Nearly always, it takes years to pass legislation that substantially addresses a serious policy problem. So why don’t more progressive advocacy groups write and follow multi-year plans?
Part of the reason is they only know the same-old methods of organizing and lobbying. Usually, these are: select and write one or more bills to promote, hold a press event to publicize the bill introductions, and lobby for the bills. When the bills lose, we try again the following year. Sure, rinse-and-repeat tactics can work, but they are often inefficient and are bound to fail in jurisdictions with the wrong mix of policymakers.
There is a multi-year program that has worked repeatedly but is unfamiliar to many progressive advocates. It is a set of interconnected strategies described in Michael Pertschuk’s book The DeMarco Factor: Transforming Public Will Into Political Power. The point of Vinny DeMarco’s six-step program is to use an upcoming election to drive publicity, corner candidates, compel policymakers to pledge their support, and change the overall perception of the politics of a given issue. This program has successfully enacted legislation for: gun violence prevention, tobacco tax increases, expanded health coverage, stopping casino gambling, and increasing the alcohol tax. Here are the six steps:
(1) Create an evidence-based policy plan.
Progressive advocates often feel, based on their own experience and national-level research, that they know which state or local policies would solve particular problems. And they’re often right. But in order to win a difficult battle, you need proof that the solution works not just nationally but locally. So, engage experts in your own state to do research that directly supports the efficacy of your proposed state or local policies. Over the course of the multi-year program, this research will help build alliances, convince activists, generate media attention, and persuade policymakers. (For more detail, see Chapter 4.)
(2) Commission a high-quality poll.
Because this strategy involves an election, progressives need to frame the issue in a way that is popular with voters. You need an issue that excites our base, is favored by persuadable voters, and offends the radical right. (Why offend the right wing? So they don’t give up when they realize they’re defending an unpopular position.) This requires polling, and if you’re going to invest a lot of time and money into a years-long advocacy campaign, you should not skimp on polling. By using a respected firm, you not only get more reliable opinion research, you also have more credibility when approaching political leaders and donors for support. (For more detail, see Chapter 5.)
(3) Use a resolution strategy to build a powerful coalition.
Create a resolution (see Chapter 8) for organizations and individuals to endorse a specific policy before that policy is crafted into legislation. It needs to be specific enough to describe impactful future legislation without being so specific that this step becomes legally defined as “lobbying.” With the resolution, progressive advocates seek endorsements from state and local civic, labor, religious, professional and policy groups, as well as prominent businesses, thought leaders, and local governments. This strategy provides a golden opportunity to educate grasstops leaders, activate grassroots supporters, build a powerful coalition for the legislation that follows this step, identify specific objections to the proposed policy, and find answers to those objections. This step also has the potential to generate a lot of press for the cause. And it’s entirely 501(c)(3) work!
(4) Introduce the bill and use media to the hilt.
If you are ambitious enough in your resolution, you probably can’t enact the legislation the first time it is introduced. And in fact, the purpose of this first bill is not to win, it is to create many opportunities for publicity, get the resolution’s endorsees engaged in the fight, gain more support especially at the grassroots level, and flush out the opponents’ policy arguments. It is impossible to overstate the importance of getting a lot of press attention. Ninety-nine percent of the legislation before any governing body is below the media’s radar, and as a result, the public never finds out what is happening. That kind of legislating favors special interests and their lobbyists. To win an important fight, we need to shine a bright spotlight on the issue—making it one of the few that the media covers—so that policymakers believe that regular people will know how they are voting on it. (For more detail about media, see Chapter 15.)
(5) Make the policy into an election issue.
This step usually requires a 501(c)(4) entity. It is fairly common for progressives to create candidate questionnaires or pledge forms, but we don’t tend to give much incentive for less-than-pure candidates to publicly support our issue. Because it is part of a highly publicized multi-year strategy, the pledge form works differently. Policymakers and candidates are pressured to sign by the large coalition that was built around the resolution and the legislative effort. Our advocates make it clear that the results—who does and does not sign—are going to be released at a key point in the campaign (e.g. mid-October), that the coalition will ensure that voters know the candidates’ positions through both earned and paid media, and that the policy is strongly supported by their voters. This maneuver attacks undecided policymakers/candidates at their weakest point. When in session, officeholders will often avoid taking a position when they can, but a campaign is a different matter entirely. The radio ad displayed below is an example of using pledge forms from three different campaigns to create one extremely effective ad.
(6) Win the policy battle.
As a result of co-sponsorships and pledges in the prior legislative session, plus the winning candidates who signed a pledge form during the election season, along with all the publicity generated by the effort, you begin the next legislative session with the maximum possible number of cosponsors—in some cases a majority or near-majority of the governing body. Through the six-step program, you have done more than win legislative supporters one-by-one, you have built a powerful movement and changed the perception of the issue among the political insiders across the state. And that reaps benefits for years to come.
Watch a short video about the six steps at www.publicleadershipinstitute.org/six-steps.