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Diving In Head First 

Having a voice during legislative sessions can be daunting to average citizens, so here's some advice from those who have tread Capitol hallways for years.

Randy Lanctot had been a resident of Baton Rouge for just four years when he first visited the State Capitol to get lawmakers interested in the agenda of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. That was back in 1980, when the first term of former Gov. Edwin Edwards -- now in federal prison for racketeering -- was coming to a close and radical changes to the state Constitution made for emotional political theater. Lanctot, then a 30-year-old transplant from Illinois who knew more about Honest Abe than the Kingfish, had spent his preceding years traveling the country by motorcycle, finishing his master's degree and working on offshore rigs.

Amid other notable achievements from that era ("a whole other story," he says), Lanctot dove into the legislative pond head first -- a concerned citizen who knew nothing and no one. "It was like starting school for the first time all over again," says Lanctot, now LWF's executive director. "You're at this huge building and you're trying to figure out who the hell all these people are. It can be quite overwhelming. But I think everyone has the same first experience when they try to get involved with the Legislature on that level."

Considering Lanctot's experience, it's no surprise that only 8 percent of Americans feel "very connected" to their respective state legislatures, according to a Hart-Teeter poll commissioned by the Council for Excellence in Government, a public-sector advocacy group. Moreover, 43 percent of the poll's respondents agreed that "people like me cannot really have much effect on government."

People blamed political agendas, special interests and a lack of motivation for their feelings of political helplessness. The "America Unplugged" poll reveals a gap between government and people, which could be cured, at least partly, by an infusion of institutional knowledge from others who have successfully navigated the legislative waters.

The current session of the Louisiana Legislature, which begins this week and ends June 28, is a fitting time for the average citizen to get off the bench and into the game by contacting lawmakers, building alliances with dealmakers and offering the media a human interest angle. How? Find an issue or piece of legislation you feel passionately about and, skipping the traditional district phone call or email, drive to Baton Rouge and get involved. After all, the system was supposed to be designed with citizens in mind.

For starters, get to know the Legislature's Web site (www.legis.state.la.us). Everything you need to know about the session is there -- committee assignments and schedules, background on lawmakers, information about pending bills, live broadcasts and much more, including email addresses and phone numbers for all lawmakers.

From a political perspective, you're going to need what everyone in the Capitol wants: access to legislators. It's not as difficult as you might think. For example, you'll find ample opportunity to see them up close inside and outside of the Legislature's committee rooms, which are located down two long hallways that connect on the Capitol Building's ground floor, and also on the basement level. Once you have targeted a lawmaker -- whether it's to discuss his or her legislation, to lobby them on another bill, to get their stance on a particular topic or just to chime in with your own two cents -- find out what committees he or she serves on through the Legislature's Web site and start attending committee meetings. You might have to wait until the lawmaker shows up or has some free time, but a trip to the Capitol by a constituent always has more impact than snail mail or phone messages -- although a barrage of those from many constituents is more compelling than just about anything.

Through the Web site, you can track bills being authored by a particular lawmaker, and then attend committee hearings on those bills. Quite possibly the most consistent way to sweat out legislators is just outside the House or Senate itself.

"The best way to catch these folks is to talk to them while they are on the floor," Lanctot says. "It's often hard to catch people in committee, but you can fill out a card with the sergeants-at-arms outside both chambers, and the lawmakers will likely come out to talk to you there. It's really a hit-or-miss thing, but the more you try, the more you learn."

If you want to explore other options or tap another tier of influence, try contacting lawmakers' staff personnel or lobbyists. That was the first lesson gleaned by Eric Sunstrom, president of the Chesapeake Group, when he started lobbying in 1999. Staffers are usually the ones who draft and schedule legislation. The same is often true of lobbyists, and both groups can bring strong alliances to help drive your point home. In many ways, they are the gatekeepers. "I met one staffer years ago that I still use like a legislative encyclopedia," Sunstrom says. "You meet all these people during session, but you don't usually find out how helpful they can be until later."

During committee hearings, Sunstrom recommends getting a copy of the proponent/opponent cards filled out by lobbyists, concerned citizens, special interests and others. The cards are available from the committee secretary -- usually the person stationed front and center near the chairperson -- and they offer a glimpse of where the political fault lines are. The cards can outline coalitions waiting to embrace your cause and identify enemies to avoid.

As sources of information, members of the media covering the ongoing session are also ripe for the picking. This year, you'll be able to identify the journalist pack by their gold or orange press badges. Rather than introducing yourself cold and trying to "sell" a reporter on your cause, you might get their attention by testifying on your favorite issue or bill during a related committee debate, says Barry Erwin, CEO of the think-tank Council for a Better Louisiana.

"The average person can show up at the State Capitol for a committee meeting, fill out a card and be asked for testimony," says Erwin, a former political reporter. "It's probably the easiest way to make an impact on an issue through the media. Talk about how the issue impacts you personally. Reporters are always looking for a human-interest angle on these policy stories."

That was the case for Women of the Storm, a nonpolitical alliance of Louisiana women who have successfully lobbied Congress on recovery issues. Not only did they offer up personalities to humanize the devastation from Katrina and Rita, but they also learned that there is strength in numbers when seeking influence with decision-makers. So team up, says founder Anne Milling. "Our togetherness made a clear statement," she says. "From the very first trip we made, with 140 women carrying their blue umbrellas, we knew what we wanted. It sent a message that these people are serious."

While grassroots activities can be effective when lobbying some lawmakers, it's always important to remember that diplomacy requires you to keep a cool demeanor and never lash out, Lanctot says -- no matter how idiotic, pompous or disrespectful an elected official may seem. In short, play nice and save your opinion for the voting booth.

"Just don't argue with a lawmaker in public," he says. "I've seen aggressive people do it and it never works out. Although the legislators work for us, they are decision-makers on the issues you ultimately care about. They'll have the final word in that area."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

SIDEBAR -- put in box inside story

HEAD: Making Contact If personal interactions aren't your bag, here are the traditional ways of keeping tabs on and reaching out to lawmakers and the governor:

Louisiana Senate

P.O. Box 94183

Baton Rouge, LA 70804

(225) 342-2040

Louisiana House

P.O. Box 94062

Baton Rouge, LA 70804

(225) 342-6945

Governor's Office

P.O. Box 94004

Baton Rouge, LA 70804

(866) 366-1121

The Legislature's Web site:

www.legis.state.la.us

The Web site is an excellent one-stop shop during and even between legislative sessions. Committee schedules, email addresses, bill information, background on legislators and more can be found on the site. There's even accessibility for the disabled and links to boards and commissions. Most important, you can watch and listen in "real time" to legislative proceedings through the site.

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