If there’s anything you can take away from the events of the last four years in the U.S., it’s that the people must hold their politicians to task. Elected officials have promised to act in their constituents’ best interests—whether you voted for them or not.
While national politics tend to drive much of the conversation—especially now in the wake of the Capitol Hill riots, and as a new administration takes office—it’s the local officials, like mayors, state representatives, and even school board members, who make the greatest impact on daily life in your community. These are the people whose names and roles you should know—so you better understand how their power impacts your life if you’re looking for real change.
“It is so much easier to have a relationship with your lawmaker on a local level,” former congressional staffer Emily Coleman, whose viral 2016 thread on how to get the attention of lawmakers inspired her to create a guide on how to contact your elected official, told VICE. (And yes, you can have a relationship with them! It’s not uncommon for local lawmakers to know their most vocal constituents by name.)
Whether these politicians are newly-seated or are currently in the middle of their term, it’s important to know the power players in your community, what decisions they make, and how to thoughtfully engage in constructive conversation with them.
Here’s a list of key players and what they do to get you started.
Let’s start close to home; while every locale does things a little differently, here are some people you can generally expect to find in your city or town.
Mayor: The mayor is the highest-ranking elected official in your city; think of them like the president, but for your town. The mayor can appoint citizens to serve on advisory boards, assign council members to serve on committees, and make the annual city budget, which includes funding things like the police department and the arts.
Town or city council: The council is made up of a group of elected officials who pass laws that govern your city. They can set tax rates, approve new construction, and pass the budget. “They're involved in your nitty gritty stuff like infrastructure,” Coleman said. “You have people who are really interested in city planning—maybe they want to see their city built to be more pedestrian friendly or to have greater access to public transit. Those are things city council members are very much involved in, and they’re going to be super easy to reach out to.”
The council members and the mayor play a large role in making and enforcing the laws and policies you live by every day. For example, just recently, city councils across the country have passed things like a bill imposing fines for shooting fireworks outside of permitted times, a resolution to appoint a board of citizens to investigate and discipline police infractions, and changes to mask mandates. If there’s an issue you’re passionate about, like police reform, street sweeping, or the state of public parks in your town, council is liable to do something about it.
Sheriff: These are elected law enforcement officials who may be a separate entity from your local law enforcement agency; your town might also have a police department with a police chief hired by the town or city and who reports to the mayor or council. Their role varies from state to state, but they tend to oversee local jails and investigate crimes at the county level. Since they’re elected, they work in service of the people—so they’re (supposedly) not influenced by members of county government. If you find their leadership to be harmful or unjust, you can vote them out of office.
Board of education: A district’s school board is made up of elected or appointed officials who do things like approving the superintendent, budget, and textbooks. In June 2020, it was school boards around the country who voted to remove cops from schools. Currently, these are also the folks making decisions about when schools will reopen and other COVID-related safety issues. School boards exist both within your community and on a state level, too. They have frequent meetings that are open to the public (more on this later).
Planning and zoning commission: This is a group of people elected or appointed by the mayor tasked with advising council on how land should be used, which developments should move forward, and sending plans to city council on recommended uses for land. They can have a major effect on issues like affordable housing, which plays a big role in homelessness. This commission also makes decisions impacting climate change, like “decisions about things related to building codes, sustainable energy, and building partnerships with private partners, like power companies, for instance,” Coleman said. They hold public meetings where you can go and weigh in.
Next, let’s hit the state level.
State legislator: This is the person from your district who was elected to represent you in the state Senate and state House of Representatives or Assembly. They write and pass state legislation, like cannabis laws, gun laws, and reproductive health laws, which all vary from state to state, and which are often strengthened or eroded at the state level. These folks also make decisions on climate change action, so they’re important to have in your contacts list.
Governor: The top elected official in your state is your governor, who you’ve likely been hearing a lot from during the pandemic: They’ve likely been setting stay-at-home orders and mask mandates. They’ll also sign or veto the bills your state legislators have passed into law.
Attorney general: Most states elect an attorney general (though a handful of states have governors who appoint the AG) who represents state and state agencies in state and federal courts. For example, in October 2020, it was the Michigan AG who filed federal charges against the people who plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Attorneys general set priorities on how and what kinds of crimes to prosecute, like drugs and civil rights violations, so they’re important to know in terms of criminal justice issues and reform.
Commission on climate change: Some states, like Maryland and Hawaii, have a climate change commission that consists of folks who create plans on how the state will curb climate change, through reducing greenhouse gas emissions to drafting plans to reduce transportation.
Finally, there are your Members of Congress: Each state elects two Senators to represent them in the U.S. Senate and anywhere from one to 53 Representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives based on the state’s population. Count on them to write and pass national laws, like the recently-passed COVID stimulus package. This is who to bother when bills on immigration, healthcare, or reproductive rights are set for a vote on a federal level. Your congressperson can also help if you’re having issues reaching unemployment or getting the assistance you need from another federal agency.
How to stay informed and involved in local decision making
Follow local politicians on social media.
If you're aiming to engage in local politics, spend a few minutes going through the list above and finding all of your elected officials. Put their names and links to their websites in a doc so you can easily find them when you need them, and follow them on social media and sign up for their newsletters so their latest updates and opinions make their way into your feed. By staying informed, even passively, on the day-to-day workings of local government, you won’t miss the bigger news when it occurs. For example, if this summer’s protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder piqued your interest in policing and criminal justice reform, follow up on how your city council and district attorney has responded and whether they’ve kept their promises.
Don’t overlook local news organizations.
Another great source of info is your local news organizations. You don’t need to be an everyday reader or subscriber (though if you can afford it, please do!), but following local publications and reporters on social media is a great way to stay up-to-date on community politics and news.
Follow and connect with local organizers.
Determine which issues you feel strongly about and identify a few local organizations and activists who are established and working toward these goals. These are groups, that will be paying super close attention to reproductive rights in your state, for example, and are excellent sources of information if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the thought of keeping tabs on every aspect of local government. While politicians will be quick to tell you what work they’re doing, organizers can tell you what said politicians should be doing but aren’t. Follow the local chapters of NAACP, Sunrise Movement, Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Innocence Project, Black Lives Matter, and more; their newsletters and socials will keep you abreast of their missions locally.
Attend public meetings.
You can attend public meetings yourself to get a firsthand account of how councils, committees, and boards discuss issues and interact with the public. As a result of the pandemic, many of these meetings are being held virtually, giving you the opportunity to tune in and observe the lay of the land from anywhere. “Young people, whether [they’re] in high school, college, a young professional, they can just watch the meetings themselves,” Amanda Knief, director of lectures at Iowa State University and author of The Citizen Lobbyist, told VICE. “It lets them know what’s happening. Sometimes you don’t know you're interested until you hear about it.”
By showing up to these meetings, you’re getting a front row seat to how your local politicians work and think—and they get a chance to meet you. “Constituencies are so small with local politics that it’s an easy way to get a seat at the table,” Carolyn Stillwell, one of the organizers of Tuesdays With Toomey, an activist group that protested outside the offices of U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) every Tuesday for four years, told VICE. “If you show up for things, your elected officials will start recognizing you, you’ll get to start having conversations.” When in-person meetings resume, Stillwell recommends bringing a friend to help make getting engaged with your local officials feel more like a social outing and less intimidating.
If you want to make a change, speak up.
When you feel strongly about a cause or feel a local politician isn’t doing enough to act on behalf of their constituents, it’s worth speaking directly to these elected officials. First, figure out the point you’d like to get across. Don’t simply frame your issue as a complaint, Knief said. “What sets you apart is if you have a solution, a way forward, giving them an opportunity to engage with you.” Knief said. “It’s one thing to call and say, ‘Don't vote like this, this is a problem.’ It's another thing to say ‘I have an idea’ or ‘Have you thought about this?’” Do some research on your issue and be a resource to your elected official on how to solve the issue in a way that works for everyone.
You should also make a point to be informed about the opposition’s stance. If you’re asked to consider why the other side might object to your proposal and you have a thoughtful answer prepared, your representative is more likely to be receptive to your stance. “Whether or not you agree with it or think it's crazy, being able to know what the other side is going to say is always valuable,” Knief said. “It makes our responses more nimble and more timely and more considerate when we go and talk to our elected representatives and officials.”
Calling your local reps’ offices or approaching them at a city council meeting is a great option, but Coleman said that sending a DM on social media can work too, because most times they’re the ones running their own accounts and they’re likely to answer. However you choose to reach out, don’t be intimidated. After all, you hold the power to vote them out. “They may not always do what you want to do, but the interaction is almost never negative, especially if you're bringing in the energy of I want to bring up something that's important to me,” Coleman said. And remember that the folks on the opposing side will be willing to call your elected officials, and you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to have your voice heard because you were too afraid to make a phone call or raise your hand in a meeting.
And if you still feel unheard… take action.
Stillwell is always cautiously optimistic when forging a new relationship with a local elected official. She approaches any interaction with the hope that this person will be an ally. With Senator Toomey, however, she realized his approach to governing would never be in line with her ideals. If you find yourself in a similar situation with your reps, “then the role is to make it harder for them to do harm,” Stillwell said, “to make sure they can’t do their work in secret.” This can mean informing your family and friends of this official’s hurtful policies, amplifying other council members who could counter their messaging, and ultimately voting them out of office.
There are other ways to take action without directly opposing an unreceptive lawmaker. You can volunteer with a local activist organization for a cause you believe in, volunteer with another local candidate, or run for office yourself. Remember, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. It’s extremely likely the cause you’re passionate about already has an established organization you can join. Look to the pros who have been laying the groundwork for years.
At the end of the day, just keep paying attention, showing up, and making your voice heard. Regardless of whether your local politicians share your views or not, engaging with your elected officials is a part of the governing machine. “Whatever party or position you're in favor of,” Knief said, “nobody can deny having more people engaged in the process is a good thing.”
Follow Allie Volpe on Twitter.