A (virtual) Meeting on Capitol Hill

Washtenaw Climate Reality

One of our U.S. Senators for Michigan, Gary Peters, is up for re-election this year.  Our chapter thought it could be a great time to engage Senator Peters on the topic of the climate crisis, to let him know where we stand and urge him to be an even more vocal leader on climate change.

Earlier in 2020, we began the process of trying to schedule a meeting with Senator Peters himself, on the chance that it might just be possible.  We had pleasant interactions with the office, but weren’t successful in scheduling a meeting.

Then our chapter’s Political Coordinator, David Gurk, attended the July Climate Reality Leadership training.  One of the skill-building sessions focused specifically on “Influencing Decisionmakers: Digital Lobbying”, giving step-by-step guidance for requesting, scheduling, and conducting a meeting with elected officials.  Using the techniques described in this session, David was able to schedule a meeting with senior members of Senator Gary Peters’ staff.  Seven people from our chapter leadership team were also able to attend.

Below are David’s thoughts and takeaways on the meeting.

I had been trying for quite some time to arrange an online meeting for our chapter members with Senator Gary Peters from Michigan. I was never turned down flat, but I was having no success getting the meeting scheduled and it became clear to me that I would be unlikely to be able to get such a meeting scheduled.

So I finally decided to ask for a meeting with staffers, and I was immediately able to do so. While not a direct meeting with the senator, it was the next best thing to it.

The meeting occurred via Zoom on Thursday, August 13, 2020. Seven of our members participated: Kris Olsson, Keira Higgins, Heidi Koester, Kent Kasper, Horst Schmidt, Jeff Alson, and myself. Three staffers from the senator’s team were there: Catherine Barrett, Chris Matus, and Alanna Chapell. It’s interesting to note that the two senior staffers both have specific education and professional experience related to climate and the environment. Catherine Barrett is the Chief Counsel for Senator Peters, with a degree in Environmental Law. Chris Matus is the senator’s Regional Director for the Detroit area.

Senator Peters is finishing up his first term in the Senate and is in the middle of a re-election campaign. He has a reputation for placing a high priority on environmental issues, and has a strong 93% voting score from the League of Conservation Voters. But he has taken a low profile during his first term and hasn’t mentioned climate in any of his campaign ads.

We wanted to ask specific questions about how he planned to pursue climate policy during the next session and if he planned to give climate action a higher profile throughout the rest of the campaign. We prepared extensively (maybe over-prepared) and came in with a good number of questions and several “asks.”

As the staffer most responsible for legislative policy, Catherine Barrett was the primary person who answered our questions. She clearly knows a lot about climate and climate policy and she was very complete in her answers. The hour flew by quickly, and we were able to ask only about half of the questions we had prepared.

So we jumped ahead to our three asks before the hour ran out. First, in the most general of our asks, we asked for the senator to be a visible and outspoken advocate for ambitious and comprehensive climate legislation when the next session starts in January. We mentioned that most of the climate leaders in Congress are from the coasts and we would like him to be the outspoken climate leader from the Midwest. Catherine stated that the senator is ready to “hit the ground running in the next Congress,” to work on comprehensive climate legislation that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as create clean economic opportunities for Michiganders, as well as all Americans.

Second, we asked for the senator to make climate a major talking point in his campaign from this point forward. We emphasized that climate action is now considered a good and important thing by most of the electorate, and highlighting it in his campaign should be an electoral benefit.

And third, in the most specific of our asks, we asked him to write a piece about the importance of climate action in one of the major publications in Michigan, emphasizing the crucial role investment in green energy and green infrastructure could play in the recovery from the recession brought on by the Covid crisis. 

The staffers couldn’t give us definitive immediate answers to our requests, of course. But they did say they would pass everything we said along to Senator Peters as well as to the campaign team. I am hopeful that the senator will be a strong advocate for climate action next year, though I’m not sure he will be as upfront and outspoken as we would like. He is more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. I am less optimistic that he will mention climate much during the remainder of the campaign or that he will author the article we were asking for. It seems clear at this point that the senator is running a cautious, conservative campaign that avoids all issues he considers controversial. I’m afraid that includes climate action. But hope springs eternal, we made our case, and we will follow up to see if he will comply with our requests.

If nothing else, we established a relationship with the senator’s office. We let them know that the senator has constituents who care deeply about climate, who expect strong climate advocacy from him, and will have his back if he takes a strong stand. The staffers were very receptive to us and encouraged us to keep in contact with them, and we hope we improved the chances that we will have some sway with them when it comes to formulating policy next year.

Thanks to David’s persistence along with guidance from the Climate Reality Project, we had a great initial meeting! If you want ideas for how to have your own meeting with a decision-maker, see the Climate Reality Project’s digital lobbying toolkit. Or get in touch with us via the comments section below to discuss further.

What experiences have you had with digital lobbying?

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