You vote. You donate to environmental organizations as you are able. Still, you learn the outcome of a legislative vote on an issue you care about and wonder if you could have made more of a difference. Agate asked longtime environmental advocate Don Arnosti to share his insights into Minnesota’s political process. Even if you’re not from Minnesota, if you feel ill-equipped, overwhelmed, over-extended or just world-weary, keep reading anyway. His responses may surprise you.
For more than three decades, in various roles, Don Arnosti has advocated for environmental causes. He has held positions as Executive Director and later Policy Director of Audubon Minnesota, Executive Director and Conservation Program Director of the Izaak Walton League-Minnesota, Forest Program Director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Advocate for the Land Stewardship Project, and Water Program Coordinator for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, among others. He now keeps a busy schedule as a conservation consultant, and is currently a registered lobbyist for Friends of the Minnesota Valley. He describes himself as “a person who lobbies” rather than a lobbyist, since it’s only part of what he does. But he knows the political ropes as well as anyone in the environmental community. He seemed a good person to ask about what works, and what doesn’t. The following is excerpted from a phone conversation with Agate co-editor Laurie Allmann on February 8, 2022.
Agate: Even for people who are generally tuned in, it can be daunting to engage with Minnesota’s legislative leaders on environmental issues, in or out of the legislative session. Can you offer any advice along the lines of, “the Minnesota Legislature for Dummies?”
Arnosti: (laughing). I have given many talks that could be considered the equivalent to “The Minnesota Legislature for Dummies.” I have felt that my role is to break down the barriers and make it more possible for people to participate and express their values to our political system.
I started, back in the early 90s, doing Lobby Day at the Capitol, which has grown into something that the Minnesota Environmental Partnership now helps organize, with trainings on how people can set up meetings with their senators, representatives, the governor, sometimes key staff from agencies, that kind of thing. Participating in those events is a good place for people to start, especially for grassroots groups.
More generally speaking, I’ll give you one of my axioms. There are only two kinds of power in this country: There’s money and there’s people. That’s it. And we, working on behalf of the public interest in natural resources and the environment, need to collect the people. There are so few barriers left to the money washing through our politics right now, which has a distorting influence. But people—even people acting as individuals—still have power to draw the attention of the political parties. And the time when people power is most potent is in the six months before an election, when they’re angling for your vote, which is why gerrymandering is so destructive to our democracy.
Not only are we headed into that 6-month period, we are in a convergence right now that happens only once every 20 years. Every single elected official at the state level in MN is on the ballot this fall. Every single one. The attorney general, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the secretary of state, every single member of the senate, every single member of the house. So here’s an opportunity, a window of influence, when they’re most likely to care what their constituents are saying.
Agate: What kind of input has the most impact, and when? Testimony or written comments during the legislative session when committees have hearings on bills? Are those comments really factored into decisions?
Arnosti: It’s a grain of sand in a pile and every once in awhile the pile shifts because there are enough grains of sand there. Signing a petition or responding to an action alert sent out by advocacy groups is a good thing, and can lead to progress. But the truth is, although there are 201 legislators in Minnesota, when it comes down to it, at the big scale, there’s maybe 10 people at the Capitol that really have a say in the broad sweep of decisions. On micro-issues, decisions may be delegated down to the committee chairs and even individual legislators that can push something through. More often, a committee chair may be told, in effect, “Here’s the amount of money you can allocate, stay in your lane and you can decide how to spend it.” A lot of what you see outside of that is theater, designed to make people look good. As a citizen, you have a greater chance of influencing a decision on one of the big issues by selecting one of the people who represent you and finding a way to genuinely deepen your relationship with them. Then, when you want to ask their support for something you care about, your message will be heard with an open ear, an open mind. Instead of a grain of sand on a pile, the effect will be more like a boulder dropping in a strategic spot.
Agate: How do you go about creating or deepening that relationship?
Arnosti: These are just people. So if you, as an individual, would like to have an influence on a decision maker in your life, one that has power over something you care about, then find an opportunity to get to know them a little better personally. That usually happens away from formal decision-making processes. In an election year, politicians make more of an effort to get out there. Pre-COVID, there would be fund-raising house parties and community picnics. It’s best if you can meet them, shake their hand, have some personal contact. But you can also find at least a few things you have in common, that connect you in some way, that you can refer to when you communicate with them. It might be where you went to school, or you both grew up on a farm. Then you’re in a better position to move on to something else.
Agate: Let’s talk about what that “something else” might be.
Arnosti: Step one is to clarify your own values. What are you most interested in and concerned about? Why do you believe what you believe, whatever it is? Translate that into common everyday language. You don’t have to understand groundwater issues or turtle biology or global warming as a scientist does. But there’s a reason why you care. That can be the content of your message, although you always want to put an “ask” to an elected official. You have to say why an issue matters to you, and ask them to do everything in their power to address it. Ideally, you can point to a specific action you’ll like them to take, or legislation you’d like them to support. You might say, I want to see your name as a co-sponsor on this legislation. In the Minnesota House there is no limit to the number of co-sponsors that can be added to legislation, just as there is no limit in Congress. In the Minnesota Senate, there’s a limit of 5. If they say they support an issue, ask them to go on record to demonstrate that support by co-sponsoring related legislation.
When it’s a policy related to natural resources that you’d like to see changed that falls under the authority of a state agency, you can still contact your elected officials if the agency head is not being responsive. That’s a situation where a well-placed letter, or many letters, can have an impact. A governor is still a political animal, especially in an election year. They might ask their staff, “So, you’re saying I got 300 letters on this, not just clicks on a petition, but letters?” That agency head is likely to hear about it.
Obviously, you want to make good use of your time, to allocate your resources. But make your choices of who you contact based on the issue, not the person. It’s not worth wasting time and energy convincing someone who is firmly opposed, who you feel is hopeless. But on any given issue, there will also be strong friends, people leaning your way, people truly caught in the middle, people leaning away. Don’t dismiss any of these out of hand.
If you can, tell them about measures you’re taking in your own life or in your own community to address your issue of concern. One of my favorite approaches is a “field trip.” Invite them to see an example of what you’re talking about in a setting where they will be comfortable, where you, the citizen, along with some others, presumably, expose them to something you want them to be exposed to. Frankly, you don’t have the press there with the mics open because then you just get talking points and their minds close: you know, they do that every day. The purpose is to have human contact and seek some common ground, have a real conversation, help build positive relationships around an issue: for example, farming practices that protect water while also generating good profits for the farmer. Later, when they are back in their caucus, or getting pressure from an industry lobbyist, they can speak from a personal experience that has informed their view. It doesn’t have to be about you: you can be the one who makes connections between people. It’s the boulder falling in the right place.
Agate: What if I know what I care about, but I don’t know what legislation is in the pipeline, or about to be, that I could reference?
Arnosti: In Minnesota, the broadest coalition is the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP). It’s comprised of about 80 different groups. Their website has a bulletin board, links to their member groups, a policy committee (which I serve on) that debates which issues should be pushed forward, the priorities. They work to stay on top of the legislation, so that can be a good place to see what’s in the works. They send out weekly—sometimes twice weekly—action alerts. But even with these statewide action alerts, an individual might have more impact by having a personal connection with someone who is in some way accountable to them or has some affinity with them. That said, if you have a busy mom or dad with three pre-teens that wants to make the world a better place, and pushing that action alert to their senator or representative with a click is all they can fit into their week, they shouldn’t feel guilty. They’re doing what they can.
Agate: Is it also important to communicate with politicians who have really stepped up and made the environment a priority?
Arnosti: Absolutely. Especially in this time of COVID when there is less face-to-face contact, they need to hear from their constituents. Tell them you know that what they’re doing is really hard; that you share their frustration when the system is not always responding to their very important, articulate inputs. That you appreciate their caliber as a person. That you consider them to be a true public servant. Thank them for doing this tough job.
Agate: So, it’s about being human. Whatever we intend to do, sounds like now is the time.
Arnosti: I would encourage people to connect to an organization that is close to an issue they care about: a well-organized organization that will provide them with meaningful opportunities to make a difference. You will be fantastic for that organization if you say, “You know, I’ve gotten to know this person well. I’d be happy to deliver a message.” Or just reach out on your own. You can have real influence. I know: I’ve seen it happen again and again.
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