Property Rights Foundation of America®

from the Fifth Annual New York Conference on Private Property Rights (PRFA, 2000)

Reaching Your Representative
Jeff Williams
Assistant Director of Governmental Relations, New York farm Bureau

Thank you very much. First of all, thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today. The New York Farm Bureau, for those of you that don't know, is an advocacy lobbying organization on behalf of almost 30,000 farmers and people in the agricultural industry in New York state and our organization and your organization, Carol, really dovetail nicely. We have surely the same interests at heart and thank you again for inviting us. In fact, we have Albany County president, Farm Bureau president, Sheila Powers here today.

Now, I am going to speak on effective lobbying. My remarks are tailored toward New York State, but I think the general tone can be used in other states or at the local level or even at the federal level. So with that I will start.

Lobbying. It does have a negative connotation but the word shouldn't. It is not really a word that should make your mother cringe. When I called my mother when I got this job and I said Mom, "I'm lobbying," I heard her cringe. It was over the phone. It was tough, but really the bottom line is lobbying is influencing or contacting your legislator to tell them how you feel on a certain issue and ask them to back you up. That is not "lobbying." That is just good government.

Lobbying may have a bad connotation, but here at Farm Bureau we have five registered lobbyists for the national, state, and local levels, and we have been fairly successful over the past hundred years of existence.

Lobbying is an amorphous science. When you go in, you never know what is going to happen when you end up, or where you've gotten. You never know if you are successful, or if it was because of you or if it was because of someone else. When you fail, however, you pretty much know it is because of you.

The bottom line is that it is all about salesmanship. When you communicate with your legislators, you have to present yourself accordingly and make your point effectively. We are lucky because the issues that we lobby on are issues that we truly believe in. We are not, you know, contract lobbyists who go out and lobby, for instance, just because they are getting paid to do so. We have the luxury of standing behind 100 percent of what we believe in when we go talk to legislators.

The origins of the term lobbying actually come from New York state. Outside the New York State Senate chamber is the Senate lobby. This is a huge, beautiful room with Tiffany stained-glass windows, floor-to-ceiling and carved mahogany furniture, and it is just absolutely gorgeous. Separating the lobby from the Senate chamber are these massive, massive iron gates that were made in Rochester in 1898, and they are so heavy that it took them six months by horse and wagon to get them to Albany, and ten days more to drag them up the stairs to the third floor of the capitol. They are big. What happens is, if you want to talk to your legislator in the Senate chamber, you have to walk up to these huge gates and give the sergeant at arms your card and they go track down the legislator. Whether it is in the bathroom, the kitchen, or on the Senate floor debating a bill, they come out and then you are effectively lobbying in the lobby.

Registration for lobbyists in New York State has been required since the early 1900's. In 1977 the New York State Lobbying Commission was formed to really keep track of lobbyists. Last year wasn't such a good year for lobbyists. The Phillip Morris scandal in New York State—The Phillip Morris lobbyists did some things, the result of which is new registration requirements for everybody who is a lobbyist in New York State.

Lobbying is incredibly important and, just to give you an idea of what you are up against when you lobby, at least in Albany, there are 2,150 registered lobbyists in New York state. They represent 1,350 clients in 50 public corporations. We are just a small portion of that, and in order to be effective we really need to organize and marshal our resources—especially when you realize that in 1977 expenses for lobbying were $5.7 million. Last year they were $72 million! That is a lot of money floating around New York State.

In Farm Bureau what we do in order to prepare our members for their annual lobby trip to Albany or Washington is that we sit down with them and give them a little primer on lobbying which I will share with you today. Basically, it is the four K's: You know your audience; you kiss your legislators, which I will get to later on; you keep it local; and you give kudos when deserved.

Knowing your audience. First you need to target your message to your legislators. You need to know Albany. You can be highly inefficient and ineffective if you don't know what you are doing or where you are doing it once you get to Albany. You need to know the pertinent committee chairs, who the Senate majority leader is, the Senate minority leader is, the same in the Assembly. Then on top of that you need to know the names of all the staff for each individual issue, because you are going to get nowhere if you want to talk transportation issues and you are talking to the environmental person. So that is the first thing. Then you need to know when to contact staff personally, when to write a letter to a legislator, or when you want to use someone else to accomplish your goal.

The rule of thumb, at least at Farm Bureau, is if it is not a pressing issue, if it is a bill you oppose, it has been introduced, and you know it is not going to be acted on for awhile, write that letter and get it into the office. They will read it, the sender will read it or some person will read it and they will throw it in the file and then when it comes back up, they will dig up a file and refer to your letter. That is very effective.

If it is a more pressing issue,— there is the bill is coming up in committee or on the floor or it is budget time and people are scrambling or worse, it is end of session, when they are passing a thousand bills on the last day of session and your bill is one of those, call. You can think about calling a staff member in the office and ask them to relay your opposition or support to the bill, to the senator or assemblyman. Now what that does, it uses a chip. It really does. As a former staffer, I appreciate it when somebody calls me and says this bill is coming up, this is how it affects me in our industry. Can you please tell your Senator or Assemblyman how I feel about this issue. And, of course, you run right in and tell them. And then they do it again. Then about the fifth or sixth time you call in and say this is a hugely urgent issue, will you please run in and all of a sudden the urgency sort of loses its meaning. This is something that is a very effective tool, to call in and ask them to relay your opinion, but it can't be used all the time because then it will just end up just wasting their time and they don't appreciate that.

Also, under "knowing your audience" you need to build on relationships. This is so important. If you have a legislator that you like who supports your issues, support them. And that means at home—join their campaign, volunteer in their campaigns, stuff envelopes, go to fundraisers, work in their party system. If they are Republican, work with the Republican; if a Democrat, with the Democrat party, whatever party it is, help them out. This gives you a couple of good opportunities to speak with that person as well. You know, if you are on a Thursday night stuffing envelopes, eating pizza, you know, for a big mailing going out right before election day, your legislator walks in the room, that give you an opportunity to bend that person's ear. That really is an effective way and we recommend that our members do so. Especially, that is what is important to them, so they will hopefully if successful owe you later on and give you the opportunity to come into their office and talk to them.

Now, you need to kiss your legislator. If you want to walk into the office for a meeting and jump on the desk and give him a kiss, that is fine. If it works for you, that's great. But our "KISS" is "Keep It Simplistic and Short." When you walk in for a meeting, assume you have about five minutes per item. The legislator is very busy. If you have three items, assume the meeting will be 15 minutes and keep it short. Technicalities, if there are lots of details, don't bring them up in the meeting with the legislator. Save them for staff, because the legislators just don't have the time for it.

I can tell you a story which is sort of embarrassing. But the first senator I worked for,—it was the first or second month that I was there and I really wanted to make my mark. He gave me my first real task to do and it was this huge complex issue involving 15 or 20 different stakeholders, state agencies, constituents, lawyers, you name it, and I was going to sit down with him and tell him and work with him and tell him how I think we should proceed. So I spent a week,—35-page memo color-coded, tabbed, titled, footnoted, everything, and I walk in the office and I say, let's talk about this right now. You read this and then we will talk. I handed it to him. He looked at it and handed it back to me and said, "One page." That's what you are dealing with. Technicalities are not for the Senate. They want a one-page memo. The big picture. That is all they need to see because they are meeting with 19 other organizations in the same day.

When you walk in, you need to be prepared to point to desired achievements or outcomes. You need to know what you want. It sounds sort of simple, but you need to know what you want out of the meeting before you walk in. You need good planning, a good strategy. Again 20-page handouts to legislators just don't work. They will just get thrown in the file. Time really is the most critical component of a legislator's day and you need to maximize the time that you have.

Keep it local, the third K. Tip O'Neill. This is sort of a cliché response or statement, "All politics are local," but it really is still the case. The most important people to a Senator or Assemblyman, Congressman, you know, federal Senator, county official, are the constituents of their own Senate district. When I lobby in Albany, if I am lobbying the Albany County Senator, I bring Sheila in with me, because he doesn't care what I say. He cares what his constituent says. We try to bring as many people in as possible to make the point. You need to know the Senator's district and maximize the people you bring in to the meetings and get them to really hit upon all the high points. I can't emphasize that enough. Local involvement with a legislator is the most important.

Then give kudos, the fourth K, when deserved. If a senator works really hard on the bill, gets the bill passed, and the bill turns into law or even just gets past the Senate, send a thank you letter. Please! It makes our lives a lot easier because it gives us a bad name if you don't. Even better, public thank you's work so well—letters to the editor, photo opportunities, press releases that you send to the papers, they love it. They feed off it and it gives them incentive to help you out in the future. Awards are also appreciated. It sounds sort of cheesy, but it is true. They like to have plaques on their walls. They have a lot of office space and they have a lot of wall space. Plus, when you give them a plaque, he hangs it up, and then you have year-long reminder of the organization. It really works. This year, Farm Bureau issued their Farm Bureau Circle of Friends which they give to legislators that vote with Farm Bureau a certain percentage of the time. It is amazing the people who don't get it call in and want to know why. These things do work.

Now, when you meet with a legislator, on top of the KISS method, you again have to outline what you want to accomplish and practice before you go in. We do it and we are "professionals." We go in pairs because pairs are the best way to do it. Each person has a strength and weakness and you can work with each other and so you sit down with that person and run over what you are going to say and it makes a very seamless meeting. A tag-team approach is really helpful. Have handouts, information, again, simple information. If you are handing out, perhaps, a newspaper article or a magazine article, highlight the issues that you really want them to focus on because they can look at it and get the idea and then file it. Then after the meeting, please write thank you notes. That is really, really important, not only to thank them for taking the time, but it allows you to hit on your issues again. That is very helpful.

The bottom line is, please, it only helps you to be courteous in the meeting no matter what you want to say to the Senator or Congressman. I've been in meetings where I have wanted to say "Are you kidding? You idiot! This is the worst bill in the whole world and you are going to ruin New York State by introducing and passing this bill." But you say, thank you very much for your time and that is pretty much it.

While effectively working in your capitol, you can become—it is very important to become—a reputable information source. I can't emphasize this enough. Never make anything up. We can use facts and figures to back up our statements, but make sure they are right.

Another story. While working for a senator, we had a meeting with an organization that came in and pitched us this great bill. I don't want to get into specifics, but the basics were it would save 25,000 children's lives and reduce taxes by $5 billion. It was a great bill. And so we looked at it and said, sure, we will put it in. That's fine. We drafted it up and put it in and introduced it, wrote the press release, and threw the press release out state-wide.

Once that happened, we started getting phone calls from other organizations saying, I think your numbers are wrong. This bill doesn't help 25,000 kids or give them insurance or save taxpayers $3 billion. This bill actually would increase taxes by $1 billion and hurt kids by depriving them of school lunches or something like that. It ended up being a horrible bill. And the organization that we put it in for lied to us, basically. I can tell you that that organization has never been in that office again and we will never put another bill in for them. It damages your credibility so much. No matter how much you want to embellish the numbers or present a side that may be somewhat untrue, the end sometimes doesn't justify the means, especially if you want to continue your work.

The bottom line is that you don't have to live in the capitol to network efficiently. Again, the planners, movers, and shakers in a legislator's district are in the legislator's district. It is the people who influence that Senator every day and you need to know those people. It doesn't do any good to network other lobbyists. The bottom line is that you have to have your legislator know you by first name. That way you can call them personally. You need to position yourself. To lobby effectively, you need to position yourself to be on a first name basis and have them recognize you, and if at all possible, have them owe you something.

Coalition building. Again, I am so happy to be here today because coalitions are so important when lobbying. You need to work in coalitions because each organization has a strength and a weakness and the more organizations you have lobbying together on one certain issue really maximizes your strength. For example, this past session there is a bill increasing the minimum wage to $7.65 or something like that, and it was put in and, of course, will hurt farmers horrendously, let alone small businesses,— other people, McDonalds, places like that. So our organization partnered with the Business Council, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and we all walked around and met all the key legislators and their staff and said that not only will it affect us, look how this bill will affect everybody else in this room. And they stopped seeing it as a farm bill or a McDonald's bill or an anti-grocery bill. It is a business bill and that was a real success we had last year and we ended up defeating the bill.

Lastly, dealing with the media. This is probably the worst. Senators, Assembly people, Congress people, legislators, especially in Albany, legislate by press release. The Farm Bureau got beat up last year so badly by editorials in the New York Daily News on labor, farm labor. None of the editors have been to a farm, but they heard some story from some organization saying that farmers are beating their workers and depriving them of places to stay and underpaying them. It simply by all objective purposes was not true, but they printed it in the paper. Some of the Assembly people heard about it and introduced a whole slew of bills that was just put a gun to the agricultural industry in New York State. This is how things work. They don't depend on fact. They depend on public perception. That is why it is key that we beat these people to the punch and put out our media first. You need a preemptive strike or else you are going to be playing defense. The easiest way to get attention legislatively is through the media, whether good or bad. You need to maximize the good and prevent the bad.

That is about it. I hope I gave you some good nuts and bolts on lobbying.

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