Originally created 02/10/02

Lobbyists get creative to get lawmakers' attention



ATLANTA - In 1999, Gov. Roy Barnes turned heads at the state Capitol when he gave a speech blasting slick lobbyists "with their eelskin briefcases and alligator shoes."

He most certainly didn't have Rachel Fowler in mind.

The 70-something Decatur resident - "I'm not in my 80s, but I'm not in my 60s" - hardly fits the stereotype of big-money spokesmen who wait in the hallways to turn the heads and change the minds of lawmakers.

As a representative of the Garden Club of Georgia, she's part of a legion of citizen lobbyists who volunteer or work for little pay to influence Georgia's law-making process.

"That's the way I usually lobby - just talking with them," said Ms. Fowler, who has been involved with the Garden Club since 1959. "We do not put out any money to any of them."

She's not alone.

While professional lobbyists have to register with the state, the Capitol is open to anyone. And anyone with the gumption to approach senators and representatives about their votes is welcome to do so anywhere except on the floor of the two chambers.

Rep. Sue Burmeister has seen how the system works from both sides.

Before being elected to the House in 2000, Ms. Burmeister lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the PTA and for other education and family issues.

"I didn't really talk so much to legislators other than my local delegation," said Ms. Burmeister, an Augusta Republican. "I felt that I was being listened to."

Now, as a lawmaker, Ms. Burmeister said she gives special attention to those who take the time to visit her at the Capitol.

"If they're from my area and they come here to talk to me ... I think long and hard about what they're telling me and sometimes give more credence to what they say than to a lobbyist," she said.

On any day during the Legislature's session, citizen groups can be seen trying unique, and usually low-budget, methods to catch lawmakers' attention.

Most agree that the way to their hearts - and minds - is through their stomachs.

Motorcycle enthusiasts, clad in blue jeans and black leather, cook chili for hungry lawmakers. Farmers make fried peanut butter sandwiches. And interest groups - from home schoolers to health care workers - can be counted on to offer free coffee, doughnuts and other breakfast foods every morning.

Recently, a group of therapists offered free massages in the Capitol's rotunda. This week, performers from the south Georgia town of Colquitt will perform part of their popular musical, Swamp Gravy, to promote the arts.

For Ms. Fowler, lobbying to protect trees landed her and her Athens-based organization in the middle of a hot Senate debate earlier this month. During debate of a bill that would have allowed more billboards, Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling, suggested that Garden Club members "get a garden somewhere."

"I thought I might jump over the banister," said Ms. Fowler, who was watching the debate from the Senate's balcony. "I don't think I've ever heard anybody talk ugly about us, except that remark that Joey Brush made."

Mostly, she said, her low-key lobbying works.

"You can't have everybody, but as a whole the men and women (in the Legislature) have been very good to us," Ms. Fowler said.

Mary Frances Williams is a registered lobbyist, representing groups ranging from the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies program to school lunchroom workers.

She says her best results come when she brings "real" citizens to the Capitol to talk with General Assembly members about the issues.

"It has a tremendous impact," Ms. Williams said. "The legislators would much rather talk to somebody in their district (than a paid lobbyist)."

Rep. Ben Harbin agrees.

"On an individual legislator basis, they probably have more impact than the high-priced lobbyists," said Mr. Harbin, R-Martinez. "They're not being paid to do this, so you have to place a little more credibility to what they're saying."