Fighting for family medicine in Texas

Advocacy 101: Six rules for making your legislative friends champions for your cause

By Joe Gagen

All of us know and appreciate the importance of a legislator who not only votes for our issues, but actively supports our efforts. Oftentimes this person is the sponsor of our legislation or a member of a key appropriations committee. Sometimes these legislative friends align with our issue due to effective lobbying and sometimes due to personal experience. For whatever reason, we all know how critical these legislative friends are to success. They become not only our advocates, but valued consultants on legislative strategy as well.

Unfortunately, even the most well-meaning and dedicated legislator is forced to pick and choose among the issues he or she supports and select those worthy of additional time and attention. This may be due to the volume of legislation, the daily press of time, or just the politics of the process. An example of the latter occurs often in the making of an appropriations bill, when an individual committee member has the ability to influence only a limited number of funding items during a process that often takes place outside the public light. Under those circumstances, the individual legislator is forced to make a difficult choice as to which of several worthwhile projects or activities he or she believes should receive stronger support.

The Animal Farm rule

Like the pigs in the George Orwell novel, some legislators are more equal than others, and given that most organizations have limited resources, it is important to focus your resources on key legislators such as those that serve on key committees or those that have personal experience with your issues. Of course, this doesn’t mean you ignore other legislators or refrain from seeking their support.

The Henry B. Gonzalez rule

Henry B. Gonzalez was a longtime member of Congress from Texas. He once said that there is a world of difference between someone being against you and someone being really against you. There are many degrees of support and opposition in the legislative process. The significance for you is that moving one key legislator from hard opposition to indifference may be just as critical to success as moving a supporter from passive support to championing your cause.

The Winnie the Pooh rule

Like the A. A. Milne character, legislators love honey. And what is legislative honey? It is quite simply praise and attention for doing positive things in support of your issues. Like Winnie with his honey, it’s nearly impossible for constituents to give legislators too much attention for doing good things.

The Strike-While-the-Iron-Is-Hot rule

Don’t wait until after the legislative session to thank those who’ve helped you, and don’t reserve praise solely for your sponsor or floor leader. Look and look hard for things for which to thank other legislators: a favorable vote in committee or on the floor, a quote in the newspaper, a comment during floor debate supportive of your position, or even taking time to meet with representatives of your organization. All of these are worthy of a thank-you letter. Don’t forget letters to the editor in the hometown papers. You may not think anyone reads those letters, but I promise you, most legislators do.

The There-Is-No-Friend-Like-a-Constituent rule

Letters of appreciation from the CEO of your association or from your lobbyist are nice, but they can’t compare to the impact of a letter from a constituent. If you don’t have any supporters in a key legislator’s district, then make an effort to find some. There is no substitute for hand-written thank-you letters from constituents. Local constituent advocates can be far more effective than paid lobbyists.

The Smith Barney rule

In a famous commercial for the stock brokerage company, the punch line says, “We make money the old fashioned way, we earn it.” Hometown media stories about your organization’s local members honoring a legislator after a legislative session are far more valuable to that legislator than any paid political advertising. Legislators know that. So after each legislative session, make a list of your key legislators, find something they did during the session for which you can thank them, and do it.

You can do this at a local restaurant, your offices, or even someone’s home. Order a nice plaque or frame a resolution, send out press releases before the event so local reporters know they can attend, and invite your members and supporters. TAFP staff back at the association headquarters can help you with the press release and media contacts, but it is your relationship with the legislator that will make the difference.

Take pictures of the member receiving the award, and after the event, send out a second press release with the pictures to every newspaper in the legislator’s district. Major dailies might not run the story, but the smaller weeklies and suburban papers probably will. You can also send the story to your local chapter of TAFP, county medical society, and any other organization to which you belong that has a newsletter or website. Clip any articles that appear in these publications and send them to the legislator, thanking him or her again.

A little thoughtfulness can go a long way in the legislative process. Just like the rest of us, legislators like to be recognized when their efforts make a positive difference in people’s lives. It is by this recognition that legislators will take a greater interest in your issues.

Joe Gagan has a long history of involvement in political and legislative affairs, serving as general counsel to a legislative committee, and chairing a major state regulatory agency in Texas. He has conducted successful strategic planning and legislative educational programs for TAFP, AAFP, and many other organizations.