Washington D.C. has given us TARP, ARRA (“Stimulus”), auto bailouts, “Cash for Clunkers”, Cap and Trade, and now expansive “reform” of our health care system. Here in Iowa, we’ve seen an activist Supreme Court attempting to redefine marriage, the largest budget in state history, and $830 million dollars worth of new state debt. It is no wonder that the public is growing restless.
This is what I say when I am asked the question “What can I do?”:
1. Contact your elected officials
One of the things I enjoy most about serving in the State Legislature is the opportunity to meet people and hear their concerns. During the legislative session, I received several thousand emails, and I made the time to respond to all of them. I recevied another one hundred or so phone calls, and many people came to talk with me in-person at the Capitol.
It is critical for me to hear from my constituents, so that I can understand what people in the district think. If there is an issue you care about, do not hesitate to let your elected officials know. Even if it is a form letter, pre-formatted email, or a one-sentence note, I will still make note of that concern.
2. Get to know your elected officials
Outside of the legislative session, try to set up a meeting with your Representative/Senator. This can be difficult for our federal elected officials, but State Representatives and State Senators may be able to make time to meet you for a quick cup of coffee. Do not expect more than 20 or 30 minutes of their time, as their schedules are often very demanding. Keep in mind that at the state/county/local level, most elected officials have other full-time jobs.
3. Go to open forums
We’ve recently seen reports on the news from many town hall meetings with people expressing outrage over the health care reform proposals. These raucous events are the exception, not the rule. I hold my forums jointly with Representative Peter Cownie and Senator Pat Ward. The three of us set up monthly forums in the district, provide free coffee, and sit down for a couple of hours to talk about whatever issues come up. Sadly, very few people show up to these forums, with our attendance usually in the 15-20 range.
These forums are a terrific opportunity to ask questions and exchange ideas with not only your elected officials, but other people in your community.
Finally, make sure that you conduct yourself with the proper decorum and respect for the officials and others in the room. Arm yourself with information and be prepared to ask meaningful questions; but always keep your cool.
4. Volunteer for a candidate
The 2010 elections are right around the corner, and again candidates will be taking to the streets in an effort to win votes. There is no better way to make an impact in politics than to volunteer on behalf of a candidate. If you know an elected official or candidate that stands up for what you believe, then get in the game. You’ll meet like-minded people from your community and have some fun at the same time.
It is also important to make sure that you fill a candidate’s particular need. You might be great with websites, or perhaps you’re a champion envelope-stuffer, but that may not be what the candidate needs in order to win. The most valuable thing anyone could do for me was to go with me door-to-door handing out literature.
5. Run for office
After all of the above, you may need consider running for office yourself. There is a need for new leadership and new ideas at every level of government, from school board on up the ballot. Win or lose, it is a tremendously rewarding experience (I’ve been on both sides).
Before I ran for the State Legislature, my wife and I spent several days in prayer; to make sure it was the right decision. We talked to several of our friends and family to get their opinions as well. It is critical to have your family on board; I would not have been successful without my wife’s support.
If you’re considering getting running for public office, talk to people you know with experience. There is a lot to learn in order to be effective. Do not be afraid to ask for help, and do not be afraid to admit there is something you don’t know.
There is a lot of work to be done to change the current path on which our country and our state have been taken. We need all hands on deck, involved in our communities, winning in the marketplace of ideas. It’s time to get in the game.
(State Representative Chris Hagenow serves Iowa House District 59, comprised of Windsor Heights, the Polk County portion of Clive and part of West Des Moines. Representative Hagenow lives in Windsor Heights with his wife, Amanda and 20-month old son, Owen.)