A new year is a time for reflection and setting intentions for the year ahead. At Empower Missouri, our team is also setting intentions for the new legislative session while reminding ourselves of the guiding principles that shape our work. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard a lot of pessimism about the 2024 session– from the media, from capitol insiders, and from legislators themselves. While a presidential election year does certainly create heightened tensions in the world of politics, this doesn’t mean that we have to assume that nothing productive can happen this session. On the contrary, an election year should provide an important incentive for our elected officials to be especially accountable to the people who elected them, assuming that they are running for re-election or even pursuing a higher office.
In 2024, every one of our 163 members of the House of Representatives is up for reelection, although approximately 25% of those individuals are terming out, having served their maximum eight years in the House. Fourteen of Missouri’s 34 state Senate seats are up for election, with seven current senators (Sen. Rick Brattin, Sen. Mike Moon, Sen. Angela Mosley, Sen. Greg Razer, Sen. Steven Roberts, Sen. Barbara Washington and Sen. Jason Bean) running for re-election. At least 15 members of the House are running for state Senate seats, and five sitting state senators and 5 current House members (Sen. Holly Rehder, Sen. Caleb Rowden, Sen. Bill Eigel, Sen. Denny Hoskins, Sen. Andrew Koenig, Rep. Crystal Quade, Rep. Dean Plocher, Rep. Richard Brown, Rep. Andrew Schwardon, and Rep. Cody Smith) have filed to run for statewide office. And, in breaking news yesterday, U.S. Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer has decided not to run for re-election this year, and you can bet that a number of sitting elected officials will be jumping into that race as well. You can look at this slate of candidates and elections as a barrier to productivity this session, or you can see it as we do– an opportunity for increased visibility on key issues and holding elected officials accountable for their policy positions.
In an election year, elected officials typically spend more time in their communities than in a non-election year, hosting fundraisers, knocking doors, speaking at community events, and participating in candidate forums. While some of these activities won’t begin in earnest until after the session ends in May, candidates for statewide office and state Senate seats are already campaigning. This gives the average voter better access to their elected officials than in an average year, and more opportunities for you to make your voices heard on issues that matter to you. As you begin to think through how you want to advocate for yourself, your family, and your community this year, here are few things to keep in mind:
- Don’t shy away from advocating across party lines. Recent polling data shows that an alarming number (more than 70 percent) of both Republicans and Democrats view members of the opposing party as more immoral, dishonest, and close-minded than other Americans. This is a dangerous trend, and one that we must work to combat. When we see half of the country as sworn enemies, we’re walking a dangerous path for our fragile democracy. A person is more than their party affiliation. Each of us is made up of a lifetime of personal experiences and observations that have brought us to our current set of beliefs. In a country that is deeply divided by race and class, many of us have not had the opportunity to build a broader worldview than the one informed by our own experiences and those of our friends and neighbors, who often have similar experiences to our own. Rather than making assumptions about how an elected official will feel about a certain issue, be brave in speaking your truth and expanding their worldviews. I have had many conversations with lawmakers who are our allies on key issues who took an interest in a certain policy reform based on a single conversation with a voter who was willing to share their story– of hunger, of homelessness, or of being incarcerated. (Want to broaden your own worldview? Books, movies, TV shows, and podcasts are a low-barrier way to expose yourself to new ideas and perspectives where you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.)
- Productive conversations don’t happen on the internet. Getting into a Twitter war with an elected official is not an effective strategy to change hearts and minds. It is very easy to dehumanize someone when you’re interacting with them online. It is much harder when you are looking them in the eye. Take the time to speak to electeds in person. Send an email or make a phone call to schedule a meeting. I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the responsiveness of many of our legislators and discover that most of them are eager to hear from their constituents.
- Build a lasting relationship with your legislator. In many cases, your legislator will represent you for eight years– even longer if they decide to run for another office. So, approach the meeting like a first date or a first coffee with a new friend. Be kind, courteous, and respectful. Go into the meeting with an open mind, even if you know that you disagree with some of their positions. Look for commonalities, even on simple things. (Do you both have kids? Dogs? Share a similar religion?) Start from a place of consensus, and explore other issues with curiosity rather than judgment. At Empower, one of our core values in our Code of Ethics is integrity, which we define as being guided by a belief in the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings. People often assume that we wrote this with the communities we advocate alongside in mind. We did– but we often discuss that means that we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of our elected officials as well. You’ll be a much more effective advocate if you adopt this approach and build a respectful, lasting relationship with your legislators.
Honestly, as I read back over this advice, it can all be summed up in a single quote that you have probably seen many times on bumper stickers, t-shirts and memes: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” I know that this may seem trite and unsatisfying to many, but in the three years that I have held this role (and in the many more years that I’ve been on this Earth), I never cease to be amazed at how many doors that kindness can open. At the end of the day, our legislators are just fellow human beings who want to be treated with kindness and respect. So, rather than “gearing up for battle” this session, let’s remind ourselves of the Golden Rule and treat people how we want to be treated. Who knows how many people you can influence with kindness, honesty, and vulnerability? And, isn’t that the first step for creating a better future for our children and generations to come?
Our optimism for what is possible doesn’t cloud our ability to look at this session realistically. The Senate erupted in anger on their second day back in session, and there are already some Senators who are pledging to filibuster every day if they don’t get their way on certain policies. This is no way to govern, and we should hold those legislators accountable for their actions. There will be many hard moments. There will be many policies proposed on which we vehemently disagree. Legislators will make statements that some will find personally hurtful. It is easy to shut down, tune out, and walk away from the situation. It is much harder to examine our own assumptions, give others the benefit of the doubt, and assume good intentions whenever possible. Either way, lawmakers will pass legislation this session that will impact all of our lives. So, in this new year, each of us has to decide: What do you want your role to be in that process? How do you want to show up to speak truth to power? And, how might your approach change the outcome?
As for us, we’re right by your side. Our team will be continuing to take the approach of building genuine relationships in the capitol, while also tracking nearly 300 pieces of legislation across our three priority areas. This session, you can expect to see more Calls to Action from our team, more sample testimony for those who want to make their voices heard in committee hearings, and more updates on legislators’ actions (or inaction), so that you can make informed decisions on how to engage. We’ll have monthly Friday Forums to engage in deeper learning on core issues, and we’re deep in planning for our annual Week of Action, scheduled for March 25th-29th. Want someone to show you the ropes in meeting with legislators? Save the date to join us in the capitol on Wednesday, March 27th for our Day of Action. Just like in our relationships with lawmakers, we’re here to meet you where you’re at and help you achieve your anti-poverty policy goals for 2024 and beyond!