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Lawmakers use Facebook to reach out

January 31, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

ANNAPOLIS -- There's probably only one place where Del. Christopher B. Shank would call himself friends with Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

It's on Facebook.

Shank, R-Washington, and O'Malley are part of the social networking Web site, though a spokesman for O'Malley admits the governor does not maintain his own page.

While Shank has opposed O'Malley's policies, Shank says the social networking Web site is a bipartisan arena.

He and a few other members of Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly are using Facebook to communicate with their constituents and with each other.

Shank and Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., who is unaffiliated and represents parts of Frederick and Washington counties, use the Internet site to answer questions from local residents and send out information about their policies.

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Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said his Facebook site mainly is a way to communicate with other lawmakers.

On Facebook, users reach out to "friends," who are able to view their sites, post messages on their sites, send e-mails, take quizzes and send invitations to events.

Last year, while teaching a course for George Washington University, Shank learned how the social networking site could be used to communicate with his students, who were eager to "friend" him. Soon, he had dozens of requests from his students, and he began thinking of ways to use the site to communicate with Washington County residents.

President Obama's campaign brought the use of new media -- such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter -- for political purposes to a new level. More politicians are beginning to use the sites.

In a Jan. 21 memo to federal agencies, Obama called on all departments to "harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public."

Gaining new friends



The Maryland General Assembly's Republican caucus created a Facebook page last week, and there are plans to create a YouTube feed for the same group. Shank said he also will have his own YouTube feed with speeches, and perhaps interviews and video from local media.

The election for Republican National Committee chairman, which was won Friday by former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, at one point featured the candidates competing over who had the most Facebook friends.

That award among local lawmakers goes to Shank, who had 201 friends as of Friday. Weldon had 188; Myers had 121.

"To me, if I can find new ways to reach my constituents, using technology as a medium and reach new people ... that's building relationships," Shank said.

Weldon said he gets several friend requests each day and constantly has constituents from his district finding him on the site. They e-mail him questions about bills and share their stories with him. Weldon has a Facebook application on his BlackBerry, meaning he can monitor his Facebook messages and activity on his phone and respond if he wants.

"I'm sorry I didn't know about this when I was still worried about winning elections," said Weldon, who has announced he will not seek re-election when his term expires.

About one-third of Weldon's friends on Facebook are constituents, he said.

"It's an amazingly powerful tool," Weldon said.

Shank said new media, including Facebook and Twitter, help officials get instant feedback from those they serve.

However, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication, he said.

Not for everyone



"I can go all glitzy with new technology, but it's just one thing ... it's just a tool," Shank said.

He still reaches out to Washington County residents at church on Sundays and at the grocery store.

But just as Facebook is not appealing to all people, it is not appealing to all politicians.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said advertising himself online is not necessary. He said during the legislative session he is focused on his committees and working for the people of Washington County, not spending time on Facebook.

"I don't think we should spend the whole day making commercials about ourselves," Donoghue said.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he might consider branching into social networking or Twitter at some point, but right now, he uses his Web site, www.alexmooney.com, to reach out to people online.

"I guess I would say the current methods seem sufficient to me," Mooney said. "I still prefer an old-fashioned letter. That's still the tried and true method that I think we should keep. The phone still works. Everyone can call."

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