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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

Locate your member of Congress or candidate.

  1. Visit the congressional calendars (www.house.gov and www.senate.gov) 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. Sign up for email updates on their campaign websites. These are separate from elected official pages that are hosted on .gov websites. They often have campaign events, meet and greets and other public events listed.
  4. Call your local in-district office and ask when you might have a chance to hear your elected official speak while they are in district.

  5. Call your local campaign office and ask when your member of Congress or candidate will be speaking or holding a candidate forum.

  6. 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 members of Congress and candidates on their campaign websites, and see what kind of language they use and what’s important to them. This can help you convince them to take action.

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. Make sure your question has a yes or no answer! Don’t leave room to wiggle out of answering.
  4. Use powerful words and imagery to really engage your listeners.
  5. Gather supporting materials on your issue and contact information for your RESULTS group to leave with staff accompanying the member or candidate.
  6. 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. Try to sit near the aisle so it is easy for staff running the microphones to get to you
  3. Designate a recorder. This person can record candidate responses on their phone using a simple voice memo. Try to do this subtly, and prioritize a good interaction with a member or candidate over a good recording.

Get called on, and get the handshake.

  1. Look like a fan. Take free campaign gear (stickers, signs, etc.) and wear as much of it as possible – this makes you more likely to get called on.
  2. Make sure you raise your hand “first, fast, high!” This means raise your hand immediately when it is time to ask questions, and keep it up there. Think Like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter – BIG FAST HAND RAISING!
  3. Get the handshake. Most candidates will do a handshake line after events to take pictures and greet constituents. This is a great chance to ask a question or follow up on an answer. Pro Tip: Respectfully hold their hand until you get a real answer. This makes it harder to brush you off.

Stay polite and on message.

  1. Identify yourself as a volunteer with RESULTS.
  2. Begin with a brief thank you or acknowledgement, if possible.
  3. Be polite, respectful, assertive, and concise.
  4. Remain focused and cordial even if your question is blown over. Be firm in repeating the question and asking for an appropriate response.
  5. 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. Often times members simply want their staff to review the policy or legislation so there are no surprises. Polite follow-up shows you are a dedicated and active member of the community - someone they WANT a relationship with!

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.This is a great way to start building long term relationships with local media.
  2. Seek out the member or candidate's 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Report to RESULTS staff. Let us know what happened! How did it go and what can we learn about the member for the future?
  6. Remember - 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.