You can have a powerful influence over elected officials – particularly when you are talking to the ones you can vote for. But no politician would or should act just because you, or any other one person, have a great idea. They won’t take up your cause since – if they are experienced – they know they only have a certain amount of political capital to spend. They won’t waste it on causes they can’t win.
Remember the “magic numbers” to get what you want? John McLaughlin, a state representative in North Carolina, explained it to me this way: “There are lots of good ideas out there. Really good ideas. They are practical. They will work. They will accomplish some useful social goal. But they don’t have the political support to go anywhere. At every step in the process you must have fifty percent plus one or you die.”
That’s a nice dose of realism. It doesn’t matter how righteous your cause is. If you can’t show widespread support, your issue will die. Politics is the art of finding the middle, building consensus, creating a majority. One person’s idea, no matter how good it is, will not be given serious consideration just because it’s a good idea.
Only those ideas that have, or reasonably might have, or someone can cause to have, widespread support are worthy of becoming public policy. Setting majority rule and democracy aside, ideas without widespread support just will not work.
The way you demonstrate widespread support is through an organization or working with many organizations.
Take another look at the First Amendment: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” One of the first things tyrants do is ban meetings. They don’t want people banding together to multiply their strength. That’s why in addition to petition, you got the right to create or join a group. So when you join a business, professional or environmental association, you are once again following the path laid out by the Founders of our democracy.
In fact, most often political goals are achieved through an association of people, either formal or informal (as in a coalition). If you don’t represent something larger than yourself and your good idea, you are unlikely to be taken seriously.
It’s like a newspaper op-ed page (that’s the page across from or opposite the editorials with columns and articles of opinion). I could submit an article outlining a brilliant public health initiative to combat teenage pregnancy. I might get it published as a brief letter to the editor. It wouldn’t merit anything more because what I think on that topic, no matter how good the idea, isn’t worth much.
If the surgeon general or the chair of a senate committee wrote the identical article, it could get major play around the country. It would be taken seriously because it would represent some significant constituency, something larger than one person’s good idea.
For purposes of this book, I assume that you are a member of an association with a public policy agenda. It could be a Chamber of Commerce, the Sierra Club or something else. No matter what your issue, if it has any chance of getting legislative attention there is almost certainly some group already working on it. Your best bet is to join that organization. This usually provides you with the next essential ingredient: the professional advisor.
Having a Coach or Two Is Key
You must have an insider who understands the players and the process and who can lead you through the minefield of legislative deliberation. Think of it in terms of a sports metaphor: The association members are the team. They carry the ball and they score. The professional adviser, usually a lobbyist, is your coach, providing the experience and judgment to bring your talent and energy to bear in the right place at the right time.
Although a professional lobbyist is the most common advisor, I have seen instances where volunteer advocates had the time and knowledge to do the job well. Another possibility is your own elected official. If you can get her interested in your issue, she may be able to help you chart a course through the legislature or Congress, or at least point you in the right direction. But don’t expect them to take up your cause and lead the charge. They have too much on their plate.
The keys to success for most associations are (1) get a professional lobbyist and (2) obey them. Unless you are focused on politics and your issue 24/7/365, you will make costly mistakes. This includes understanding the system, knowing the major players and personalities, understanding their motivations and having the commitment and time to focus virtually all your energy on the political system. It will take you too long to learn all of that, and you may never figure out how to make something happen.
The first time I tried to get some legislation passed was back in the early 1970s, when open meetings and records were a much bigger issue than they are today. Working with Common Cause, a group of us in Atlanta were trying to get the legislature to open the budget process.
Our state representative, Sidney Marcus, had agreed to help us. At one point, he told us to pull back because the Speaker of the House didn’t want this legislation introduced. Sidney said he wouldn’t introduce it. Since we knew the cause was just and right, we decided to pressure Sidney. We started calling him. We decided if we could make his phone ring often enough, we could change his mind. After one or two phone calls, he took his phone off the hook. He didn’t want to deal with a bunch of fools-particularly when so many of us were not even from his district.
Frustrated, we found a freshman representative who agreed to introduce our bill. After he introduced it, in defiance of the Speaker of the House, the freshman got squashed and stripped of influence. Sidney, on the other hand, became chairman of a powerful committee.
Later he gave us a lot of help and advice. Because of his position, he was able to help get a lot of our ideas passed into law. Unlike us amateurs, he had enough sense and experience to know what to do and when to do it in order to get something done. Because we did not factor in Sidney’s experience and judgment, we were left holding our ideals and initially had gotten nothing-even though we knew we had gone after the right thing. Be smart. Get a professional adviser and follow their directions.