Citizen Lobbyist: A Unitarian-Universalist Legacy

John Barker, who helped create and lead the Legislative Committee of Unitarian Universalists of Maryland (LegiCUUM), discussed the group’s social action legacy.

Opening Words

I am John Barker, a member of this church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring (UUCSS), since 1969. That’s almost half a century ago. That’s a long time.  My wife, Winona, and I had just come to the DC-area after getting our debt-free post-Sputnik Ph. D. degrees in physiology and physical chemistry from the University of Chicago.  I was on my first job as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the College Park campus of the University of Maryland.  Then for 33 years, I was a NASA Physical Scientist, in Earth Remote Sensing, helping design, characterize and calibrate digital imagers launched on Landsat satellites that looked at the Earth. Today I will be talking about LegiCUUM, the Legislative Committee of Unitarian-Universalists of Maryland, a citizen lobbying group at the state level in the 1970s & 1980s.  I will share some of the lessons learned from this LegiCUUM activity.

This is an anecdotal story on how members of this church, and other UUs have created and are still creating the potential for people to contribute. I will talk about what we, and others, learned about citizen lobbying while helping to get Maryland’s Fair Campaign Financing Act passed around 1982.  Passing a campaign financing law was a monumental result.  It was one of the first such laws in the nation.  Partly as a result of my participation as co-founder and decade-long President of LegiCUUM, LegiCUUM became a model for citizen lobbying around the country. For these efforts, by me and many others, I was given the 1977 social action Holmes-Weatherly Award by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).  This is a UUCSS legacy sermon. It is one that most UUs can share with pride for starting to address the problem of reducing the effect of money in politics.  Welcome to you all.

This sermon is about LegiCUUM, some of its role in passing the Fair Campaign Financing Act around 1982 and some of the lessons learned from these citizen lobbying activities.  It is a legacy UU success story.

One Church Can Make a Difference:  Our church, UUCSS, a medium-sized 300-member UU church, was the center of LegiCUUM activity.  Sometime around 1969 Rev. Dave MacPherson, a former minister of this UUCSS church, and Charlie Culbertson who was a member of Dave’s Towson UU church, invited UUs to an organizational meeting about the possibility of UU lobbying at the state level.  This effort morphed into LegiCUUM, the Legislative Committee of Unitarian Universalists of Maryland in the 1970s and 1980s.  LegiCUUM was a continuation of extensive UUCSS social action activities.  Annual LegiCUUM meetings were typically held at the larger Cedar Lane Unitarian Church and sometimes at the Annapolis UU church. And we met at most of the churches around the state.  But the glue that held LegiCUUM together was the commitment of members of UUCSS.

Volunteer Leadership Was Essential:  It was decided early on that LegiCUUM would be lay-led.  The leaders of LegiCUUM, including myself, were all working full time.  LegiCUUM succeeded because of the commitment of volunteers.  None of us were ever compensated monetarily.  This fact increased our effectiveness.  Legislators knew that we didn’t have a financial interest in what we were pushing.

Lobbyists Need to be Knowledgeable:  If you want repeat access to one-on-one face time with legislators or their staff, it helps if you have something to offer them, such as bringing them something they don’t already know about an issue. This is especially true if it applies to their constituents.  One such tidbit in our prison reform lobbying was finding out that some judges in Pennsylvania were actually requiring prosecutors to give them written pre-sentencing alternatives to incarceration was an example of a particularly effective prison reform idea.  Do your homework. Be informed.

Encourage Individuals to become Experts: Most people become involved in lobbying efforts because of their interest in one specific issue.  Take advantage of that personal drive.  Find ways to help volunteers to use your organization to do the in-depth research that can develop ideas that ultimately can make a difference.

Ideas Are More Important Than People:  UUs are a small fraction of the populace.  Legislators are not looking for UU input before they decide on what to do and how to vote.  However, they are looking for good ideas that they can parley into colleague or constituent support.

Focus, Repeat Your Message Often:  For a generic citizen lobbying group like LegiCUUM, it became important to use our annual conferences to help identify a few issues to emphasize during the next legislative session.  Repeating a few unified ideas over and over again is important in getting both voters and legislators attention.  Try to focus on a few bills that have the most chance of success.

Support Good Legislators:  Legislators write legislation.  They are also the ones who pass it.  It is essential to have legislators who are interested in citizen issues.  Furthermore, after much lobbying, I became less certain that those of us in LegiCUUM knew, or could become informed enough to know, the best answers to almost any of the many complicated issues that we were addressing at the state level.  Therefore, LegiCUUM decided to support legislation that would help put competent people in office and assume that they would figure out what to do.  That legislation was campaign financing reform, which was designed to reduce the impact of money on politics.

Work with Other Organizations:  During the efforts to get public funding for elections, our two most effective allies were Common Cause and The League of Women Voters.  Working with others was the key to success.  Nothing was done by us alone.  Common Cause was on a roll at the time and got attention for public financing that was critical to passing this legislation.  The League of Women Voters did research and educational work over a period of years. It was our combined efforts that got us results.

Treat Failure as Temporary:  At a critical time in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Delegates, we thought we had the votes and were incredibly discouraged when it was voted down.  In fact, we were devastated. This was when LegiCUUM was most effective.  I personally knew several of the legislators who voted against the bill.  I went to them afterwards and asked them what we might change in the bill that would have them vote for it.  Several of them simply said they didn’t have the money.  So, we proposed adding an additional $2 voluntary payment as a check-off on individual Maryland Tax Returns.  They didn’t believe voters would actually add to their taxes, so they agreed with this idea, partly to get us off their backs.  With the help of insiders on computers in Annapolis, we had the bill re-written during the night and on their desks the next day.  It was passed out of committee, gained a life of its own on the floor and passed into law.  Working with others made it possible.  It was important to recognize that a huge defeat in committee was not the end of the game. Individual and collective commitment overcame temporary failure.  Many Marylanders have been making additional $2 contributions annually ever since.

Timing is Everything:  About 1982, campaign financing was an idea whose time had come.  When the time was right, the votes were there.  When an idea reaches the right time, people, including legislators who were opposed, want to be a part of successful passage.  Partly because of good timing, we passed the Fair Campaign Financing Act.  Be prepared, so that you can roll with your ideas when their time comes.  In lobbying, the three key words for success are: timing, timing and timing.

Know Your Legislators and Ask for their Support:  There is no substitute for someone in your organization having personal access to legislators and their staff.  Ideally you work with staff on legislation so that the legislators own it.

Give Away Credits: Let others take credit for anything and everything.  First of all, it did take a village to get anything passed.  More to the point, it costs you nothing to let others feel good about themselves.  Au contraire, effusively thank people for their help.  Help them to feel good about themselves. You want and need self-motivated activists, legislators and their staff, to get things done.

Use Voting Records:  LegiCUUM collected votes on key issues in the House of Delegates and the Senate, including committee votes, and distributed statewide summaries before elections.  It was not easy to find key votes, legislators seemed to avoid taking votes on key issues. Furthermore, past votes can be stale and long summaries of every state legislator was overwhelming for most people. We also were not particularly effective in distributing or communicating these results.  However, it was clear that legislators were aware of our efforts and that did make a difference.

Optimism Trumps Cynicism:  Optimism often suggests new solutions, even to old and seemingly intractable problems.  Pessimism, especially cynicism, tends to focus on arguments against change, often discouraging even trial-and-error approaches to problem-solving.  In the new-idea arena, progressives have an innate advantage over conservatives.  Change is hard for anyone and yet exponential change is the currency of our time.  Embrace it.  Ride the wave.  Stay positive.  Optimism projects confidence.  Remember to smile, it’s contagious, and it also conveys your optimism.

LegiCUUM’s success was an outgrowth of dedicated work by many people over years., Each person made a difference.  Keep your faith.  If your ideas have value, they can prevail when, and if, the time is right.  This is the gift of a liberal faith and a representative democracy.  LegiCUUM is a part of that rich UU legacy.  May the force be with you also as you go forth.

Closing Words

In the process of citizen lobbying, and other socially sensitive UU actions, we can and do make a difference, both for ourselves and for those we implicitly and explicitly enable.  The UUA and our churches are congregational institutions, run by and for members, not run from the top down.  LegiCUUM was created from the bottom up.  It is a model of how to help create change, partly by being in the right place, at the right time.  The original LegiCUUM activity, which has been followed as a state lobby group by the current Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, is an example of a successful UU legacy.  May we, as UUs and as citizens, continue to find ways to improve the well-being of our society.  Let it be so. Amen.