The art of lobbying: author Judith Meredith describes her method
What can you do if a hazardous waste dump is planned for that vacant area where your kids play, or an airport's flight pattern is being redirected - right over your roof?
Plenty, says Judith Meredith. In the last 18 years she's lobbied for various issues at the Massachusetts State House, racking up a number of wins. She wants others to know they can do it, too.
She has written a book, ''Lobbying on a Shoestring,'' to tell how. The book ''is for individuals and organizations who want to remedy an injustice by changing the law,'' she writes. Designed to dispel the mystique of politics, it explains how to formulate a bill, marshall support for it, steer it through the committee maze to passage, and monitor its enforcement. Advice ranges from military-sounding strategy (''mobilizing your base'') to common courtesy (''Thank people who come through for you'').
''Lobbying is simply getting the right information to the right person at the right time,'' says Ms. Meredith.
The rules may be simple, but the process is less so, she says, sitting in her Boston offices.Effective lobbying means keeping the ''base'' (those people who will benefit from the proposed change in the law and care enough to work for it) working together for months or years - writing letters, sending telegrams, calling legislators.It means researching your case so thoroughly that legislators will begin to trust you as they would one of their own staff.
It also means dealing with difficult but very powerful politicians, Ms. Meredith says. Lobbying, for the one who's doing the legwork at the legislature, ''is not for the timid,'' she cautions: ''It's hard to have someone say 'no' to you - you can't take it personally. When you have many issues, they may be with you on one, but not on another. One of the most effective attributes is a sense of mission.''
Ms. Meredith, describing herself as a ''suburban housewife with five children ,'' had a sense of mission 18 years ago when, as a member of an adoptive-parent group, she began buttonholing legislators to change some ''perfectly horrendous'' laws that restricted adoption. From that success she tackled other issues regarding foster children, and was appointed by then-Gov. Francis Sargent to staff a special commission on foster care.
In 1980, after a few years of working with community groups, she formed Meredith & Associates, a lobbying firm specializing in legal advocacy for low-income people, because ''I always had the fantasy that it would be fun to put together a lobbying firm that did good-guy stuff,'' she says.
Some of the ''good-guy stuff'' included creating the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which supplies free legal aid to the poor with funds supplied through a surcharge tacked on to legal filing fees. Another bill that passed the legislature only to be vetoed by the governor is being considered again. It would allow local communities to draft their own laws regarding condominiums.
Not all the Meredith activities are so far-reaching. Two of her smaller victories benefited a group of nursing-home residents called LIFE (Living Is for the Elderly). As a result, the residents are now entitled to have locked drawers for personal possessions and to make calls from a phone booth equipped with a door and accessible by wheelchair.
There's very little a knowledgeable lobbying group can't do, according to Ms. Meredith. She mentions Proposition 21/2 and returnable-bottle legislation in Massachusetts as two typical examples of successful grass-roots lobbying efforts.
''I do believe that legislators make different decisions . . . because they've been visited by a group of constituents,'' she says. ''If legislators are about to vote on a particular issue, and they hear from people in their district at the right time, they'll generally vote to help their constituents.''
Ms. Meredith says the trend toward New Federalism means a big future for lobbying at the state level. ''Because state government is where more of the action is and will be taking place, it's more important to know how to lobby at that level than it was in the past two decades,'' she writes. She also says that lobbying could get easier; increasingly well-paid and well-informed legislators (who will devote full time to the job) will be more accessible to their constituents.
While ''Lobbying'' is specifically written about the Bay State legislature, it is subtitled, ''How to Win in Massachusetts...and other Places, Too.'' Ms. Meredith says that because most state legislatures have similar structures, the principles of the book will apply to any state.
''Lobbying on a Shoestring'' is available for $6.95 through the Massachusetts Poverty Law Center, 2 Park Square, Boston, Mass. 02116.m