11. Build relationships with policymakers

All-too-often, progressive advocates act, and even feel, like policymakers are their adversaries. Yet this makes little sense because you can’t enact your policies unless most of them are on your side.

Advocates need policymakers, obviously. So, seek them out and talk with them about your organization’s goals. Sure, there is a difference in how you treat policymakers who are clearly on your side, those clearly against you, and those who might be persuaded depending on the specifics of the legislation. In general, though, be kind to your die-hard opponents (it can’t hurt and may help), get familiar with persuadable policymakers, and work closely with your supporters.

For both friendly and persuadable policymakers, try to get to know them before you lobby them. Go to dinners, receptions, and other events to talk with them, educate them about your issues, and offer to help them before you ever ask them for a vote. (So they remember, bring and use business cards.) If you don’t know how to get invited to such events, ask experienced progressive lobbyists.

Have your staffers and key volunteers build relationships with policymakers who represent the districts where they live. Among other things, they should go to meetings, receptions and picnics where the policymaker is expected and take the opportunity to talk to the official. In the ideal situation, your group would have at least one staffer or volunteer in each district who builds a relationship with his or her elected officials.

In addition to officials, it’s also useful to get to know policy staffers. Walk around and introduce yourself. If it’s allowed, bring doughnuts or even take staffers to lunch—they’re too often neglected.

Whenever you have the chance, say “good job” to legislators or staffers on any issue, whether you’re involved or not. Congratulate them on any press they’ve gotten. Find a mutual friend to talk about, or better yet, have the mutual friend join you at the meeting. The goal is to create long term relationships where they know you, trust you, and ask for your help—and you give it with pleasure.

Work with friendly policymakers

It is very common for progressive advocacy groups to keep policymakers at arms-length until after a measure is completely developed. That hold-the-ball tactic won’t score you any points. Instead, as you develop your policies and strategies, work closely with friendly policymakers, especially the ones who are most likely to sponsor or cosponsor your policy.

  • Policymakers tend to know more about legislative strategy than you do. They almost certainly know more about committee chairs and legislative leadership. They also probably know more about political obstacles. So, invite them to some of your advocacy campaign meetings and ask for their advice on politics and policy.
  • Policymakers want to sponsor good measures. Help provide them with ideas and research on any issue you can.
  • Policymakers want opportunities to get press coverage. Give them chances to stand up with your group. In fact, their presence greatly adds to the newsworthiness of any event.
  • Policymakers want to publish op-eds and letters to the editor. Write drafts for them.
  • Policymakers want to build their presence on the Internet and social media. Feature the best of them on your website and e-newsletters. Invite them to participate in your social media campaigns so they can be seen agreeing with your side.
  • Policymakers may want help getting better at messaging, press relations, social media, or networking with like-minded officeholders. If you are aware of organizations that can assist them (e.g., the Public Leadership Institute), connect the policymakers to the groups you know.

In short, find out all the ways your advocacy group and your policymakers might help each other and do as many as possible that advance your mutual interests.