A meeting with a member of Congress or their staff, held with constituents in the district to build a relationship with the elected offical and gain his or her support on a specific campaign
- A district meeting is, very simply, a meeting with a member of Congress or their staff, held with constituents in the district. A district meeting can be a small gathering with just one or two representatives of a single organization, or you may decide to invite representatives of several allied organizations or activists from MoveOn (though it's usually not possible to have more than eight people because of the size of district offices).
- Usually a district meeting has two main goals:
- Build a long-term relationship with the member of Congress. The impressions we make in our direct interactions with the member in the district can be some of the most lasting. These meetings are an excellent opportunity to tell the MoveOn story and communicate our presence in the district.
- Gain the member's support on a specific campaign. The meeting is a great opportunity to nail the member down to a clear position and hold him or her to it.
- The power of a district meeting is that it's an opportunity for constituents—actual voters in the district—to communicate directly with the member of Congress. Lobbyists meet with and speak to members of Congress all the time in Washington, D.C. In those interactions, issue experts present fact-based, persuasive arguments on the issue and discuss political strategy.
- District meetings are qualitatively different, however, because the member is meeting with constituents who have the power to hold them accountable in a way that no D.C. lobbyist can. As a result, district meetings can be far more effective for pushing a member to make a clear commitment on an issue or to engage in a substantive discussion. Bottom line: It's easy to dodge a question from a lobbyist, but it's a lot harder to do that with voters whose support you will need come Election Day.
There's a lot to decide before you get started. Whom do you want to meet with? The representative? The senators? Who will be invited to the meeting? Just MoveOn members or other organizations? A sizable team of MoveOn activists, or just Council leaders?
The answers to these questions should flow from your overall campaign strategy. If you're working on health care and your strategy is to show that reforming our health care system will be good for the economy, you'll probably want some local small business leaders to join you to add credibility to that argument. Also you'll want to think carefully about the long-term relationship with the member and the best group to tell the story about MoveOn. If we want to stress the diversity of supporters that we have in our organization, for instance, you will want to make sure a diverse range of constituency groups are represented.
Timing is another important consideration. Congressional recesses are a great time—but you can hold a district meeting any time the member of Congress is back in the district. And if you can't get a meeting with the member directly, you can ask for a meeting with staff anytime. You can get the congressional calendars at www.House.gov and www.Senate.gov. Remember the House and Senate maintain separate schedules, and the schedule can change at the very last minute depending on political developments. Generally speaking, however, there are week-long recesses around major holidays and longer recesses in August, December, and in election years from late September to January.
2. Request the meeting
To get a meeting personally with a member of Congress, request your meeting at least a month in advance. Members have very busy schedules, and they simply can't meet with everyone who would like to speak with them. Senators can be especially difficult to schedule.
Every member of Congress has a staff person called their "scheduler." This person's whole job is to manage the member's schedule. You'll start by calling the scheduler and asking for the meeting. You'll usually have to have a brief, written request explaining what you want to discuss and who will be present. These request letters can be very simple but many offices won't even consider a meeting request until they have it on paper.
When asking for the meeting, here are some tips:
- Be nice to the scheduler. Schedulers are generally junior staffers, but they are influential. If they like you, they just might put your request on the top of the stack. Ask politely if they have time to speak before launching into your request. If there's time for chit-chat, take a minute to ask them how long they've worked for the member, where they're from, and will they be home in the district during the recess?
- Stress the political urgency of the meeting. Schedulers are always thinking, "Can this wait, or does it have to happen now?" There are so many demands on a Congress member's time that often they can only get to the most urgent appointments. Therefore, you should stress if there's an upcoming vote or a particular reason why the issue is becoming hot in the local press or a matter of particular concern for constituents.
- Be very flexible with timing. It's common that the scheduler will offer you a specific time to meet and assume that you'll rearrange your schedule to accommodate them.
- Never pressure or threaten. There's a fine line between communicating urgency and seeming like you're pressuring them. Urgency is a compelling reason to make a meeting. But if you're pressuring them, they may decide not to meet with you at all.
- If they say no, be polite. If they can only spare 10 minutes for a quick conversation, be appreciative.
- Check to see if the member has "office hours" or a "constituent breakfast" where voters can meet the member directly. Usually you'll only get moment or two at events like this, but it's worth doing if you can't get a sit-down meeting.
3. Prepare a packet of materials
It's a good idea to present to the member a packet of materials that both tell the story of MoveOn in their district and also make the case on the issue. Good things to include are: factsheets on the issue, local press clippings generated by MoveOn, coalition letters, petitions, etc.
4. Prepare your meeting attendees
It's crucial to decide in advance what key points you want to stress, the commitment you are asking for, and the roles each meeting attendee will play. You probably won't have much time, so you don't want to have members of the group going off on a tangent or repeating points made by others.
It's best to identify one person who will be the primary convener of the meeting, and then you can assign others specific roles, like making the case for a specific aspect of the issue or telling a story about MoveOn's work in the district. You may want to assign one person the role as "note taker," so that you can record exactly what the member says and don't end up with conflicting accounts.
Quality is more important than quantity here. In other words, you want to have a few well-prepared people rather than a lot of people who are less prepared. If your meeting coincides with a public event you're organizing (e.g. a rally) outside of the office, be sure to maintain quality control over who is going into the meeting itself. Everyone who is part of the meeting should be prepared. This is important for the long-term relationship between your MoveOn Council and the member of Congress.
5. Hold the meeting
Typically, a 25-minute meeting agenda will be as follows:
- Introductions, including thanking member for their support on something (3-5 min.)
- Brief summary of MoveOn's mission and our presence in the district (2-3 min.)
- Issue presentation, including key local impacts (5-6 min.)
- Commitment (1 min.)
- Discussion of commitment, feedback from member (7-8 min.)
- Wrap-up, thanks, confirming any follow-up steps (2-3 min.)
Debrief thoroughly on the meeting as soon after as possible. Compare notes, and finalize a thorough write-up of what happened. Report back to your Regional Coordinator and Field Organizer. If you said you'd get back to the member on anything during the meeting, do so promptly.
Here are some additional tips for an effective district meeting:
- Always treat the member with respect. Do not interrupt, never threaten, and always maintain a civil, respectful tone, even if they are saying things that are upsetting or inaccurate. Occasionally a member may even act in a rude or disrespectful manner. Do not respond in kind.
- Allow the member to speak 50% or more of the time in the meeting, but try to make it a dialogue.
- Within the first few minutes, be sure to confirm the amount of time they have available and restate the agenda so you don't accidentally run out of time or waste the meeting on side issues.
- Ask for your commitment very clearly and directly. For instance, "will you vote for X bill?" If they give a vague non-answer, don't be afraid to nail them down by asking again or in a slightly different way.
- Be sure to leave as much time as possible to go back and forth on the commitment. If ask for the commitment right at the end of the meeting, it will be very easy for the member to avoid answering your question directly. It may require 5-10 minutes of follow up to nail them down.
- Leave extra time in your meeting agenda -- assume that the agenda will take longer than planned.
- Don't assume they know a lot about the issue you're talking to them about.
- Don't feel like you need to be an in-depth issue expert. Your primary power is based on the constituents you represent in the district and the fact that they care about the issue.
Check out this training video on holding a district meeting, produced by MoveOn and our partners at Wellstone Action:
(The content in this video is from a previous campaign but the tips are relevant to any campaign.)