By Sheila Burke
Judy Homan has always wanted to stand up and be counted. But the 79-year-old Murfreesboro resident never envisioned that her sense of civic duty would take her to the corridors of power in state government as a legislative advocate for AARP.
As part of a team of volunteer lobbyists, Homan, a retired insurance agent and financial planner, has helped pass a number of bills supported by AARP. She has also helped kill pending legislation that might be harmful to older residents.
“It’s frustrating sometimes,” Homan said of her advocacy work. “But it’s a challenge, and I really like it.”
Last year she and others successfully urged the General Assembly to pass the Protection of Volunteer-Insured Drivers of the Elderly (PROVIDE) Act. The law encourages more civic and religious groups to help with the transportation needs of older people by giving the drivers protection from civil lawsuits in the event of a vehicular accident.
It’s important that older people get the transportation they need so they can go grocery shopping, see a doctor or socialize, Homan said.
Her job as one of a handful of volunteer AARP legislative advocates is to provide lawmakers with the facts they need to make an informed vote on legislation, she said. And because she volunteers for AARP, lawmakers take notice.
As an individual, Homan said, she would have little impact on legislators. But when she tells them she is an advocate with AARP, which has roughly 650,000 members in Tennessee, “then you at least get somebody’s attention.”
The legislative volunteers have been a big help, said Shelley Courington, AARP Tennessee associate state director for advocacy.
“I introduce them as volunteer leaders for AARP and let lawmakers and their staff know that these individuals also speak for AARP, so they should feel free to reach out to them like they would reach out to me on those issues,” Courington said.
During the current legislative session, which resumes this month, advocacy volunteers will be focusing on legislative provisions to support family caregivers, expand the scope of advanced practice registered nurses and provide property tax relief.
“Our hope is to make caregiving easier by improving access, decreasing costs and ultimately making the caregiving experience easier on all,” Courington said.
No experience necessary
State ethics law requires that the volunteers register as lobbyists, but a background in politics or former work in government isn’t required, Courington said.
“Advocating is a willingness to build a relationship and talk about the issues,” she said. “So they don’t have to have any type of special background or experience—just a willingness to learn about policy issues and to share what they learn.”
Legislative advocates find the work gratifying.
“I really enjoy thinking that I have an opportunity to positively affect public policy,” said Byron Kamp, a 69-year-old retiree from Mount Juliet. Kamp, who spent his professional career in higher education, said an important part of what volunteers do is explaining AARP’s position to lawmakers and leaving information with them.
Tennessee has a part-time legislature, and advocates generally put in 20 to 30 hours a week from January through May, said Dennis Delaney, another volunteer legislative advocate. Delaney, 72, a retired Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller who lives in the Nashville area, said he likes being in the thick of the issues at the Capitol.
“If you have not been there, then you need to go,” Delaney said of the experience. “It is a madhouse—all the people trying to influence the particular things they want or don’t want, and of course the opposition is there also. It’s interesting.”
Anyone interested in volunteering to be a legislative advocate can call 866-295-7274 toll-free. The advocacy volunteers also work with their members of Congress.
Sheila Burke is a writer living in Nashville.