by Kim Charlson
In late February, nearly 100 leaders of the American Council of the Blind from across the country, gathered in the Washington, D.C. area to learn the latest on ACB's key legislative initiatives. The two primary priorities for the ACB 2014 legislative seminar were H.R. 3749, The Medicare Demonstration of Coverage for Low Vision Devices Act of 2013 and H.R. 4040, The Alice Cogswell and Anne Sullivan Macy Act of 2014.
I was so impressed with the enthusiasm demonstrated by those present on the issues and their excitement in visiting Capitol Hill. All of the attendees set up appointments with members of their Congressional delegations and spent the final day of the legislative seminar walking around visiting offices to discuss ACB issues.
My own Massachusetts delegation was comprised of six attendees, and we divided up our 11 representatives and senators so that each team of two people would visit offices including their own representative. Some delegations from larger states like Florida, California and Pennsylvania had incredible numbers of office visits to make during the day, but all attendees took their assigned task in stride, walking up and down Capitol Hill making visits.
While most appointments were with key legislative staff in the Washington, D.C. office, some members did have the opportunity to meet directly with their representative or senator. Whether the meetings were with staff or the elected officials directly, the value of a personal visit is priceless. Such meetings are the first step in beginning the critical process of building a trusted relationship with a representative or senator, and provide ACB members with the opportunity to spotlight our priority issues.
Not all of our legislative advocacy has to take place in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill. Every U.S. representative and senator has local district offices at home, and you and your members can make an appointment and go in and visit with them in person. In many ways, these local meetings are even more effective than the Capitol Hill appointments, since you generally can meet with the elected official and can have more time to discuss the issues and begin to build a long-term relationship. The ultimate goal is that your legislator will think of you and your affiliate as their "go to" resource on blindness issues.
When I first moved to Massachusetts in 1985, I was very excited to learn that I had moved into the district for then Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives "Tip" O'Neill. He is credited with coining the phrase "All politics is local." This is now a common phrase in the political arena, which captures the concept that a politician's success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of highest importance to his or her constituents. It is usually the personal issues, rather than big and intangible ideas like world peace, that are most often what voters care about. The reality is that most people who vote are focused on resolving their local issues.
I was honored to witness firsthand two outstanding examples of ACB state affiliates building amazing relationships. In the fall, I was pleased to attend the state convention of the Alabama Council of the Blind. During their convention, Gov. Robert Bentley dropped in to address the membership. His remarks were clear, and targeted to the concerns and key issues of the membership of the Alabama Council of the Blind.
More recently, I had the privilege to attend the convention of the Hawaii Association of the Blind in Honolulu. While the flight was long, and the visit too short, the fellowship and relationships and the true "Aloha spirit" were strong. As I sat down at the banquet head table, I was introduced to their special guest for the evening, Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Many leaders of the HAB have been growing a relationship with Gov. Abercrombie since the early 1970s, when he was entering public service as a state senator. They have talked with him, campaigned for him, worked with him on issues, and become more than constituents, they have become respected friends and colleagues. His remarks to the convention audience were so focused and he discussed his funding increase for blindness services in Hawaii.
I would appreciate hearing from other affiliates that have developed these types of close relationships with elected officials. Each and every one of you can grow your local relationships to help in advancing the advocacy agenda for your affiliate and for ACB. Take the step, reach out and make that first appointment in your community to begin a new relationship that will benefit the future of people who are blind in your state and across the nation.