Grassroots volunteer lobbyists often wonder, “Can I work well with an elected official of a different party-someone whose politics I detest?”
From the organization standpoint, I recommend matching grassroots volunteers with elected officials of the same party and outlook where possible. In the best of all worlds, the grassroots contact will be a mirror image of the elected official. But this is seldom possible. Don’t worry. When you contact an elected official, she usually won’t know what party you are in and won’t ask. Even if you are in the other party and she knows it, your issue may not be one supported or opposed by the political parties.
Right now, California is what in political circles is called a “trifecta” state. That is, both houses of the legislature are controlled by Democrats and the Governor is a Democrat. Anything viewed as “Republican” faces a tough fight. If you are of a different party than the elected official you are trying to persuade, don’t give up. You never know. I do not recommend lying, but neither would I suggest you walk in and announce, “I’m in a different party.” If it comes up, be honest.
(Incidentally, saying you voted for her doesn’t work. It sounds like you expect something in return. Oddly enough, everyone elected officials meet seems to have voted for them. I used to meet people all the time who would say they voted for me, even though they didn’t live in my district.)
No matter what their party, officials know they get elected and reelected by serving people. If they can, they want to help people in their district. It’s called constituent service and they know it’s what keeps them in office.
As for building a good relationship, I have found it helpful to think in terms of a “favor bank.” I have an account with my elected representative just as I have one at the bank, except in this one, I deposit favors. That means you have to look for favors to do. Analyze the person’s goals and help her achieve them. You will maintain a good account balance by making regular deposits in the favor bank. Deposit the time you spent putting out signs. Deposit the time you stuffed envelopes. Add to your account when you contribute money.
I think of it as building up equity so I can take out a loan. Who would I like to get favors (or loans) from? In this case, I want something from elected officials. So I want to maintain a favorable balance and never overdraw my account. Before I ask for something, I want to be sure that I have built up favors that will be remembered.
If this sounds a little too contrived, a little too cynical, remember that this is the way all friendships and relationships work. We just don’t sit down and analyze it. We aren’t methodical about maintaining the favor balance. Like it or not, it works. Just like any relationship, there needs to be two- way giving and receiving. If that lapses, where’s the relationship?
Many amateurs and newcomers think all they have to do is head off to the legislature while it’s in session, make an elegant case, and go home with a victory. It never happens that easily. Politics is a long, messy process. So another important aspect of the relationship is your expectations. You will seldom get everything you want. You must be prepared and committed to the long haul. A major idea can easily take between five and eight years to work through the legislature.
Your political results will be in direct proportion to your ability to convey the perception that you and your organization are never going to go away. A basic rule is: There is only one time you lobby-year in, year out, year round. Never stop. You were here last year, you are here this year, and you will be here next year and the year after. Elected officials are less likely to invest serious time or effort if you do not demonstrate staying power.
There are also limits to what your elected officials can do even when they want to help you. In Sacramento and in Congress, anything that passes depends on a small cadre in leadership. You must get them behind you. There is little or nothing the elected officials who represent you can do by themselves. If leadership in the house or senate is against your issue, accept the fact that you have to convert leadership-no easy task.
Opposing or not going along with leadership is dangerous. If your elected representatives are going to be effective-for you and others-they must support leadership.
Yet there are times when they don’t want to as a matter of personal preference, and times when they don’t want to because their constituents are on the other side of an issue. Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill recognized this effect. When he needed to pass a bill he would often have some members who, for one reason or another, needed to vote the other way. O’Neill would sit them all in the front row. If he didn’t need their votes, he would let them pass. But if he did, he expected them to vote with him. He would look them in the eye and they would know the moment had come. Do you vote with the Speaker or for your constituents? Can you imagine the pressure?
One of the great strengths of grassroots lobbying is that strong support in the district can allow your elected official to vote in your favor, even when it goes against leadership. Everyone in the legislature understands you have to vote your district.
So if you ask your elected official to go against leadership or to convert leadership, you have to give a very strong reason. One powerful reason for a legislator to go against leadership, and one that leadership understands, is a strong message from the district. This gives you power because you and your organization can provide that message. Letters, emails, faxes, and other demonstrations of support for an issue from the district give politicians political cover, even to go against leadership.