Observations of a Citizen Lobbyist

Wallace Winter, former board member of PCG and retired supervisory lawyer with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago (LAF), writes about his recent experience at the Environment Lobby Day on May 2, 2013.

“Springfield is a big schlep,” I thought to myself initially when Lindsey Hammond, PCG/CRS’s Policy and Advocacy Associate, called to ask if I was interested in joining PCG/CRS and a handful of citizen lobbyists to catch the 7 a.m. Amtrak to Springfield on May 2. The purpose: to spend the day with nine other environmental groups and citizen lobbyists to persuade state reps and senators to support three “green” bills relating to the environment. The most important of these bills in my opinion was HB 2615 which would impose the strictest regulatory safeguards in the country on the underground extraction of natural gas known as fracking. Currently there are no regulations.

Clever Lindsey knew I had responded to a similar summons 16 months ago to join PCG’s citizen lobby effort in Springfield to support an increase in Illinois’ measly minimum wage. She also knew my strong feeling that people of faith—all faiths— should be concerned about reducing our addiction to fossil fuels and exercising stewardship over our planet before it’s too late. So I said yes to the persuasive Lindsey and was glad I did.

I am writing this short piece to make a pitch that everyone who believes in democracy should at least once in their lifetime (and preferably more than once) journey to Springfield with PCG/CRS and observe first-hand how a well-briefed ordinary citizen can gain access to his or her elected reps and maybe even have a marginal effect on how they vote on a measure that is important for the common good (and the planet). Citizen lobbying is both good for the soul and fun, especially with the high-spirited, young (almost everyone’s young to a 70 year old), bright and energetic experts from PCG/CRS and other coalition members who helped prepare us on both substance and technique.

We all know that it’s hard to compete with the legions of well-funded special interest lobbyists in Springfield and Washington, but the dedicated small group of public interest lobbyists, including PCG/CRS’s Laura Dean Friedrich and Lindsey, do a remarkably good job. But they also need help from us—citizens, constituents, unpaid advocates—to educate and tweak the conscience of our elected reps.

During the three and a half hour Amtrak ride to Springfield we role played how we would present our brief presentations to the legislators if we were fortunate enough to find them. Lindsey emphasized that 30 seconds might be all we get so being tongue-tied is not an option. One of our handouts stressed the value of being able to provide a brief personal narrative to provide a context for supporting a particular measure. Among the group of citizen lobbyists recruited by Lindsey were two University of Chicago graduate students in the Divinity School, Maggie Potthoff and Elijah Zehyoue. We all agreed that Elijah, a native of Baton Rouge who had spent a summer interviewing numerous Louisiana residents whose lives had been drastically affected by the BP spill, was well positioned to use that experience to explain his support of HB 2615 which is designed with safeguards to prevent major environmental disasters from fracking.

Thanks to Lindsey and the Lobby Day quarterback, Jen Walling from the Illinois Environmental Council, I was able to arrange face–to-face meetings to discuss all three proposed bills with my state representative, Sam Yingling (D-Hainesville) and my senator, Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake). In addition to HB 2615, we were supporting SB 1042 which would restore limited immunity from liability to property owners who opened their land to the public, and SB 103, a technical but important measure which would facilitate the implementation of Illinois’ renewable portfolio standard (RPS) which requires 25 percent of the state’s power to come from clean sources by 2025. Both Representative Yingling and Senator Bush were inclined to support all three measures and appeared to have done their homework to know why they were important measures. I was impressed and glad I had helped get them elected.

On the way home on the train that evening we exchanged war stories and tried to make sense of what we had learned from our experience and how we might do certain things differently the next time. As the day had progressed, virtually all activity in the Capitol was focused on the impassioned House debate and vote on the pension reform bill. The bill narrowly passed, and I would like to think that after the dust settles from the pension reform debate, the messages and exhortations delivered by our intrepid band of public interest lobbyists will be remembered. We’ll see.

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