal relationship with your government policy maker.
If you and/or a small group of friends or neighbors request a meeting with your local state or county representative, they will accommodate you. Of this I am absolutely sure.
Follow up your first meeting with other occasional requests to meet and discuss pending issues (while respecting the time limitations of all), and add in an occasional thoughtful letter to the editor. Then, when you next submit testimony (either in person or via email), the decision maker will automatically weight your thoughts and opinion higher than those whom he/she has had no contact or familiarity with.
Get to know your elected officials. You may be surprised to find that they are actually just regular people. And remember, they are elected to serve you.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control during the administration of Gov. Neal Abercrombie. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is the volunteer executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.