Trip connects community, legislators

BY MIKE SHERWIN, STAFF WRITER

Fritzi Lainoff is obviously comfortable in the hallowed halls of the Missouri State Capitol. As advocacy chair of the Adult Community Action Program, she has traveled many times to Jefferson City to advocate for older adults, and even to testify at legislative hearings, which she did most recently in mid-January of this year.

On Tuesday, Lainoff served as unofficial guide at the capitol for several people from the St. Louis Jewish community, confidently guiding them through the corridors to pay visits to legislators, and advocate for several key issues in the Missouri Legislature this year: stem cell research, health care and education funding.

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First stop?

Sen. Joan Bray’s office. Since Sen. Bray was out on the Senate floor, the group left their names and addresses (so she would know they are constituents) and a letter advocating positions on four specific bills with the receptionist.

With extra time to kill, Lainoff led the group to the Secretary of State’s office, to pick up copies of the 2007 legislative roster booklet, with the names, photos and office addresses for all Missouri legislators.

Then Lainoff led the group to the Senate Chamber’s visitors’ gallery. Perched in the wings above the floor, the group listened in for about 20 minutes to the rather prosaic proceedings with only a handful of senators on the floor.

Lainoff’s group was a subset of over 20 people from the St. Louis Jewish community who traveled the roughly 120 miles to Jefferson City for the “Community Speak Out!” the second annual advocacy trip, organized by the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah and the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Advocacy Committee.

While Lainoff’s group struck out with their intended meeting with Sen. Bray, Bernard Colker found his intended target, Rep. Timothy Jones, R-Eureka, but not without a few hoops to leap through.

Colker, who also attended last year’s advocacy trip, arrived at Jones’ office, only to find that the legislator was down on the House floor. However, the receptionist remembered Colker from his trip last year, and brought him down to the House Chamber. She ushered Colker onto the House floor, where he had the chance to speak with Rep. Jones for about 10 minutes about the issues on his mind, mainly opposing legislation that would repeal the constitutional amendment passed last year permitting embryonic stem cell research.

All of the participants of the “Community Speak Out!” received advocacy training during the bus ride from the Jewish Community Center to Jefferson City. Marlene Hammerman, state public affairs chair of the NCJW gave pointers on effectively communicating with legislators.

“We’re not there for a long time, so you need to make the message short and sweet,” Hammerman said. The key, she said, is targeting one’s own legislators. “If you live in their district, you’re their constituent and they are beholden to you,” Hammerman said. “You get to vote them in and vote them out.”

Although talking points for four specific bills were passed out to participants on the trip, Hammerman stressed that anyone with a personal story about how legislation has affected them or someone they know can be particularly effective.

“If you have a story about one of the bills, if someone you know could benefit from stem cell research, or someone who was cut from Medicaid, that can be so powerful,” she said.

Hammerman and Joan Denison, executive director of Hadassah, gave briefings on the key bills and issues being opposed on the trip:

– SJR 10, a proposed ban on embryonic stem cell research

– HB 808, which would create tax credits for sending students from troubled school districts to religious and private schools, and which many see as a precursor to publicly-funded school vouchers

– SB 285/HB 412, which would allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense contraception based on moral grounds, and

– The cuts in recent years to Medicaid and Medicare.

By the end of the day, after legislative visits, and attending a senate hearing on SB 577, which would allow Medicaid to be replaced in 2008 by a new program called MO Health Net, the group assembled in a wing of the Capitol building and this time it was the legislators who visited the group. Reps. Sam Page, Rachel Storch and Sen. Jeff Smith answered questions from the group, speaking about the state of politics in Jefferson City, and key items on the legislative agenda for the upcoming year.

Kansas City Star reporter (and Jewish Light columnist) Kit Wagar also visited the group, giving his insight into the legislative session.

For many of the participants on the trip, it was their first time advocating in Jefferson City. Aileen Wallis attended with several friends, and said she felt the trip gave her an “inside look at the culture of Jeff City.”

“For many of us, we used to be involved in charity work, but now we figured it’s time to take some more direct action,” Wallis said.

Her friend, Rosalie Rotenberg, said the trip highlighted the frustrations that progressive legislators face in Jefferson City.

“On the second part of the trip, when the legislators spoke, we realized how ridiculous a situation it is when many legislators don’t care about listening to the facts, they just have their minds already made up,” she said.

Hammerman stressed that advocating does not always lead to instant success. But, she said, legislators take it to heart when constituents travel across the state to have their voices heard.

“It’s really important that you took the time to come to Jeff City. Actually making the trip is very powerful,” she said.

“And like the legislators said, you can’t imagine how important it is to hear from people like us, because what’s going on there is not pretty and a lot of things are at stake,” Hammerman said.

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