January 24, 2004

CHICAGO (Jan. 24)—How do we get elected officials to invest more money in freight and passenger rail improvements?

“Tell them what you want and why you want it,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo at the winter meeting of the Midwest High Speed Rail Coalition (MHSRC). “Write a letter—and keep it short.”

Some 40 members of the MHSRC attended Szabo’s briefing at DePaul University’s Chaddick Center in downtown Chicago. MHSRC Rick Harnish said Szabo was invited to speak because the not-for-profit advocacy group needs to tap Szabo’s 20 years of experience in political activism in order to further its agenda: securing fast, frequent passenger-train service between Chicago and all major cities across the 9-state Midwest area.

“That agenda is similar to our union’s,” Szabo said. “All I really did was open up UTU’s book of lobbying tips and share them with the passenger-train activists.”

Szabo said he urged the rail group to use a simple, ten-point program when reaching out to decisionmakers to win support for the union’s legislative agend.

Tip No. 1, Szabo said, is simply to write a letter.

“Elected Officials and their staffs read letters,” he said. “More important, they log the number of letters that come in. The more letters they receive on a subject, the more important they believe that subject is.”

Because they clock volume of letters rather than volume of words, Tip No. 2 is: Keep letters short.

“Ten one-page letters are a lot more important than on ten-page letter,” Szabo said. “Don’t try to write a policy document. Just send a simple one-pager. Less than one page is even better.”

“That’s why tip No. 3 is: Confine your letter to one aspect of the subject,” Szabo said..

“That means if you’re asking a politician to increase funding for passenger trains, don’t talk about buying new rolling stock, buying new locomotives, running additional frequencies and building more modern stations all in one letter,” he said. “Pick one of those aspects and stick with it.”

That policy pays additional dividends if you follow Tip No. 4 and personalize your letter, Szabo advised the group.

“Personal experience makes a constituent’s letter far more powerful than abstract arguments or numbers,” he said. “Explain how the issue affects you and your family.”

Szabo said Tip No. 5 is Distinguish between Support Letters and Action Letters.”

“Support Letters can be sent at any time,” he said. “They are not urgent because they do not ask for a commitment to any specific piece of legislation or to a particular number of dollars in an appropriation. Instead, they are more like the planting of seeds. You sow them to be reaped in the future.”

Another key part of that seed sowing is Tip No. 6, Szabo said: Amplify legislative outreach by using the media.

“Write a short Letter to the Editor and send it to your local newspaper,” he said. “Legislative staff members monitor the media and take reader input very seriously.

“Tip No. 7 is to use an Action Letter to tell your legislator how you want him to vote. It’s short, urgent and personalized, and it refers only to the specific piece of legislation on the floor,”

Szabo said an example of a good Action Letter might be: “I am writing to ask that you vote in favor of House Bill 228 when it comes up for a vote tomorrow. Funding for better passenger trains is very important to me, my family and my community. We would appreciate your support.”

Because of time constraints, Action Letters work best if they’re faxed, Szabo said. Legislative aides like to count pieces of paper and are strong believers in the “cockroach effect.”

“You know how when you see a cockroach you fear that there are a thousand more back in the woodwork?” he said. “Because Elected Officials get so few letters from constituents, when they do, they believe for each letter that gets written there are a thousand more voters who feel the same way. Because they live and die by votes, they monitor those letters carefully. Failure to understand what the voters are thinking can cost a politician his job on Election Day.”

Because Action Letters work best on the eve of, or even on the day of, a vote, Szabo recommended they be supplemented with other forms of communication.

“Tip No. 8,” he said, “is amplify letters with e-mails and phone calls. You’re looking to create volume. Those communications, too, should be short. If you make a phone call, just identify yourself and say, ‘I’m calling to ask Cong. Smith to vote “Yes” on House Bill 228 tomorrow.’”

But even the best outreach program needs more than letters, faxes, e-mails and phone calls, Szabo said. So he advised the activists to shed their shyness and seek out personal encounters with legislators.

“Tip No. 9,” Szabo said, is, Build a relationship with the legislator and his staff. Go to political functions and get your face recognized. Legislators thrive on personal contact, especially at election time. Get known and build credibility.

“You don’t have to be a big-bucks donor to attend a political fund-raiser,” Szabo reminded his audience.

“Most elected officials hold budget-priced barbecues or chili suppers you can get into for $10 or $15,” he said. “The primary purpose of these function is to enable the legislator to meet constituents. Buy a ticket and go up and introduce yourself. Tell them you’re interested in better rail service. Odds are they will introduce you to a key staff person who specializes on your issue. Build the relationship with that staff member.”

Szabo’s Tip No. 10 was a direct steal from the UTU-Illinois playbook.

“Build a Rapid Response Network,” he advised. “Reach out to friends, relatives and people you work with so that when a vote is needed on a piece of legislation you can call or e-mail them and get each of them to fax an Action Letter and make a phone call to their representatives.

“If you’ve done your work right, then over the course of two or three months you’ve gone from one lone activist to one person sitting at the center of a network of a dozen or more people,” Szabo said.

“All you have to do is call them when the time comes and ask them to send their own copy of an e-mail or letter you’ve suggested. In less than an hour you’ve created a ‘movement.”