Oregon Lobbyists as Advocates for Citizen Engagement

by Rayleen McMillan

Mention of lobbyists often provokes images of fast-talking dealmakers wearing expensive suits and singlehandedly bending legislation to the will of their clients. While components of this image might hold up in circumstances elsewhere, the general perception is wholly inaccurate within discussion of Oregon politics. Money most definitely plays a role in Oregon’s political landscape, as does strategic framing of issues. However, the accessibility of our legislature is uniquely high, and its inhabitants outwardly pride themselves on being citizens first and legislators second. In Oregon’s “Citizen Legislature”, there are many access points at which the public can work to influence policy– and while this measure is certainly taken up by individual Oregonians on a wide variety of issues, the most effective legislative advocacy is engaged by combining the efforts of professional lobbyists and the grassroots organization of the clients that employ them.

In fact, this coupling of “inside strategy” and “outside strategy” is considered a best practice for an entity to push either a particular bill or their entire legislative agenda. Perhaps this has to do with the above-mentioned pride that the members of Oregon’s legislative body take in their service as citizen legislators– relating to their constituents as fellow Oregonians is a paramount priority, and so their responsiveness to constituent activism is heightened. Whatever the reasoning, it is common practice in Salem for lobbyists and other types of legislative advocates to utilize outside strategy as a primary tactic for asserting their policy priorities. As Emma Kallaway, Executive Director of the Oregon Student Association puts it: “Grassroots tactics play an incredibly important role in Oregon politics. Oregonians for decades have prided themselves on having a Legislature that is connected to the people and to the voter. Without grassroots organizing, we are not fulfilling the collective values of Oregon.” [1]

This paper will discuss what this type of strategy looks like when partnered with other types of lobbying, give examples of how the Oregon Legislature and the State Capitol lend themselves to ease of access for entities wishing to engage this strategy, and serve to illustrate that Oregon boasts one of the more accessible legislatures in the United States.

Oregon Legislative Information System: “Who, What, Where, and When” On Demand

One component of the Oregon Legislature’s accessibility is the ease with which the public can access information on it. The Oregon Legislative Information System (commonly referred to by its acronym “OLIS” and pronounced “ole-iss”) makes tracking bills, committee meetings, and chamber floor sessions easy for any Oregonian whether they are in Salem or in another part of the world. A series of mouse clicks (or screen touches, as OLIS is compatible with smart phones and tablet devices as well) can tell a user exactly where in the legislative process a particular bill is, when and where a certain committee is meeting, or what a chamber’s floor agenda looks like on a particular date. The office of Legislative Media has its own section of the website, which was revamped and improved significantly prior to the 2015 legislative session. Here, not only can OLIS users stream committee hearings and floor sessions as they happen, but all content is archived for easy public access, twenty-four hours per day. Legislative concepts and bills are searchable by a number of identifying factors, and a bill’s webpage stores a myriad of information on it as it moves through the legislative process. As a bill first has public hearings and then work sessions, the documents submitted for testimony both in favor and opposed to it (by legislators, lobbyists and the public alike) are stored on the same page that offers information on its sponsors, current status, and any amendments made to it. If this didn’t provide enough ease of access, OLIS offers automated email update lists for all bills and legislative committees, so that any member of the public can be among the first to know when a specific bill takes another step toward becoming law, or can stay updated on the workings of a committee whose topic is of particular interest. Truly, an entire paper could be written just on the functionality of OLIS, but even this very brief summary should serve to indicate that tracking activity during the legislative session requires little more than internet access and basic web navigation skills. Citizens and lobbyists alike take full advantage of the functionality of OLIS, and use it as a core tool in planning their outreach efforts in the Capitol.

Committee Testimony: Speaking to the Heart of the Legislative Process

Because of the strength of the committee system in Oregon State government, committee testimony is one of the key access points to influence potential legislation. All bills assigned to a committee must have a public hearing, and any member of the public can offer testimony during this time. As Russ Dondero and William Lunch put it, “Oregon’s open meeting laws give citizens relatively easy access to the legislative process. Citizens can simply show up at a public hearing and sign in to testify before a legislative committee. Lobbyists use this access with great effect. Often, hearing rooms overflow with citizen advocates taking time off from work or school to be heard.” [2]

While isolated testimony from concerned individual citizens is certainly not uncommon, the most impactful type of public hearing will contain one or more testimony “panels”, most often orchestrated by lobbyists. These panels generally have a few different kinds of stakeholders offer comments to the committee. Best practice is to combine content experts (people who can speak to the hard facts and empirical impact of a bill) and experience experts (people whose real-world lives as citizens will be notably affected by either the bill’s passage or non-passage). These testimony panels are sometimes put together last-minute in response to surprise legislative activity, but are many times planned out well in advance in concert with legislators whose priorities are affected by the bill in question. Lobbyists often seek to put these panels together with folks who have varied vantage points on the issue, but present a united stance on a particular piece of policy. For example, to provide panel testimony on a piece of policy directly affecting public higher education, a college or university’s lobbyist might bring together a student, a professor, a staff member, and somebody from the institution’s administration in order to present a united front on a policy or budgetary ask. These are four types of stakeholders who have very different perspectives on the way a particular piece of legislation will affect their livelihood, and can give legislators a sense of the various types of impact their vote will have.

Lobbyists, who are often “in the building” and perpetually available for testimony as content experts on the legislation they are tracking, orchestrate but often refrain from participating on these testimony panels in favor of focusing the attention on the Oregonians who it will affect the most. We see that a personal story goes a long way in legislative advocacy in Oregon: as this paper continually repeats, these citizen legislators seek to continually connect with the constituents that put them in office. Committee hearings are a prime opportunity for any Oregon citizen to tell their elected officials in person why they should or should not support a particular piece of legislation, and when this is done in organized numbers it can be quite compelling for both individual legislators and the committees they comprise.

The Lobby Visit: Talking Directly with Your Legislators

Another point of the policy process that we see this combination of content expertise and experience expertise play out is in legislative visits. Lobbyists understand that their presence alone is sometimes not enough to either advance or block a bill, and they often bring in stakeholders to share their personal expertise during a personal visit with a legislator. In discussing the cooperation between the professional lobbyist and the citizen, Kallaway says: “The partnership is really important. The most important thing to a legislator is hearing a problem and suggestion for solution from a constituent, but they recognize that the average constituent does not have time to continually and effectively lobby.”

This type of lobby visit is most effective when the visitor is both an area expert and a constituent of the legislator but, depending on the circumstances, either of these two qualifiers can be enough to warrant a visit. Lobbyists that work on issue politics often find it very effective to bring in an entire group of a legislator’s constituents to talk about issues that are affecting them, and this could either be regarding a particular bill, or to discuss overarching themes in needs and legislative priorities. These visits are generally about fifteen minutes long, and so must be planned with precision to be most effective. Scheduling them involves an email or a phone call to the member’s legislative staff, and is usually done with more ease than citizens might guess. Entire “lobby days” (discussed later in this paper) are sometimes utilized to advocate for an organization’s legislative priorities, and these lobby days most often consist of a series of these visits.

“Call Your Senator Today”: Mass Contact Tactics

Activated Oregonians are certainly no strangers to pleas of, ‘contact your elected officials’, and we are not unique in this sense. In his book The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States, Alan Rosenthal offers empirical data from a study in California, South Carolina, and Wisconsin: “92 percent of the organizations and 94 percent of the lobbyists reported that they had influential constituents contact legislators’ offices and 83 percent of the former and 82 percent of the latter has inspired letter-writing campaigns.” [3] What some may not realize is how effective these lobbying tactics can be, especially if they are well-organized and delivered strategically together with other efforts. The type of strategy best suited for this tactic is beneficial to the elected official– if they are on the fence regarding whether they are going to support or oppose a particular piece of legislation, hearing from their constituents about how it will affect life in the district is very helpful. This lobbying technique is used to compliment other inside and outside strategies, and is often coordinated per a timeline laid out parallel to the overall strategy. Dondero and Lunch tell us that “State affiliates of [single interest] groups have the capacity to alert members on short notice using phone banks and email, and may quickly organize postcard, phone, and email campaigns and rallies to pressure legislators.” [4]

Sometimes, activist groups aim to “shut down” phone lines or clog up email inboxes with pleas for a certain action, and this should be considered a separate type of effort than the one employed by professional lobbyists. Members of the lobby understand how valuable a legislator’s time and resources are, and adherence to professional conduct standards should not allow them to encourage intrusive efforts. They encourage respect and brevity in the correspondence, and recognize that the most important message is to illustrate to the legislator how their district as a whole is affected by the policy in question. Supporting the effectiveness of these tactics, Rosenthal tells us that “Direct lobbying and committee appearances are features of the ‘inside game’ of lobbying. There is also an ‘outside game’, which in the past twenty or thirty years has become almost a routine part of the process. Whenever possible, a group that can mobilize its members will do so, in one way or another. Legislators are impressed by grassroots, whereby rank-and-file citizens telephone, email, write, or visit representatives on behalf of the position on a bill of the group with which they affiliate or that they support. Grassroots activity is a continuous element of the legislative session.” [5]

Plenty of a legislator’s constituent engagement is done within the district they represent, giving lobbyists another opportunity to engage the legislative process. This is particularly helpful during the interim (when the legislature is not in session), in order to frame issues that a lobbyist will be working on during an upcoming session. Often, visits of this nature are not about specific bills, but aim to build a solid relationship with the legislator so that both parties can move into the legislative session with a certain amount of trust and mutual understanding. These opportunities for engagement will often consist of tours of interest to the legislator, inviting the legislator to be a guest of honor at community events, or visits at the legislator’s district office. While beneficial to the lobbyist who gets an opportunity for “face time” with a legislator who might partner with them on their legislative agenda, these types of engagement are also quite beneficial for the legislator, who seeks during the interim to engage the residents of their district as best they can. One higher education lobbyist interviewed for this paper discussed the importance of campus visits for the legislators who want to support education in their policy priorities: “If the lawmaker has recently visited the classroom and talked with students about the personal transformations that take place within it, they are set up for much more success when they discuss this importance with their colleagues. They win, we win, and public higher education wins. So we will always make time for a legislator who wants to visit campus.”

Lobby Days: Your Organization’s Time to Shine in the Capitol

A least a few times per week throughout a standard legislative session, “lobby days” take place at the Capitol, hosted by myriad different organizations. These days are a chance for professional lobbyists to engage in personalized and customized legislative outreach with their clients and organizational stakeholders at their side– creating the sort of internal/external dynamic strategy discussed above, but compiling a wide variety of visuals and advocacy tactics within one day. Dondero and Lunch tell us that “There are many constituent lobby days when hundreds of citizens rally on the Capitol front steps, followed by door-to-door engagement with legislators or their staff.” [6] This paper will now discuss what has become a common format for these lobby days in Oregon.

Quite often, the morning of an organization’s lobby day begins with visual presence on the front steps of the Capitol. Sometimes this presence is qualified as a rally, which aims to gather a large number of people on the steps at the same time together. Rallies often include speakers or live entertainment such as bands, and the crowds are often led in chants that sum up the message the organization wants to leave with members of the legislature. It is not uncommon for elected officials to join the rally—or even take the podium and speak—for organizations they support or causes they are sympathetic to. It is extremely important for rallies on the front steps of the Capitol to be connected to specific suggestions for change, and not be mere expressions of emotion. As Kallaway aptly says, rallies “work as part of a larger strategy, and they work because legislators want to know when massive amounts of people care about an issue. A rally will quickly lose its purpose if you don’t meet it with relational organizing and meetings with legislators. Rallying is just one piece of a larger organizing strategy to highlight potential legislative solutions.” [7]

Rallies are generally most effective during the lunch hour, when many Capitol staffers are coming or going and the media is likely to be present. Often though, lobby days opt out of having a loud presence on the front steps and instead create a softer visual presence. Tents, posters, and other visuals are commonly used. For example, higher education lobby days are known to have their school’s mascot present on the front steps. During the months with nicer weather, the front steps are used to organize members into teams or otherwise prepare for the day. Whatever tactic is used to maintain a presence on the Capitol steps for the day, it is best if it is a powerful visual that sticks in the minds of people as they come and go through the front doors.

Inside the Capitol, there is another opportunity for visibility by way of the Galleria. Positioned in front of the innermost committee hearing rooms on the main floor, the Galleria is passed through by virtually everybody working in the Capitol. Setting up informational tables or booths is a common practice here, and some groups go the extra mile to offer activities or services here. For example, for-profit trade schools have offered brief chair massages, and advocates of career-technical education have set up interactive welding simulations for folks passing by. Whatever is set up in the Galleria, it should aim to engage the audience during the (usually brief) moment they have to stop between meetings or appointments. Offering some sort of take-away is common here, such as literature on the organization or its legislative agenda. Having coffee, tea, or edible treats is a sure way to gain foot traffic at an organization’s displays in the Galleria, and many organizations do so.

Organizations often engage measures to give their stakeholders visibility on both the Senate and House floors if one or both chambers are in session on their lobby day. The Clerk and Secretary of each are often pleased to book entertainment for their respective chambers before that day’s floor session is gaveled in. This is definitely not a time to advocate for specific legislative priorities, but is a time for some types of organizations to be able to gain visibility for themselves if they have members or stakeholders with capability to entertain.

Another tactic that is used on the floors of both chambers to gain visibility is working with legislators to offer “floor courtesies” to prominent members of an organization. The lobbyist will work with legislators who represent either the Senate or House District that said members live in, resulting in the legislator standing to introduce their constituent and asking for the Senate President or Speaker of the House to extend formal courtesies to them. The person receiving the courtesy will either be sitting in the public gallery of the chamber, or sometimes seated on the floor with the legislator. This is an honor that legislators like being able to offer to their constituents, and is another mutually beneficial way to draw attention to an organization during its lobby day.

Many organizations have some sort of lunch, dinner, or reception at some point throughout the day, and they will often invite the legislators whom they are currently allied with, or whose support they are courting. This sometimes takes place in the Capitol, in a pre-reserved space, but very often is off site. There are a number of walkable options nearby in Salem to host a successful event and not have to move too far away from the Capitol. The format of this reception varies widely across organizations, but it is very often a social event or a celebration.

The ‘meat’ of any lobby day is its legislative visits. These may take place before or after floor session, and may number from a few to dozens. Whatever the timing, they are almost always pre-arranged and most often by the lobbyist for their clients. Larger organizations tend to also internally register their attendees ahead of time and separate them into groups based on home address. It is not uncommon for an organization to have 100+ stakeholders present during a lobby day and to divide them into teams that visit legislators they are actual constituents of. Oregon legislators will, if at all possible, make time to meet with the people who live in their districts. Ensuring that an organization has attendees from a range of geographical areas is a key element to a successful slate of lobby visits. As mentioned above, the nature of these visits is beneficial to both the citizens and the legislator. Face to face, constituents and elected officials are able to have conversations about what pending legislation means for their district or about overarching themes that affect life back home. This is often the most influential component of the lobby day. It is not unheard of for organizations to send groups of citizens to meet with a legislator that do not contain an actual district constituent, but doing so without pre-approval from the legislator is frowned upon in the Capitol. The content of the meetings generally includes, as outlined above, at least one content expert and a few experience experts. Legislators spend a lot of time with content experts every day, and find it refreshing to have actual constituents in their office, sharing their personal stories and perspectives.


There are a number of ways that the Oregon Legislature makes itself very accessible to the public, in addition to the ones outlined above. Lobby days, while internally quite labor intensive at their full magnitude, are quite welcome at the Capitol and are relatively easy to schedule. Reserving the front steps, the Galleria, and any conference rooms is done on a first-come-first-serve basis with approachable staff members who are happy to answer questions and help with process navigation. In terms of tips and resources for providing legislative testimony, many are contained on the “Citizen Engagement” tab on OLIS and the website outlines step-by-step instructions for preparing and giving testimony to a legislative committee. Committee staff members (composed of an Administrator and an Assistant) are generally very responsive to citizens who wish to supply testimony, and are available for questions throughout the process. Finally, the legislators themselves are most often jovial and welcoming to citizens providing testimony and taking part in legislative visits, especially if they can sense that the person is new to the process. Oregon legislators seem to take genuine pleasure in hosting visits from constituents, and their offices provide a welcoming environment that, for many folks, demystifies the Capitol.

While some lobbyists in Oregon may possess the power of a purse, this paper has illustrated that the power of ensuring that elected officials are engaging with their constituents is a tactic that is arguably more salient than contribution of financial resources. The Oregon legislature is a friendly home to honest conversations about the genuine impact of policy on everyday Oregonians, and lobbyists heavily engage strategies to connect lawmakers with these citizens. As Rosenthal says when discussing the important of personal relationships in state lobbying, “Much of what happen in the state capitals comes down to basic human relationships. If, as Tip O’Neill says, ‘All politics are local’, it is also true that all legislative politics are, at least in good part, personal.” [8]

Though there are plenty of competing interests in the legislature and the field of potential policy may seem endless, there is an array of significant access points for lobbyists to impact the process, and one of the lobbyist’s most effective strategies is to facilitate an interaction between an elected official and their constituents. This is good news for Oregonians who wish to plug in to the legislative process. As Dondero and Lunch remind us, “. . . virtually every citizen in Oregon, however rich or poor, is represented by someone who advocates for them, that is, a lobbyist. . . Although no one would claim that all are equal in the game, everyone is heard or represented to one degree or another.” [9]


[1] Interview with Emma Kallaway, Director of the Oregon Student Association and registered lobbyist in Oregon.

[2] Page 86: “Oregon Politics and Government: Progressive Versus Conservative Populists”, Edited by Clucas et al. Chapter 6: “Interest Group” by Russ Dondero and William Lunch.

[3] Pages 154-155. “The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States.” Alan Rosenthal. CQ Press. 2001.

[4] Page 85: “Oregon Politics and Government: Progressive Versus Conservative Populists”, Edited by Clucas et al. Chapter 6: “Interest Group” by Russ Dondero and William Lunch.

[5] Pages 369-370: “Engines of Democracy: Politics and Policymaking in State Legislatures”. Alan Rosenthal. CQ Press. 2009.

[6] “Oregon Politics and Government: Progressive Versus Conservative Populists”, Edited by Clucas et al. Chapter 6: “Interest Groups” by Russ Dondero and William Lunch.

[7] Interview with Emma Kallaway, Director of the Oregon Student Association and registered lobbyist in Oregon.

[8] Page 108. “The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States.” Alan Rosenthal. CQ Press. 2001.

[9] Page 97: “Oregon Politics and Government: Progressive Versus Conservative Populists”, Edited by Clucas et al. Chapter 6: “Interest Groups” by Russ Dondero and William Lunch.

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