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Working with Congress: Activist Milestone #6

Ask a Question at a Town Hall Meeting or a Candidates Forum

Members of Congress spend time in Washington, DC and in their home districts. When they are home, they often meet with constituents and special interest groups or hold community open houses and town hall meetings. When running for re-election, they may participate in candidate forums for the public.

Elected officials will pay special attention to the voices of constituents who make the effort to get to a town hall or other interactive meeting. Candidates running for office or re-election have obvious additional interest in listening to and responding to your concerns - they want your vote! Going to an event where a member of Congress or candidate is speaking provides an excellent opportunity to thank him or her in public, make a particular request, or encourage stronger leadership on one of our issues. It is also a way to get the elected official or candidate to take a stand or create a platform on our issues when he or she might not otherwise pay attention to them.

The media are often at these events and cover the questions asked. By presenting carefully prepared and powerful questions at the event, you and your RESULTS group have the chance to influence the member of Congress, educate the community in the room, and make the pages of the local paper - a super triple play!

Tips on Attending a Town Hall or Candidate Forum

Find out where your member of Congress is.

  1. Visit the congressional calendars (www.house.gov and www.senate.gov) for the House and Senate to find out when your legislators are scheduled to be in home districts for "District Work Periods."
  2. Locate the websites of your elected officials and subscribe to their newsletters via e-mail.
  3. Call the local office and ask when and where your representative or senator will be speaking or holding a candidate forum.
  4. Check your local paper and other local media sources to stay informed of the local activities of your members of Congress or the candidates running for office.

Get familiar with your member of Congress or, if applicable, the other candidates. 

  1. Research your members of Congress on our website. Visit their websites to learn more about their votes, background, interests, and areas of expertise.
  2. Research the candidates on our website. Ask for a bio and background on candidates at their campaign headquarters.

Prepare questions ahead of time. 

  1. Use the EPIC format to craft your questions.
  2. Make your question concise. Long explanations will make it easier for a politician to dodge the question!
  3. Use powerful words and imagery to really engage your listeners.
  4. Gather supporting materials on your issue and contact information for your RESULTS group to leave with staff accompanying the member or candidate.
  5. Ask the RESULTS staff to help you form timely and powerful questions.

Work in teams.

  1. Arrive early. Someone from your group might arrive early enough to assess the procedure. Is there a sign-in sheet for constituents? Will there be a sign-up sheet for those who wish to ask questions, or will individuals raise their hands to be called on? You may also be able to introduce yourself to the member, the candidate, or a staff person.
  2. Location, location, location. Have group members sit in different areas of the room as close to the front as possible to maximize your impact. Are there microphones for questioners already in place? Get seats near them so you can be first in line.
  3. Designate a note-taker to jot down all information and promises made by the member of Congress or candidate.
  4. Raise your hands or get in line immediately when it's time to ask questions. You have to be quick!

Stay polite and on message.

  1. Identify yourself as a volunteer with RESULTS.
  2. Begin with a brief thank you or acknowledgement.
  3. Be polite, respectful, assertive, and concise.
  4. Ask a specific question to help ensure a direct response.
  5. Remain focused and cordial even if your question is blown over. Be firm in repeating the question and asking for an appropriate response.
  6. Don't embarrass the member of Congress. If he or she simply cannot give you a direct reply, let the member know that you will be arranging an opportunity for further discussion.

Do your follow-up.

  1. Find the media: Seek out media after the meeting to talk about our issues if they were not covered or to expand on them if they were.
  2. Go to the speakers: Approach your member of Congress or the candidates after the meeting to introduce yourselves and follow up on your questions, or ask them your question if you were not able to during the meeting. Even if it is a handshake line, take a moment to stop and ask your question.
  3. Seek out their staff: Introduce yourselves and your issue, and provide them with your contact information and any supporting materials you brought with you. Leave the event with a clear plan to follow up with their staff - and do it!
  4. Send written follow-up. Within a few days, fax or e-mail a letter to the member of Congress or candidate and the staff person. Mention that you were at the meeting or forum and recap your issue, question, or request. If you weren't able to ask your question at the meeting, send a follow-up letter acknowledging you were there, and contact the appropriate legislative staff person to present your issue.
  5. Share your information.  Share information you learned from the gathering with your group and action network. Give them ideas on how they might follow up on the issue with the member or candidate and his or her staff.
  6. Persistence pays off. Keep following up until you get a response to your question or request!

For more insights on how to successfully "birddog" a policymaker, check out our PowerPoint presentation, the August 2012 U.S. Poverty Action, the recording of the August 2012 national conference call, and the August 2007 Domestic Conference Call Focused Birddog Training call recording with guest speaker Kaytee Riek, Grassroots Organizer for Health Gap.