Many people picture lobbyists as corporate suits making shady backdoor deals with politicians to push their agendas, but that’s not all that lobbyists can be.
According to local state and environmental leaders, everyone has the power to lobby and enact policy change.
About a dozen Las Cruces residents met at the Southwest Environmental Center downtown to take part in grassroots lobbying training hosted by the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Volunteer Dan Lorimier formerly lobbied for the organization at the state capitol in Santa Fe. He said lobbying is just citizen participation.
“It’s how democracy works and the more citizen participation injected into a democracy, the better and more effective it works," Lorimier said. "Here in New Mexico with our 2 million population, if democracy can work anywhere it can work here. And the citizens as they go to the Roundhouse and interact with their legislators can make a huge difference in a state this size.”
Lorimier said there are two types of lobbyists- special interest lobbyists who represent an industry or specific business. He said the other kind lubricates the legislative process in a way special interest groups can’t.
“The other type of lobbyists use people power and they are public advocacy lobbyists," Lorimier said. "And so, they’re the ones with the white hats. They don’t use money to move their ideas, they move their ideas through relationships."
Lorimier said lobbyists representing an organization must register with the Secretary of State’s office, but any resident can lobby a legislator about an issue.
That’s where the emphasis on grassroots comes into play. Lorimier said the aim of the statewide trainings is to help everyday people become more comfortable interacting with their representatives.
People like Fay Yurwit, a junior majoring in government and German at New Mexico State University. Yurwit said the skills taught at the meeting tie directly into her work as an intern for Environment New Mexico, a citizen-based environmental advocacy project based in Albuquerque. She said the group’s focus on renewable energy at NMSU spurred her interest in how to communicate effectively with lawmakers.
“I mean these are great skills for anybody. It’s how to play the game, get people to listen to you, how to be informed and I was so encouraged to hear that we are apparently the last citizen legislature and that we have more access than people realize," Yurwit said. "So as a young person who often hears other young people complain 'There’s no point, it’s all futile,' I’m happy to use these tools no matter if I become a lobbyist or a translator or whatever. This is good stuff.”
Democratic State Sen. Bill Soules was on hand to provide attendees with a lawmaker’s perspective of the process. Soules said both corporate and citizen lobbyists play important roles as public voices to influence state policy.
“All of them are part of the process of making sure legislators have the information that they need and have how the public is viewing a particular bill or an issue," Soules said. "There’s a wide range of lobbyists from ones that may be very in support of the issues that I care about and ones that are very much on the opposite side but I still listen to what they have to say. It’s part of the process and it’s important for making good choices and decisions."
Soules said New Mexico is the only citizen legislature left in the country which means lawmakers are unpaid.
“And they’re just wandering the halls up in the capitol heading to meetings. We don’t have an entourage that protects us from the public. We don’t have other people that are making sure of our schedules, you don’t have to go through three or four people to find us. Lots of times you’ll run into legislators just going up and down the stairs when you’re in the capitol. They’re very easy to find, very easy to talk to," Soules said.
Participants took turns simulating the dos and don’ts of speaking with lawmakers during a legislative visit. Some key points Soules said to keep in mind are to come prepared for what you want to present, be polite and respect the legislator’s time.
“You may never know when you’re going to need them for some other issue and so make sure that you don’t burn bridges behind it. But having a personal connection, telling your story is really important also for getting your issue across," Soules said.
For Yurwit, the chance to be part of change on a state level is something she’s excited about and encourages other young people to get involved.
“There is so much more opportunity than you realize to influence people about the issues that matter to you and affect you every single day of your life and that you can mobilize your base, your community, your friends and that together we can make a difference, but actually," Yurwit said. "I don’t know about save the planet but we can do some real, practical good and this is all very attainable. It’s all very real and if this is something you care about, you are not justified in simply complaining. That’s not accomplishing anything. If you as most young people do feel very strongly about our government and our president, there are lots of people in Santa Fe that have your ear if you just speak to them.”
Organizers said forming those relationships plays a large role not only in driving policy decisions, but helping democracy work better.