Building a relationship with your legislators is a very important part of being an advocate, and mesothelioma warrior Bonnie Anderson is a wonderful example to us all. Bonnie has been one of the greatest advocates for mesothelioma research. She was the first mesothelioma warrior ever to be awarded the Bruce Vento Hope Builder award in 2012. Bonnie has established a close relationship with her Congressman, Leonard Lance (R-NJ), over many years. She attends our Annual Advocacy Day each year when she visits his Washington, D.C. office to educate him about mesothelioma and the need for funding to progress mesothelioma research. She is active in our Meso Ambassador Program as well, where she regularly communicates with his office by sending emails directly through our action center or calling and speaking to staffers. Bonnie says, “it takes perseverance in speaking to our representatives, and becoming familiar with their aides (who have the keys to the kingdom). I tell every aide about mesothelioma, from the front desk (with the question do you know what mesothelioma is?) to every aide that I am introduced to. The key is following up so that your name is recognized when you do call, write or visit them (and you know their names too).”
This sort of legwork is necessary for members of Congress to learn your name and your issues, so that when you come along with an “ask” they already know who you are and what your issue is. Bonnie continues, “My mentor, June Breit, told me to stay on their doorsteps and to be persistent until noticed. At the time, I really thought that there was no way I could do that. Having a Congressman, his health aide and a Chief of Staff explain the process of how our political system works at each step when I do approach him is so important.” Bonnie also recognizes the importance of following up and saying thank you. “I follow up with thank yous. The unfortunate side is the lower level aides change constantly, the positive side is most upper level aides are key advisors for their Congressmen.”
Just last month, the meso community had the great success of having Congresswomen Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) send a Dear Colleague letter asking all of the Members of the House of Representatives to join them in urging the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to create a scientific framework for mesothelioma. At a time when Congress is very divided by a party line, Bonnie helped us to cross our greatest hurdle of getting a Republican to sign on to our letter, as it was penned by two Democrats. Often, the most difficult task of an advocate is to garner bipartisan support, but once you have the support of one member of the opposing party, more of them are likely to join.
Thanks to Congressman Lance’s pioneering signature, three additional Republicans signed on to the letter, Don Young (R-AK), Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), guaranteeing a strong show of bipartisan support for mesothelioma. Congressman Lance signed on to this letter in honor of his constituent Bonnie, whom he has come to know through her advocacy. He reached across the aisle as the first Republican signature on the McCollum/Pingree letter to the NCI, which is no small feat in this divided Congress. The meso community is very grateful to Bonnie for helping us to cross this hurdle.
When the final letter is sent to the National Cancer Institute, we will post the final list of signers.
If you want to follow in Bonnie’s footsteps, sign up for the Mesothelioma Ambassador Program to build your relationship with your Members of Congress.
To learn more about the McCollum Pingree Dear Colleague Letter, check out this blog post.