Capitol 101: An approachable intro to civic engagement  

| March 19, 2018 | 0 Comments

Steve Seidl of St. Paul in Ham Lake, right, greets Sen. Michelle Benson at the Capitol 101 event at the State Capitol March 16, sponsored by the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

As of March 16, more than 4,000 bills had been introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives. The count was around 3,700 for the Senate.

There’s no way state legislators can study all of those bills, which is why they depend on their constituents to draw their attention to what’s most important, Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, told a group of Catholics gathered at the State Capitol.

“Legislators need you as friends, and they need you as a resource,” he said in a March 16 presentation. “Any given legislative session, there are thousands of bills introduced every year. Legislators can’t keep track of all those bills. No one really can.”

Adkins spoke to 14 participants in the second of three Capitol 101 events the MCC is hosting for the first time this year. The morning event included presentations from three legislators, training on speaking with lawmakers and a basic instruction to key legislation of concern to Minnesota’s Catholic bishops. MCC is the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota.

The information left an impression on the event’s participants. “I was surprised to learn how many bills are involved in each session,” said Michael Gross, 46, a parishioner of St. Joseph in West St. Paul. “It drove home the importance of meeting with our senator and representatives to develop a relationship and to draw their attention to certain concerns that we have.”

Fellow participant Matt Gulseth said he hasn’t been “involved politically,” but the 52-year-old parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis believes he gained tools to help him find “the best ways to engage or interact, to lobby … as a citizen.”

Sen. Michelle Benson from Ham Lake, Rep. Kelly Fenton from Woodbury and Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, all Catholic, presented.

Benson offered tips on engaging legislators and emphasized the need to lean on logic in dialogue, especially with legislators who don’t agree with them on the issue. She said using the faith as the basis for policy positions won’t reach many legislators.

“The most important thing that you can do is help a legislator understand your story or why the issue impacts your life or matters to you,” Benson said. “You have to think a little about why they should care.”

Benson also said providing educational materials can help citizens inform their lawmakers on issues. She said mailing it increases the odds of it being seen.

She noted that politeness and keeping to lawmakers’ schedules go a long way, and that communication should be clear and concise.

Fenton said personal, handwritten letters can also make an impact. “That’s going to go to the top of my list” for correspondence, she said. “It means something [to legislators] to hear from your heart.”

Fenton said constituents don’t have to meet legislators in their St. Paul offices; they can also meet in their respective districts when the Legislature isn’t in session. Regardless of the setting, she emphasized that people should call in advance to set up a meeting.

All of the March 16 legislator-speakers were Republican, but Adkins said that was a fluke of the calendar; Democrats were unavailable to present due to their legislative schedules. The event is not partisan, he emphasized. It also included presentations on how a bill becomes law and how to engage effectively with legislators on difficult issues. MCC staff covered two policy areas of concern: gestational surrogacy regulation and the link between sex trafficking and pornography.

MCC encouraged attendees to participate in its Catholic Advocacy Network, which offers issue resources and bill tracking. The event concluded with a rosary in the Capitol rotunda.

MCC hosted its first Capitol 101 session Feb. 26. The series’ final event will take place 9 a.m.to noon April 17. It is free, but an RSVP is required. For more information, visit mncatholic.org.

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