(Ed. Note: Vern Wagner is Minnesota's conservation director and a gifted lobbyist and communicator. With state legislative sessions beginning this month across the nation, BASS Times asked Wagner to write the following article to help conservation leaders and Federation members lobby on behalf of their respective causes.)
Becoming successful or effective in state and government politics isn't as difficult as some would believe. Being a fledgling lobbyist is much like preparing for a bass tournament. Show up for the meetings. Anglers outnumber hunters 4 to 1, but hunters are much better represented in politics than anglers are. Decisions are often made only by the people who show up for a meeting, and sometimes are made for the benefit of only those in the room. Hint: When in a meeting avoid threatening, blunt statements, such as "Senator, you'll be sorry when my people find out about this." Angling groups are seldom organized enough to carry out a threat. But we are in a good position to reward someone with recognition.Pry for inside information. Most state government Web sites have contacts for the respective players you'll need to communicate with. Specifically, search for leaders of your specific state house and senate, then go deeper. Look for chairs and members of natural resource committees. Pinpoint the local state representative and senator. Then, find out what fisheries bills have been passed in the last few years, the authors, and who introduced the bills to the floor. Make contact with the respective legislators and ask what it took to make the bills pass. This trail of communication can tell you who are friends, foes and who needs to be swayed in your direction.Find a local expert. Someone is already out there in a lobbyist role, whether it is for hunting, fishing, wetlands or forestry. Get to know key lobbyists and ask to tag along with them on forays in the hall of the legislature and outside of meetings. Use them as mentors and guides. Use them to help you learn to speak the language of the land. There are many acronyms in government, and each program has its own terminologies. Make a cheat sheet and carry it with you so you can "talk the talk." Join existing "hook-and-bullet alliances" and lobbying groups. If you work for them, they'll work for you.
Observe existing conditions. Form a pattern. Much of what you need to do is observe. Legislation is incredibly slow. Much of the time you are laying the groundwork for future actions. Don't take set-backs to heart as they are the nature of the game. Patience is a strength; attending one or two meetings will not change the world.Be confident. Stick to the pattern. Be who you are. Wear the BASS patch on your shirt, hat and jacket. Remember that to a legislator, you represent every angler and BASS member in his or her state. No one wants to gut a program's funding with a representative of that program sitting in the room.Understand the species. What matters to an elected official is his or her own district, party affiliation and re-election — in that descending order of priority. E-mails from constituents matter most. Letters don't work as well because of threats to security from terrorist acts.Full throttle. Take advantage of many tried-and-true opportunities to make a difference, such as sending blanket e-mails, distributing preprinted postcards, organizing or attending rallies or gatherings, circulating petitions, setting up telephone campaigns, and meeting with legislators who are identified as avid anglers. Telephone campaigns perform double duty in that they give an official a sense of public sentiment. In one case, the Minnesota BASS Federation took cell phones and a legislative telephone contact list to a series of outdoor shows. In the process, visitors to the Federation's booth at the show were invited to leave voicemails for legislators in support of the causes.Set the hook! Recreational sportfishing is a winner for all. Tournaments raise money for charities and contribute to local economies. Fishermen spend thousands of dollars on equipment, lodging, tackle and food. Some 44 million anglers all across America contribute a total of $116 billion toward our economy. Dollars from hunting and fishing licenses and taxes on tackle and equipment fund most natural resource agencies. Keep reminding elected officials that the hunting and fishing community has always paid its way and will continue to do so.