Reaching Out to Urban Legislators: Q &A with Del. Mark Keam (D-35)

Del. Mark Keam meets with members of Albemarle County
Farm Bureau at the 2012 Virginia Farm Bureau Legislative

 Farm Bureau and our members are very good at creating and maintaining relationships with legislators, especially our own. Many of you have personal relationships with your representatives, which are a great benefit when legislators need to hear where we stand on an issue like property rights and Sunday hunting.

But there’s a group of legislators that don’t get to hear the voice of the Virginia farmer as much. Why? Because they don’t have any farms in the districts they represent. These areas include Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond.

Why is it important to reach out to these urban legislators? Because their decisions have just as much impact on Virginia agriculture as  rural legislators. Some of these urban legislators even serve on the House and Senate agriculture committees.

Last week, I sat down with Northern Virginia delegate Mark Keam (D-35th) and asked him questions about agriculture, Farm Bureau, and what farmers can do to create relationships with urban legislators.

Tell us about the district you represent.

I represent probably the most urban area of the commonwealth. I have Tyson’s Corner Mall, Tyson’s downtown, which has a lot of skyscrapers and headquarters of a lot of companies. In some areas of my district, it doesn’t feel like I’m in Virginia. I could be in New York or Chicago—it’s very metropolitan.

Just a mile southwest of Tyson’s is a town called Vienna—it’s 122 years old. It’s a fantastic town with about 10-15,000 people. You can walk down main street, and everyone knows you. It feels very small town USA.

For me, I feel like I have the best of all worlds. I have the big urban centers, I have the small town feel, I have the suburban neighborhoods, and then I have apartments with low income dwellers and young people.

Do you know of any farms or farmers in your district?

I have a sampling of everything in my district, but I have no farms or an agricultural presence. Vienna has a very prominent farmers market. My wife loves to go there because you can get beautiful tomatoes and other vegetables like you just can’t get at the grocery store. I also go there a lot to meet people, and I always run into people from out of town visiting the farmers’ market. Some have been from Maryland and Pennsylvania–they’re in town visiting their families or for whatever reason, and instead of visiting the hustle and bustle of the city, they visit the farmers’ market.

Why did you get into politics?

I was born into a family of public servants. My dad was a Presbyterian minister and missionary, so we were expected to serve in the public sector as opposed to the private sector. I came to America as a teenager and became very interested in history and politics. I was living in California and got an internship in DC at the Democratic headquarters. I would walk past cemetery in Falls Church and saw the dates on the tombstones–some dating back to the 1700s. California wasn’t even a state then, so the historical aspect of Virginia really interested me.

Also, being an Asian minority, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me in Virginia. I asked myself, “Do I belong here?” I decided that if I didn’t move here, others wouldn’t move here either.  So now I work on integrating different people and backgrounds together. To me, politics is a way to bring people together, get issues out there, and push policies you think are right through the democratic process.

What has your experience been with agriculture? Have you visited a farm? Did you or any friends and family grow up on a farm?

My mom had a friend in California who grew Korean melons. I remember visiting the farm as a teenager, and wondering why all the melons were on the ground. I thought there had been a storm! I had no idea melons grew on the ground like that! When you buy melons and fruit from the store, you don’t think about how it was grown or how it got there.

Also, my wife grew up on a farm in Korea. When she was young, her father had an opportunity to move the family to the United States to work on a poultry farm on the Eastern Shore (Maryland).  My father-in-law, one of the bravest men I knew, achieved the American Dream through agriculture. By working on that poultry farm, he was able to provide for his family, save money  and eventually open up his own business.

My son, Tyler, has recently gotten interested in gardening. Last year I came home and noticed my son had planted some things in our flower bed. My wife helped him, and we had fresh tomatoes and peppers. This year, he has an even bigger section and wants to grow a lot more things. So it’s like we’re starting our own little family farm!

What issues do you think are important to Virginia farmers right now?

Because I don’t serve on the ag committee, I only see a bill if it makes it to the House floor. But I think there are a couple things: importing and exporting our agricultural products is one. I’ve worked on the trade agreement with Korea in Congress. One of my interests is free open trade and to make sure our agricultural products are competitive, so from a global perspective, that is an issue to me.

Locally, I know family farms are dealing with government regulations that need to make sense. But every aspect rural culture is different than the infrastructure in my district. It’s important for legislators like me to spend time with you guys out on your farms so I can have a better understanding of the issues affecting you.

What has your experience been with Farm Bureau? What issues have we helped you with?

Well, I’ve met with someone from the [American] Farm Bureau, and he explained to me the policy making process starting at the state level through the national level. I was really curious about it. I appreciate the history of the Farm Bureau and what you’ve stood for.

I was also very honored to be endorsed by Virginia Farm Bureau. I had never run for office before, and I was running against a Republican who was well known in the business community. My campaign advisors suggested it may not be worth meeting with business groups that normally do not endorse Democrats. But I wanted to talk to everyone. I wanted groups to support me not because of my party affiliation, but because they believe I’m the better candidate.

I was nervous when I met with Farm Bureau representatives — I had no idea what to expect. There is nothing on my resume that shows I have a connection to the agriculture industry. For a lot of the questions, I could only talk about what I thought the policy should be, since I’d never had actual experience dealing with these issues. I walked out of the meeting thinking, “I didn’t do very well.” A few weeks later, Andrew Smith called and told me I got the endorsement. I couldn’t believe it! But I was so pleased that the Bureau representatives rewarded me for my honest and candid answers. I know we’re not going to agree on every issue, but I was glad to know we had some common ground. To this day, the campaign endorsement that means the most to me is Farm Bureau’s.

 What can farmers do to better reach out to urban legislators like yourself to educate them about our issues? What’s the best form of communication? Visits, phone calls, emails, letters?

I would love to do a farm tour so we can appreciate what you do and have a better understanding of the issues you’re facing. As far as making contacts, visits are the most effective way to reach out to us. It’s always best one on one. I know you guys can’t get out here that often, so the next best thing is repetition. Email me AND call me about an issue. The more I hear from you, the more I understand how important something is to you.

YOU can make an impact on the decisions your legislators make affecting agriculture

This week your legislators are making their way to Richmond for the 2012 General Assembly where they’ll make decisions that will ultimately affect you and your families.
If you thought you did your part to ensure your voice would be heard by visiting the polls in November, think again.
 As grassroots coordinator for the Governmental Relations Department, it’s my job  to provide you, our producer members, with the information, materials and confidence to contact your legislators effectively. Today’s entry is a good reminder of things you can do during and after the General Assembly to create relationships with the people representing you in office. If there’s a Farm Bureau policy issue that you are passionate about and want to contact your legislators, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Kelly Pruitt, to help make sure your voice is heard. You can e-mail me at or call me at 804-290-1293.
The following is from an article by the Washington State Legislature (updated with Virginia links) on effectively communicating with your legislators.

A Citizen’s Guide to Effective Legislative Participation

The Legislative Process

Every year the Legislature meets to engage in the process of public decision making. The objective is to reach consensus on a wide range of issues affecting every citizen . The process involves cooperation to make critical decisions in everyone’s best interests.

We have chosen representatives to carry out the difficult task of determining which laws and policies will best serve these interests. However, to effectively perform their job, legislators rely heavily on input from many different sources.

They receive a great deal of technical information from their staffs, state agency personnel and professional lobbyists. Yet, much of what they actually decide depends on the views, interests and preferences of the citizens who elect them.

This is precisely how the legislative process was designed to work. It is based on a close, open and positive relationship between elected officials and the citizens whom they represent.

You can actively participate in the legislative process in a variety of ways. Select the method that allows the fullest expression of your personal interest and commitment, but follow some basic steps.

Know How the Process Works

For your individual participation to be most effective, a basic understanding of the whole legislative picture is essential. If there is something you do not understand about the process, ask someone who can provide an answer. Here are some resources:

•Visit the Virginia General Assembly Website.
•Call your legislator’s office.

•Read the How a Bill Becomes a Law page.

•Learn how to track a bill.

Make Yourself the Expert

Before you address an issue, do some homework. Know the whole issue: who it affects, what others feel about it, how it will influence future trends, and any other information you are able to gather. Thorough research allows you to present your viewpoint with confidence and credibility, and, combined with your personal experience, is the most effective information you can provide.

Get to Know Your Legislators

To make a difference in the legislative process, you must develop a relationship with your legislators. Keep in mind that you can work effectively with someone, regardless of the personal opinions either of you may hold. Although you are unlikely to agree on every issue, you can still build a positive relationship in the long run.

The best way to get to know your legislators on a personal basis is to spend time with them when the Legislature is not meeting. Arrange a meeting during the months between sessions when they are home.

Your legislators are also your neighbors. You share many of the same interests and concerns, so make a strong effort to build on the common ground you both hold. Take the time to find out who they are as people.

You can contact your legislators in a number of ways:

•Personal visit. Call the office, introduce yourself, tell the legislator or the legislative assistant what you would like to discuss, and make an appointment for a visit. If you plan a visit, be prepared for your discussion. Know what you want to say, be factual, and make your comments as brief and specific as you can. If you do not know something, be willing to admit it and offer to follow up with more information later, which is also an avenue for further discussion.

•Attend a Town Hall Meeting. Most legislators conduct periodic town hall meetings at various locations in their district. This is a good opportunity to meet your legislator and to express your views and concerns in an informal setting.

•Write a letter. Express your views and request the member’s attention through the mail. Make your letters brief, to the point, clear, and formal. Include your mailing address and phone number so the legislator knows where to respond. Use the Member Rosters to find the mailing addresses. Bulk form letters are less effective, but a personal letter is always welcomed.

•Send an e-mail message. Like letters, e-mails should be brief, to the point, clear, and formal. Include your name and mailing address, as well as your e-mail address, and let the legislator know how you’d prefer to be contacted.

•Testify before a committee. Make your views and positions known by testifying before a committee that is having public hearings on an issue or bill.

Get to Know Legislative Staff

Legislators rely heavily on professional staff for information gathering and analysis. You can play an equally supportive role by making sure staff are aware of the perspective your personal knowledge and experience can provide.

Legislative staff work on a wide range of issues. They always appreciate new sources of clear and accurate information, and they can provide you with the most current information they have.

Network with Other Citizens (Like Farm Bureau members)

Much of the information you need to be effective in the legislative process can be obtained from other concerned and active citizens. Most interest areas are represented by informal citizen groups, if not formal membership organizations.

Find out whether there are groups that share your concerns and establish a network. A group of concerned citizens can be much more effective working together, rather than as separate individuals trying to accomplish the same goal.

Key Points to Remember

Regardless of how frequently you contact your legislators, you will be far more effective if you follow these points:

1.Be well prepared for your discussions.

2.Provide a written statement with all verbal presentations.

3.Make letters and e-mail formal, specific, and concise.

4.Don’t berate or argue with your legislator when you disagree. Simply thank the member for the time spent with you and express a desire for further discussion.

Whatever position you represent, however, remember your participation makes a difference. Our legislative process is one way each of us may contribute to the quality of life we experience in our state. Your willingness to be a responsible, involved participant is crucial to the decision-making process.