14. Work closely with sponsors

Work hand-in-hand with the public officials who are your policy’s champions into the process. Yet, it’s those very champions. They are the ones who best understand their colleagues, constituents and chamber rules. Issue advocates and policymakers must move beyond “inside-outside” roles and work together from the beginning of the strategy to the end, drawing on the skills and strengths of all involved.

Think carefully about who you want as sponsors. The chief sponsor must be someone who is willing and able to do the work necessary to understand the policy background and current law, master the facts and arguments behind your legislation, and effectively lobby fellow policymakers.

Usually, the sponsor should be a member of the committee that will handle the measure. That way, they’re at the table when it is debated and the vote is taken.  And, for an important policy, a more senior policymaker makes a better sponsor than a junior one. But the highest-ranking lawmakers are often the busiest. It’s more important to have a sponsor who will put a lot of effort into your measure than one with a reputation who can’t commit enough time to your issue.

Too often, legislation is introduced at the last minute and cosponsors are simply policymakers who were available at a convenient place and time. That’s bad planning. The process of building a list of cosponsors provides advocates with a golden opportunity to educate and energize friendly policymakers and encourage many to take some ownership of the project. As you build that list, maximize the number of cosponsors who are on the committees that will handle the measure.

Target leadership, and especially committee chairs and subcommittee chairs for co-sponsorships (unless your sponsor says it’s not appropriate in your case). Even if these key policymakers say no, you’ve contacted them early, gotten some important feedback, and you had the chance to ask, “What will it take to get your support?”

When a policy is nearly ready for introduction, there are two things that require very close cooperation between advocates and chief sponsors:

  • Work with the legislative counsel agency to ensure that the final version is written exactly the way you want. Legislative Counsel tend to be very skilled, but you should assume they know nothing about your policy or overall intentions. Advocates and sponsors must read the bill very carefully before it is introduced. Above all, don’t let staff members bully you into accepting language that doesn’t accomplish your goals.
  • Work with the fiscal analysis agency to ensure that you get the best possible fiscal note. Cost estimates can be more art than science. Provide the agency with the data that helps them agree with you about cost. (E.g., get cost info from other states and cities that have done or “scored” that policy before.) Often these agencies are good at estimating cost but need a lot of help to estimate cost savings.

When you’re ready to introduce the bill, make sure that your sponsors know what to say to the press. Too often, advocates leave sponsors unprepared to answer difficult questions. Remember that, as elected officials, what they say is more likely to be quoted than what advocates say. So, it is crucial to help them stay on message.

Throughout the legislative battle, keep in close communication with your chief sponsors:

  • Regularly show them your targeting/ratings and get their active input and participation in finding out the positions of undecided policymakers.
  • When you’re going to lobby an undecided policymaker, ask the sponsor for advice. The sponsor often knows the best way to that policymaker’s heart.
  • Work with sponsors to set up an internal whip operation, where individual cosponsors and other legislative champions are designated to persuade specific colleagues who remain undecided.
  • Whenever you’re holding a press event about the bill, bring your sponsors. Adding public officials makes nearly anything more newsworthy, they appreciate the opportunity to get media attention, and they deserve it.
  • Whenever you’re meeting with a newspaper editorial board or op-ed writer, bring a bill sponsor if possible. It will really get the board’s or writer’s attention.
  • Help your sponsors write op-eds and letters to the editor. Set up interviews for them with radio and podcast hosts, newspaper and magazine writers, and bloggers.
  • When your bill has a hearing, fully brief your sponsors so they are ready for both friendly and hostile questions.

In short, create a relationship where neither advocates nor sponsors will make important decisions on their own. By working alongside each other and communicating every step of the way, you won’t be surprised by legislative compromises and they won’t be surprised by your bold lobbying tactics.