All conversations with legislators begin with introductions and end with thank you. It is the dance in-between that separates voter from organizer, lobbyist from policy advocate.
Caring voters come to Springfield on a mission, dressed in hunting fatigues or wearing medical coats, in suits or t-shirts and jeans. Families clutch hands of children. Caretakers push people in wheelchairs. Groups of high school students and groups of retired folks wait their turn to speak with legislators and testify in committees.
Legislators listen carefully to voters who speak from their heart. They look for the values embedded in personal stories. Fact sheets are helpful but it is the anecdote that wins the day.
I watched one young woman win over a House committee last week when she told her personal story of abuse first from a parent and then from a school system. No legislator who cared about children could have voted against this young adult who had struggled at great odds to overcome injustice.
Policy advocates, equally passionate about their policy position, favor the well-reasoned argument. Their careful analysis demonstrates the wisdom behind their proposed policy. Their tools are charts, data, logic, and reports from other states.
Legislators, forced to be knowledgeable about many issues, seek out those with a reputation for quality research in a specific area. Truly brilliant in their effectiveness are those advocates who can do three things: simplify a complex situation, explain where the arguments against their proposal fall apart, and give the legislator words for convincing their colleagues that the proposed policy should be voted up or down.
Community organizers choose the "in-your-face" approach to get the attention of legislators. It seems so rude. But legislators hide from certain issues that are uncomfortable or controversial. The only way to get action is to force a legislator to declare where he or she stands and to make him or her promise action.
Said one legislator who was the target of this approach from SWOP, a Southwest Side Chicago community organization, "I knew I couldn't avoid declaring my position around drivers licenses for illegal immigrants any more when I saw folks with the SWOP buttons flooding the Capital and lining up outside my door." Because they were respectful, he was not angry. In contrast, this legislator who is on the fence about same sex marriage was turned off by organizers from both sides of the issue because of their pushy, "take no prisoners and don't even pretend to listen" approach.
The media focuses on how lobbyists are the inside players in the game of influence because they have favors to grant (campaign contributions, getting-out-the-vote, etc.). Absolutely, money and campaign workers matter. But that is just part of it. The most talented lobbyist uses his or her personal knowledge about an individual legislator to tailor the message, a knowledge built on a valued relationship. Usually, the "ask" is based on how a particular vote will help the legislator with the two groups he or she cares most about: constituents and donors. But other details like personal experience with the issue or religious values inform the phrasing of the message.
It is now March and the Legislature adjourns on Friday for two weeks. What will work best to persuade legislators when the General Assembly reconvenes in April?
The issues important to the Jewish Federation revolve around protecting funding for health and human services so that our agencies can continue to meet their missions. Policy advocates have reached every legislator with the messages about investments in human services saving money and the cost-effectiveness of expanding Medicaid. Organizers have brought in crowds to chant challenging slogans in the building. Lobbyists have used every opportunity at golf outings, cocktail parties, and other campaign fundraisers to ask for support.
But still the House proposes to reduce funding for community-based human and health care services. Still Medicaid expansion, passed by the Senate, languishes in the House.
Legislators are stuck. Hearing from the Jewish Federation volunteer leaders about why they care deeply about human and health services might help bring the heart back into the decision-making. The Jewish Federation Springfield Mission in April comes at just the right time.