Your legislative strategy should be bigger than lobbying

Most decisions any legislator has to make are predictable—yes or no—and are made within the limited contexts of the legislative process, its attendant political ramifications, and the prevailing narrative. Going into any legislative session, we generally know what they are: This set of legislators are vulnerable, the caucus is softening on that issue and will make up for it by being aggressive elsewhere, leadership doesn’t want to seem racist, staff is overworked and underappreciated, ordinary people are fed up. 

Every advocacy organization has to ask one question at some point in the lead up to or during session: How do we change the political contexts within which legislators make these decisions so that they do what we want?

No single tactic will change the course of your bill. At DTC, however, we work with our clients to develop narrative-based and political strategies that change the calculus for key stakeholders. So here are four key tactics:

  1. Identify who is persuadable. Like any good persuasion campaign, know your target audience, and alienate your opposition. Who on what committees matter and what are their leverage points? Who can and should we lose? (A good lobbyist can tell you this.)
  1. Craft a better narrative. Most prevailing political narratives going into the legislative session are almost always set by the powers that be in an attempt to keep vulnerable, swing district members from having to stake out risky positions. It doesn’t have to be this way. Tell a more compelling narrative that makes your bill, your solution, your framing an indispensable value-add for vulnerable members.
  1. Remember there are always 2 levels to the narrative and leverage both. There’s what legislators will need to sell to their constituents (“we must secure our democracy”). Then there’s why legislators should do the thing (“securing our democracy is popular among two-thirds of your district as well as all the orgs you rely on for re-election support”). Make sure you hit both.
  1. Make legislators feel it. Don’t let your persuadable legislators get away with not hearing your message(s). Organize people. Show up to hearings with hundreds signed up in support and multiple panels of testifiers repeating your message. Geotarget the legislative campus with digital ads. Run op-eds and letters to the editor in key districts from community leaders. Make political alliances that ensure other organizations carry your message into their meetings with legislators.

Whatever your critique of the lobbying industrial complex, it is, at present, if you want to pass bills, essential to the process. A good lobbyist can give you 1) a real-time count of where legislators are at on your priorities, and 2) access to legislators that would otherwise be impossible to connect to during the pressure cooker that is legislative session. Many advocacy organizations risk narrowing their entire political strategy to simply lobbying. Don’t do it. It’s a trap!

Lobbyist don’t force things. They don’t twist arms. That’s the jobs of the caucus floor leaders and whips. Lobbyists are weathervanes—they tell you which way the wind blows, and the best of them can tell you precisely why. If you want to pass a policy at the legislature, you have to think bigger. You have to change the weather.

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