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Zeigler offers lessons learned from ‘a successful citizens’ movement’

Jim Zeigler is writing a book.

The twice-elected state auditor, ubiquitous in times of controversy, is putting pen to paper to tell the story of his involvement in the defeat of the Mobile Bay toll bridge project.

Zeigler provided Yellowhammer News a draft of the partially completed book.

Not only does it delve into some of the finer details surrounding the bridge plan, but Zeigler’s book also provides the blueprint for stoking and harnessing raw populist fervor in pursuit of any initiative.

With the working title, Blocking the I-10 Toll Scheme: A Successful Citizens’ Movement, Zeigler offers insight into the strategies he employs when taking on big issues.

Leaving no doubt about his perspective on how to approach an issue, Zeigler begins the book with a quote from the famous Louisiana politician and populist stalwart, Huey P. Long: “When I advocated free bridges instead of toll bridges, it was called demagoguery.”

Long would likely have been proud of Zeigler’s zeal for the “citizens.” In one of the opening paragraphs, he uses the words “billionaire” and “billions” four times — and probably not in the same way Jeff Bezos does.

Zeigler quickly points out, though, that today’s technology allows for an even more intense opposition. Instead of the whistle stop tours and rousing speeches prevalent in Long’s day, Zeigler chooses to employ a different method for rallying the masses: Facebook.

He opted for the cheaper, quicker and more efficient method, and it quickly paid dividends.

“On May 12, I decided to step forward and lead the opposition,” he told Yellowhammer News. “I started the Facebook opposition group with one member: me. Within three months, we had 54,000 active members who would go to meetings, send emails, make phone calls, printed up at their own expense ‘No toll’ stickers and signs. The group didn’t start out with any money to do anything.”

Asked about the importance of social media in influencing public debate on issues, he confirmed, “If you do it right, it can make all the difference in the world.”

Zeigler also sought to convey in the book, in his words, “What lessons can we learn for other citizen issues.”

As part of these lessons, he lists several criteria needed to win on issues.

For example, he wrote that that a winning coalition should have “[a]n issue or cause that is simple to explain” and “[a]n issue or cause that clearly impacts people – in the pocketbook, or by seriously inconveniencing them, or by taking away their important rights or property, or by other clear and important effects.”

Emphasizing the importance of putting a face to the cause, he wrote that there should be a leader and “[s]omeone who can effectively harness news media coverage of the cause and group.”

Zeigler followed his list up with one more point he sees critical to a grassroots campaign:

There was one more thing we toll fighters had, possibly the most important, and that was a means to actually block the insider action. Not just to raise awareness, but to actually kill it… Many citizen movements fail to have an end game – a way to convert all that awareness into an actual victory – a legal or political killing of the insider scheme. Petition drives are the worst offenders. The citizens could get 10 million signatures, and the Insiders can still ignore them. Or they could get only ten signatures and yet get the action desired.

As for Zeigler’s next move, he said he is going to keep a close eye on toll proposals around the state, something he called “a continuing issue.”

In the near-term, stirring up a grassroots frenzy is going to be a family affair. He advised the next issue he takes on will be with his wife against the constitutional amendment appearing on the March 3 primary ballot. The proposed amendment would abolish the existing state school board.

“My wife, Jackie Zeigler, is the elected state board of education member from the first district, which is where the toll bridge impacted, mostly,” explained the state auditor. “And she is leading the vote no campaign for the March 3 Amendment 1. It’s a different type of issue, but she’s going to take advantage of the Facebook 54,000 members.”

Zeigler acknowledged the difficulty of getting people to care about an issue which may not directly affect them. In these cases, he said messaging is the key. He effectively reached people outside of the Mobile Bay area by saying, “A road or bridge near you could be the next toll project.”

Ever conscious of how to talk to “citizens,” Zeigler believes he has the correct message for his next fight.

“It would take away the right to vote on state board of education members,” he stated.