The Basics on District Meetings
How to Organize a District Meeting
Great resource for planning your district meeting: VIDEO
Check out this training video on holding a district meeting, produced by MoveOn and our partners at Wellstone Action:
A district meeting is, very simply, a meeting with an elected official or their staff, held with constituents in the district. A district meeting can be a small gathering with just one or two representatives of a single organization, or you may decide to invite representatives of several allied organizations (though it’s usually not possible to have more than 7-8 people because of the size of district offices).
Usually a district meeting has two main goals:
- Build the long-term relationship with the elected official. The impressions we make in our direct interactions with the member in the district can be some of the most lasting. These meetings are an excellent opportunity to tell your petition’s story and communicate its support in the district.
- Gain the official’s support on a specific campaign. The meeting is a great opportunity to nail the official down to a clear position and hold him/her to it.
The power of a district meeting is that it’s an opportunity for constituents–actual voters in the district–to communicate directly with their representatives. Lobbyists meet with and speak them all the time in Washington, DC, or the state capitol, or at city hall. In those interactions, issue experts present fact-based, persuasive arguments on the issue and discuss political strategy.
District meetings are qualitatively different, however, because the representative is meeting with constituents who have the power to hold them accountable in a way that no lobbyist can. As a result, district meetings can be far more effective for pushing someone to make a clear commitment on an issue or to engage in a substantive discussion. Bottom line: it’s easy to dodge a question from a lobbyist, but it’s a lot harder to do that with voters whose support you will need come Election Day.
Step-by-Step: How to Organize a District Meeting
1. Plan your district meeting strategy
There’s a lot to decide before you get started. Whom do you want to meet with? The representative? The senators? Who will be invited to the meeting?
These answers to these questions should flow from your overall campaign strategy. If you’re working on health care and your strategy is to show that reforming our health care system will be good for the economy, you’ll probably want some local small business leaders to join you to add credibility to that argument. Also you’ll want to think carefully about the long-term relationship with the member and the best group to tell the story about your petition. If you want to stress the diversity of supporters that you have for your petition, for instance, you will want to make sure a diverse range of constituency groups are represented.
Timing is another important consideration. Unless your district is very close to Washington or your state capital (depending on who your petition targets), usually district meetings can only be held during recesses, when Congress or your state legislature goes out of session and members typically go back to the district to meet with constituents. For Congress, you can get the Congressional calendars at www.House.gov and www.Senate.gov (remember the House and Senate maintain separate schedules, and the schedule can change at the very last minute depending on political developments). Generally speaking, however, there are week-long recesses around major holidays and longer recesses in August, December, and in election years from late September to January.
Constituents speak with their representative during a district meeting.
2. Request the meeting
To get a meeting personally with a member, you should plan to request your meeting at least a month in advance. Members have very busy schedules, and they simply can’t meet with everyone who would like to speak with them. U.S. Senators can be especially difficult to schedule.
Every member of Congress has a staff person called their “scheduler.” This person’s whole job is to manage the member’s schedule. You’ll start by calling the scheduler and asking for the meeting. You’ll usually have to have a brief written request explaining what you want to discuss and who will be present. These request letters can be very simple and brief, but many offices won’t even consider a meeting request until they have it on paper.
When asking for the meeting, here are some tips:
- Be nice to the scheduler. Schedulers are generally pretty junior, but they are influential. If they like you, they just might put your request on the top of the stack. Ask politely if they have time to speak before launching into your request. If there’s time for chit-chat, take a minute to ask them how long they’ve worked for the member, where they’re from, will they be home in the district during the recess?
- Stress the political urgency of the meeting. Schedulers are always thinking, “can this wait, or does it have to happen now?” There are so many demands on a member’s time, that often they can only get to the most urgent appointments. Therefore, you should stress if there’s an upcoming vote or a particular reason why the issue is becoming hot in the local press or a matter of particular concern for constituents.
- Be very flexible with timing. It’s common that the scheduler will offer you a specific time to meet and assume that you’ll rearrange your schedule to accommodate them.
- Never pressure or threaten. There’s a fine line between communicating urgency and seeming like you’re pressuring them. Urgency is a compelling reason to make a meeting. But if you’re pressuring them, they may decide not to meet with you at all.
- Recognize that they don’t have to meet with you. If they say no, be polite. If they can only spare 10 minutes for a quick conversation, be appreciative.
- Check to see if the member has “office hours” or a “constituent breakfast” where voters can meet the member directly. Usually you’ll only get moment or two at events like this, but it’s worth doing if you can’t get a sit-down meeting.
3. Prepare a packet of materials
It’s a good idea to present to the member a packet of materials that both tell the story of your petition in their district and also make the case on the issue. Good things to include are: your petition, factsheets on the issue, local press clippings on your petition or the issue, coalition letters, etc.
4. Prepare your meeting attendees
It’s crucial to decide in advance what key points you want to stress, the commitment you are asking for, and the roles each meeting attendee will play. You probably won’t have much time, so you don’t want to have members of the group going off on a tangent or repeating points made by others.
It’s best to identify one person who will be the primary convener of the meeting, and then you can assign others specific roles, like making the case for a specific aspect of the issue or telling a story about your petition. You may want to assign one person the role as “note taker,” so that you can record exactly what the member says and don’t end up with conflicting accounts.
5. Hold the meeting
Typically, a 25-minute meeting agenda will be as follows:
- Introductions, including thanking member for their support on something (3-5 min.)
- Issue presentation, including key local impacts (5-6 min.)
- Commitment (1 min.)
- Discussion of commitment, feedback from member (7-8 min.)
- Wrap-up, thanks, confirming any follow-up steps (2-3 min.)
Here are some additional tips for an effective district meeting:
- Always treat the member with respect. Do not interrupt, never threaten, and always maintain a civil, respectful tone, even if they are saying things that are upsetting or inaccurate. Occasionally a member may even act in a rude or disrespectful manner. Do not respond in kind.
- Allow the member to speak 50% or more of the time in the meeting, but try to make it a dialogue.
- Within the first few minutes, be sure to confirm the amount of time they have available and restate the agenda so you don’t accidentally run out of time or waste the meeting on side-issues.
- Ask for your commitment very clearly and directly. For instance, “will you vote for X bill?” If they give a vague non-answer, don’t be afraid to nail them down by asking again or in a slightly different way.
- Be sure to leave as much time as possible to go back and forth on the commitment. If ask for the commitment right at the end of the meeting, it will be very easy for the member to avoid answering your question directly. It may require 5-10 minutes of follow up to nail them down.
- Leave extra time in your meeting agenda, assuming that the agenda will take longer than planned.
- Don’t assume they know a lot about the issue you’re talking to them about.
- Don’t feel like you need to be an in-depth issue expert. Your primary power is based on the constituents you represent in the district and the fact that they care about the issue.
Be sure to debrief thoroughly on the meeting as soon after as possible. Compare notes, and finalize a thorough write-up of what happened. Report back to your RC and organizer. If you said you’d get back to the member on anything during the meeting, do so promptly.