A State Senator Talks About Advocacy
State Senator Sarah Elfreth represents about 130,000 people in Maryland. We talked to her about how advocacy looks from the lawmaker's point of view and what advocacy organizations can do to be more effective partners.
Q&A: Maryland State Senator Sarah Elfreth
In 2018, Sarah Elfreth became the youngest woman ever to be elected to the Maryland State Senate, a job she came to after spending four years as the Government Affairs Director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Inside the legislature, she serves on the Budget & Taxation Committee and chairs her county’s delegation. Outside, she sits on the Chesapeake Bay Commission and teaches political science and public policy at Towson University.
We spoke to the senator, who represents roughly 130,000 people in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, about the partnership between advocacy organizations and lawmakers, the role of grassroots advocacy, how to maximize impact and the importance of compromise. The conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.
Tell us what resonates with you when it comes to advocacy.
At the end of the day, I work for one group of people, which is my constituents. So while I certainly will listen to people who live outside of my district, they’re not my boss. I really try to encourage people to only contact your own representatives, especially on an issue that we’re hearing from a lot of people on. It’s nice to hear that somebody from Baltimore County cares about an issue, but I don’t work for that person. So we give tremendously more value to constituents’ concerns.
I feel a lot of organizations email the entire committee, and that’s not really helpful to us. I want to hear from my constituents. If a group cares about an issue, it’s really incumbent upon them to find somebody in my district who also cares and have that person reach out to me.
What is the best way an organization might get your attention?
There’s a hierarchy in advocacy. An in-person meeting is, I think, the most impactful for me and I’ve never said no to a meeting in my life. I certainly would never say no to a meeting with constituents. So that’s always kind of like the top tier, the gold standard. And then, a Zoom meeting or phone call, a physical letter, and a personalized email.
I would put a form email at the very bottom of advocacy strategy, and then at the very, very bottom—I think it’s actually harmful to do this—is social media advocacy. If someone tweets at me, especially if the person behind a tweet is an anonymous twitter handle and I don’t know their name, I don’t know where they live, and I don’t know if they’re my constituent, that actually can be more of a detriment than a value-add in terms of advocacy.
Tell us more about that.
My only real resource is time, and I’m not going to sit and get in a Twitter fight with somebody if I don’t even know their name or if they’re my constituent. Social media has a role here in terms of organizing people. But in terms of effective strategy, I think it’s actually kind of harmful. Think about it from a legislator’s perspective. I use social media to communicate what’s going on. I have Twitter, I have Instagram and an email newsletter that goes out. If someone tags me on something, it’s very easy for that tag to get lost, especially in a legislative session when we’re going 90 miles an hour. So for me, the best way is any form of communication that I can track and ensure that there’s a follow up plan. Anything on social media is a real headache for us internally in terms of constituent service.
How many staff do you have?
I only have two, and I think that is missed a lot. People might think we have 10, like a congressional office. I have two staff who both work very hard. But we’re a total of three people, and we have a rule: we try to respond to everything within 48 hours. Most people are very understanding of that, and then you have some people who want us to respond immediately. That’s just not physically possible.
Legislative sessions are quick. Where does advocacy fit in.
In the Senate alone, we had about 1,100 bills last year, and then another 1,400 House bills—all within 90 days. And then on top of that, we have our own bills that we’re sponsoring and we have our committee work. So another piece of advice is understanding that, while something might be important to an advocate, the legislator probably has a dozen meetings on various issues in a day. We’re dealing with hundreds of issues.
The best advocacy advice I ever got was back when I was a lobbyist was it’s not your job to change a legislator’s mind, it’s your job to create the circumstances around which they can change their mind. Making it relevant to them is going to be a lot more successful and effective than just coming in and saying something is important.
When people do get a meeting, it might be 15 minutes. What is the best way to make an impact?
Unfortunately, during the session it is 15 minutes, and probably a series of six in a row. So having something written down is always helpful, but in a very distilled way—a one pager with relevant statistics and why this issue is important generally, but also why it is important to that legislator’s district. Speak to the urgency of it. Why do we have to address this issue?
Also, be prepared to answer the question I always ask, which is, ‘what does the opposition say about this?’ Be fair in that response. So much of this is built on trust. If you don’t have the answer, simply say you don’t have the answer but you can get it in the next 24 hours. Just being a reasonable partner works.
What else can organizations do to make their case?
Requesting that in person meeting and, if possible, bringing one of my constituents to that meeting to speak from their own personal perspective on why something is important to them. In my district, that’s always so much more impactful than someone flying in from California to lobby me. All politics is local, and trying to make everything hyper local and relevant to my constituents is going to get me to care much more than somebody coming in from out of state.
Inboxes get filled up by organizations doing strong grassroots. How do you react to that?
My first advice is to avoid form letters really at all costs. I think they have become lazy advocacy strategy. That’s not to say there’s not a method in which you can make it easy for an advocate to send an email. But the important thing is that the email is personalized from that advocate. And always, always, always include an address, because my first question to my staff when they come in and say ‘we got 200 emails overnight’ is ‘how many of those were constituents?’
And then we keep a running tally. I will read the ones that are from constituents. And, more likely than not, I’ll have it in my head that another 150 people from around the state reached out, but I’m probably not going to read those emails. I’m only going to really focus my limited time and energy on my constituents’ concerns.
How do organizations that do GOTV factor in?
If people care passionately about an issue and they want me to take a particular vote that is challenging or that might put me in hot water in my next election, I always appreciate people coming out and helping me talk to my voters about why that issue was important, why I took that hard vote and why it was necessary. I always appreciate that. It’s obviously not a requirement, but I think it shows that this is a partnership here. I’m willing to take difficult votes that are a challenge for me back home if my advocacy partner is willing to have my back and communicate the importance of that issue.
What is the top mistake you see in advocacy?
All of this work in the legislative process is about compromise and consensus and deal making. When an advocate comes to us wanting 100% or nothing, I’m much less likely to want to work with that person, because that’s just untenable. They are not dealing on the same playing field as everybody else here. Everybody has to come in willing to give something up. This is the place where you can get 75% of what you want, or 50% of what you want, in a reasonable way and know that’s still going to be a win for you. So, coming in knowing where you’re going to compromise is really helpful for us because our job, more times than not, is to find that middle ground.