Readers and one state lawmaker react to legislative challenge

Citizen advocacy isn't easy but is important so a Philly state legislator's teaching it.

It’s risky to ask readers to extend themselves on topics to which the vast majority barely pay  attention.

So it was with trepidation that, in a column last week, I challenged readers to engage state lawmakers — on any issue or some of my gripes — and then let me hear about it.

Wishful thinking, right? Who even knows their state lawmakers? Who cares about the budget process or multiple other sins in faraway, insulated Harrisburg?

And yet … I got some interesting stuff in emails, and a noteworthy call from Northwest Philly (and part of Montco) state Sen. Art Haywood.

Don’t know him?

He’s a first-termer, a former legal services attorney specializing in housing issues; degrees from Morehouse, the London School of Economics, University of Michigan Law School; a former Cheltenham Township commissioner.

He’s a Democrat who won his Senate seat in 2014 without support of most of his party’s ward leaders. So that’s good.

And get this: He conducts training sessions in citizen advocacy.

Yep. He’s an insider teaching outsiders how to push important issues and hold insiders accountable. He does presentations and classes for community organizations, church groups and the Mt. Airy Learning Tree. He wants to train 100 citizen advocates a year.

“I’m highly engaged to get citizens to know that legislators work for them,” he says.

He especially stresses contact, and offers do’s and don’ts: Do make an appointment; do clearly identify your issue; don’t vent; don’t go off on lawmakers or parties; and “follow up, follow up, follow up.”

A website (senatorhaywood.com/participate) has detailed advice. His mantra is “Participation is Power.”

Just think if all elected officials actively encouraged engagement. I’m sure you can think of some who should.

Speaking of which, a bunch of readers responded to my call for contacting lawmakers during the legislature’s (ahem) well-deserved two-week Easter/Passover break.

Readers sent suggestions on a range of issues. Here’s a sampling:

After last week’s flap over Lt. Gov. Mike Stack and spouse allegedly mistreating staff and troopers, Karen R. says make the LG’s job a prize in a voters’ lottery.

“If you vote for governor, you are automatically entered to win the job (and its $162K salary) … voter turnout would soar, and the lucky winner would, I’m thinking, be much more likely to do a decent job … be WAY MORE likely to be nice to the staff. No downside, and increased voter participation. What’s not to like?”

Hey, maybe Stack, in his best game-show-host style, can announce the winner.

Joseph M. passed along thoughts he sent his lawmaker. They include: Extend voting over a three-day weekend; open primaries; eliminate lawmakers’ pensions and automatic annual raises; implement term limits.

Oh, Joseph, from your keyboard to God’s ears.

And Dick L. notes that when lawmakers won’t do what people want, “some states allow voters to put measures on the ballot.” He suggests that voter-driven ideas would crank up turnout.

Ah, but unlike 26 other states, Pennsylvania has no provision for initiative and referendum to allow voters a greater say in the direction of their government — which, if you think about it, might be something to advocate for.

Haywood, by the way, is no dreamer. He insists that citizen participation works and points to focused advocacy of “medical marijuana mothers,” moms who successfully lobbied to legalize medical cannabis even though nobody thought staid old stick-in-mud Pennsylvania ever would do so.

(Gov. Wolf was to honor these advocates at a Capitol news conference Monday, the one-year anniversary of signing the medical marijuana bill into law.)

And Haywood gets that advocacy for any important cause is “a big challenge” requiring perseverance. “It’s not a one-year campaign,” he says.

He’s right. But we’ve seen the result of too little public involvement on many issues and reform efforts. And on some issues, we’ve seen the value of citizen engagement.

So the lesson of democracy is pretty clear: works best when used most.