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Make Your Voice Heard in Washington

By Steve Dunham

Your Senators and your Representative in Congress will listen when you speak; they care about representing their constituents, and they want to do the right thing. How you present your message is important if you want your voice to make a difference. These lessons, along with details on how to communicate with your elected officials in Washington, were part of a presentation called “Effective Advocacy” given by Stephanie Vance, formerly on Congressman Blumenauer’s staff and now head of AdVanced Consulting, at the Rail~Volution conference in Washington in October 2002.

To communicate effectively, said Vance, you have to know what you want to say. Know your facts, and know why you’re relevant. Explain why your position is important to the state and to your district. Know your representative’s record and what committees this person is on.

So the first step is to get your facts together. VARP’s newsletter, On Track, is a good source of current information, and it goes to all of Virginia and West Virginia’s Senators and Representatives in Washington. The VARP website has useful information too, particularly the “A Future for Rail Passenger Service in the Virginias.” The National Association of Railroad Passengers website is another useful source, with legislative action alerts and links to other sites.

Once you know what you want to say, write a letter, email, or fax letter. Keep it brief; stick to one point. Communicating with your elected representatives is important, but even more worthwhile is to meet with them or their staff members periodically. Vance explained that the offices in Washington are continually being visited by lobbyists, a lot of whom are paid to be there. You are guaranteed a hearing if you are a volunteer individual who has taken the time to communicate. Many people think of campaign contributions as the driving force in Washington, but “grassroots power trumps money every time,” said Vance.

When you make an appointment, you should expect to get about 5 minutes of someone’s time. Is this worth it? Definitely yes, said Vance. The staff members and your representative may know less about an issue than you do, and if you provide them with useful information that makes them more knowledgeable, you will have made an important difference.

Vance recommended scheduling visits both in Washington when Congress is in session and in your representative’s district office when Congress is in recess. In both cases, said Vance, you should leave two important things: written information and a specific request, however small. Provide the information (nor more than a few sheets of paper) in a manila folder, because the staff member will file it for reference. Thick documents will be neither read nor saved. Ask for something simple, such as a statement about rail passenger service in the Congressional Record or a one-minute speech on the floor. It’s true, said Vance, that few people will hear the speech or read the statement in the Congressional Record. But you and VARP can make sure that people read the speech or the statement by making copies and distributing them and quoting them.

Get in touch with your Representative and Senator regularly, schedule visits periodically, and provide succinct, accurate information, and you will be an effective advocate.

Contacting your Senators and Representative

Although mail service to the House of Representatives and Senate is slow, you can write to them at these two addresses:

Senator [name], U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510

Representative [name], U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515

For faster communication, you can reach them by phone or email (some have a direct email address; others have a comment form on their website).

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (WV): phone (202) 224-6472; website

Sen. JoManchin III (WV): phone (202) 224-3954; website

Sen. Mark Warner (VA): phone, (202) 224-2023; website

Sen. Tim Kaine (VA): phone, (202) 224-2023; website

For contact information for your Representative, visit the House of Representatives website at

Thanks to Stephanie Vance of AdVanced Consulting for a splendid presentation at Rail~Volution.

VARP’s Cardinal Campaign

Cardinal campaign

Rail Advocacy Groups

Light Rail Now

National Association of Railroad Passengers

Rail Solution

Steel Interstate Coalition

Transportation for America

Virginians for High Speed Rail