Congressman Bill Posey served in the Florida House for eight years and then the senate before going to Washington. He likes to tell the story about when he was first elected and asked an experienced elected official what politics is all about. The old pro said, “Politics is just a matter of who gets what, when.”
“I was discouraged,” Posey said. “I didn’t want to believe that.” But now, after many years in office, he says it is true.
I learned reality in a different way. In 1992, I ran for the state house of representatives in a district in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was full of idealism and eager to make the system work better. An old pro I consulted told me. “Don’t spend a lot of time studying the issues,” he said. “Nobody will ask you about them, and that’s not going to win the election anyway.”
It was discouraging but true. I have talked about this with many people in office. They almost all agree that issues seldom win or lose elections. More than likely, your issues will never come up in a campaign and will not rise to a priority level for any elected official, unless you and your fellow stakeholders make it happen after the election. (Campaign time is a great time to communicate your issues to those running for office, however, in case they win.)
In my own campaign, after advertising, going door to door and being interviewed by the media, I received only 11 phone calls from my 24,000 potential voters. Ten were from an organized anti-abortion lobby. One was from a concerned citizen who wanted to hear my stand on issues.
My experience was typical and the result is good news: Most elected officials enter office as an empty vessel. They are ignorant. While they have campaigned on some issues, including being against taxes, “for jobs” and “for education,” they probably don’t know about your issues and they probably don’t care. If anything, this is the root of our salvation and the reason I retain a deep and abiding faith in our democracy.
Politicians do care about one thing: getting elected and staying elected. That is and should be their primary goal. Many people will say with disdain, “She only wants to get elected.” Of course she does. “He will say anything to get elected.” Of course he will. Politicians’ behavior is shaped by an overwhelming desire to get elected and stay elected. That gives you power.
Although they may not know or care about your issues, you can get them to care about you. Especially when you live or work in their district and are therefore a constituent. If you work in one district and live in another, you have a “twofer”-two sets of politicians who can care about you.
The most powerful moment in politics is when a voter talks with the person for whom they can vote. It’s true during the campaign and it’s the same after they win, especially for those with short terms. Members of the U.S. House and California Assembly run for office every two years. California state senators are slightly better off, running every four years.
That means they are always looking over their shoulder for someone who might run against them and looking ahead for voters in the next election. It is hard to understand how powerful this feeling is if you have not run for office. But I can tell you that someone who is campaigning will give his or her full attention to a voter. The person you can vote for will give you undivided attention if you are reasonable and have something to say.
This gives you an advantage over professional lobbyists and special interest groups. Politicians want your vote and, just as important, the approval it represents in a very personal, visceral way. I have asked hundreds of state and federal elected officials across the country and they all confirm this effect. When running for or serving in office, you lust not only for contact but also for approval.
Ralph Wright, who served as Speaker of the House in Vermont, put it this way:
“To a politician, when you put your name on the ballot-that’s a love affair. If you lose, they don’t love you.
“When you lose an election, they have said publicly, we reject you. It’s a big rejection. This ain’t some girl on the phone Friday night and she says, ‘I’m busy,’ and only she knows. This is the public saying they don’t love you and it’s reported in the next day’s newspaper for everyone to see. By the same token, it’s euphoric when 51 percent say, ‘We want you to represent us.’ Then you are loved.”
Politicians’ eyes are always on the next election, and any voter who gets irritated could start a ripple across the district. (U.S. senators are a possible exception, since they only run every six years. But even they must keep a wary eye, especially in the two years before an election.)
You may be wondering how I can say all this and also say that casting your vote is the least important weapon in your political arsenal. Your vote is very predictable just as is mine and everybody else’s. You’ve heard of the red states and the blue states, red districts and blue districts. They are predictably Republican or Democratic. Most U.S. House districts and state house and senate districts are predictable because they have been designed to reelect the incumbent, or someone just like them. Even though California instituted a method aimed at drawing districts without regard to party, the people in the districts, and thus their voting habits, didn’t change much. Presidential and gubernatorial elections are decided by the five percent or so of swing voters, those who vote for a Democrat sometimes, a Republican sometimes, or even an independent. But politicians don’t know who is in that five percent, so they have to fish and fight for every vote.
So it is the lust of elected officials for election and for approval by voters-all voters-that is your most important weapon. They don’t know how you voted. They don’t know how anyone is going to vote. All they know is that they have to try to convert every person they meet into a supporter. It would be difficult to overstate the urgent drive in a politician to win love and admiration from every registered voter.
This gives you the solution to a major problem faced by you and everyone else: candidates and elected officials may never know or care about your issues. Your best option is to make them care about you and what you can do to elect them. Then they may care about your issues. In the following pages, I’ll show you how smart individuals and organizations do it, emphasizing three major areas: (1) attitude, (2) relationship and (3) message. You’ll notice one thing is missing: that chart you may have seen titled “How a Bill Moves through the Legislature.” It’s useful to know, but don’t waste much time trying to learn the process. I’ll tell you how to get around that.
More important is the principle that you are going to build the right long-term relationship with the people who represent you. Then use that relationship under the direction of people in an organized group, such as an association, who really know “how a bill moves through the legislature.” Follow their directions and you will be all right.