‘If We Don’t Show Up for Our Clean Water and Beaches, No One Does’: Behind-the-Scenes on a Lobby Day in Florida
EcoWatch attends Florida Healthy Beaches Day to demystify the political engagement process.
On Apr. 4, more than 30 advocates took to the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee for Florida Healthy Beaches Day. They hailed from across the sunshine state and represented various chapters and regions of the Surfrider Foundation, Oceana and Healthy Gulf. Their goal was to lobby for their shared legislative priorities: clean water, healthy beaches, less plastic pollution and more resilient coastlines. Joining them and representing the Surfrider Florida Keys Chapter, I learned a ton about what it takes to get involved in the political process.
First off, Surfrider’s Florida policy manager, Emma Haydocy, hosted an Advocacy 101 training session the night before the Lobby Day – to share tips, run through issues and scripts and temper first-time advocates’ fears. According to Haydocy, lobbying is trying to influence or sway towards a desired action. In this context, it could be trying to get something desired by talking to decision-makers. She also covered Florida legislature basics and the process for how an idea becomes a bill and then a law.
Her tips ranged from practical to educational. Here are some of my favorites:
- Don’t be late.
- Wear respectful clothing (suits or business casual) and comfortable shoes.
- Do your homework. Know who your legislators are. Make specific requests (i.e. please co-sponsor X bill, please put this bill on your committee agenda, please ask the Speaker of the House to support this issue, etc.). For specific bills, know who the decision-makers are, who your champions are, and when the vote(s) is happening.
- Take pictures after your meetings and share them on social media. This helps spread awareness and keep legislators engaged and accountable.
- If you can’t meet with a legislator, meet with their staff. These people inform a lot of policy and bill drafts, and it is important for them to hear what you have to say.
- Bring information packets with you to leave with the representatives. These should include bill reference numbers, pertinent background information, desired outcomes (support/oppose/fund/etc.) and your contact information.
- You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s okay to say “I don’t know. Can I get back to you?” That is preferred over making up answers.
- It’s not your job to change everyone’s mind. If someone isn’t aligned, it might be better to pivot to common ground. For example, if someone doesn’t believe in climate change, you can talk about the effect of increased heat or poor water quality on human health.
- Take the long view. We might not get to the finish line on all the issues we want this year, but we can still find champions that can help us get closer next year. These talks are laying the foundation.
- Be respectful and foster relationships. Nonprofit organizations hope to become trusted resources for our legislators through meetings like these. Then, when they are drafting legislation, they will hopefully call on these experts for guidance.
- Send a thank you note and follow up on any points you said you would.
Concluding her training, Haydocy said, “My hope is that this process will be demystified and that you’ll feel more comfortable getting involved and staying engaged in the lawmaking process.”
That’s exactly what happened.
The next day, we started off with a plastics briefing by Rep. Jim Mooney (R-120), who represents my district in the Florida Keys. He explained a bit about preemption – a rule wherein local cities, municipalities and counties cannot legislate for themselves about certain issues. These include plastic pollution, chemical sunscreen use, cruise ship traffic and more. Mooney filed a bill this session to repeal preemptions to single-use plastics but had to withdraw it. We advocates thanked him for the bill and encouraged him to file again next session. He committed and noted that he’d like to do so with more support from other districts.
Throughout the day, I lobbied with Christi Le Mahieu and Anna Aigner from Surfrider Miami and Catherine Uden from Oceana in Florida. It was Le Mahieu and Aigner’s first time lobbying and they were a little nervous. Haydocy’s training helped, as did running through the stories they wanted to share with Surfrider’s regional manager for Florida and Puerto Rico, Evan Orellana. That’s another very helpful thing to do: mock meetings.
Le Mahieu tests water quality for Surfrider Miami. She brought attention to an area of Miami that has been contaminated and unsafe for over three years. Despite this, there is little signage for the public, and people often kayak and paddle board through here. They develop skin lesions, and wildlife gets sick.
Orellana told a similar story in his meetings, about fishing one day in Broward County, Florida and subsequently developing a staph infection on his leg. The next day, the beach was shut down for bacterial contamination.
Aigner, a native of Austria, shared how it was her lifelong dream to live by a beach; now that she does, she feels a deep responsibility to keep it clean and safe.
Personal stories like these are another lobbying tactic that really works. “Research, facts, science – all super important to bring to the table when we’re meeting with our elected officials. But, even more important, is to bring real stories from real people whom these people represent,” Haydocy explained. Facts and reports help paint the bigger picture, and personal stories humanize the issues.
“Lawmakers need to hear from their constituents – people in their districts – about the issues that matter most to them,” Haydocy continued. “That’s why we’re up here in Tallahassee with our volunteers advocating for healthy beaches and clean water in Florida.”
Throughout the rest of the day, we met with senators, representatives and/or their staff. We shared our facts and stories and left them all with informational folders with more reference materials and our contact information. At many points, we asked legislators to clarify their positions on key issues and bills. Most obliged, and we were able to mark them down as key champions for the next session. For offices with whom we couldn’t arrange any meetings, we still left informational folders with them.
In total, we met with 22 offices to support clean water, reduce plastic pollution, and to prioritize resiliency efforts in the face of climate change. These meetings were critical to “lay the foundation for future campaign wins in Florida,” Haydocy said.
At the end of the day, Le Mahieu said, “My key takeaway from this is that they’re people and they listen. They really do care what we have to say. I was always one of those people that thought, ‘Oh my voice doesn’t matter. Nobody is gonna listen to me.’ – That’s not true. They listen. They care. So get involved. Do it. Come out; make your voice heard.”
Aigner added, “Just do it! It’s easier than you think and it makes a difference.”
As for me, I was left feeling grateful for having a way to actually participate in the political process. Being able to schedule an appointment with those who represent us to discuss the issues that do affect our lives is a privilege that not everyone enjoys or has at their disposal. I would absolutely join another Lobby Day and encourage anyone with an interest to do so.
“If we don’t show up for our clean water and beaches, no one does,” Haydocy concluded. Let’s do this.
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