Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Taking a "Grass-Tops" Approach to Lobbying 

12-09-2015 17:35

Preservation organizations often turn immediately to their grassroots support base to advocate for a particular issue. but sometimes it can be more effective to take a more strategic, targeted approach involving only a few key players. This approach might be called “grass-tops” lobbying. Three experienced leaders from the preservation field talk about when and how to go at it alone and when to call in the troops. Hear from Paul Bruhn, executive director, Preservation Trust of Vermont; Myrick Howard, president, Preservation North Carolina; and Greg Paxton, executive director, Maine Preservation and formerly The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Their discussion is excerpted from a conference session on this topic at the 2008 National Preservation Conference in Tulsa, led by Rhonda Sincavage, National Trust program associate for state and local policy.

Why does your organization use “back room” or “grass-tops” advocacy?

Paxton: None of us like the idea of “back rooms.” Grass-tops is a neat way of describing what we are talking about, which is a top-down approach rather than a bottom up. What I’ve found out over the years is that a few people who are very concerned about an issue have more impact than a lot of people who are just a bit interested.

In terms of getting issues addressed—it is better when a few key people involved in the legislative process are behind you and will work with you. This is much more effective than working with a larger number of people who are not influential. It’s best to target—target those people who can get things done (such as the governor or legislative leaders in a state) and target a few key people who can help you with that person.

Howard: I’ve been lobbying for nearly 30 years and I’ve never heard the term grass-tops until this year. I’ve always thought we did “strategic” lobbying. It’s very focused and very strategic—you know where you want to go and you figure out how you want to get there.

How much lobbying is done by you, your board of trustees, or other individuals?

Bruhn: I have remained active in politics in Vermont, which has allowed me to be on the inside of a number of discussions. It has enabled me be in a position to propose some ideas. Most of the work is done by me, and then by bringing in local community folks as necessary, when it is appropriate and we need contact with a particular legislator. We draw on our contacts around the state to communicate with their legislators.

Howard: I’m basically the lead person in our organization. I try to get the persons around me whom I need at the moment, which varies from one instance to the next. Sometimes you want the developer in the room, sometimes you want the community person. You go at it very strategically. I would call myself the  choreographer of lobbying for North Carolina.

How do you target your legislators and the key people? What if their interest in preservation doesn’t match their leadership position?

Bruhn: It’s a matter of doing some research. If the chair of a committee isn’t favorable to your issue, look at the other members and find out who will have some sway with the chair. It’s about watching the committee and understanding how it works and how the members relate to each other. And since most legislators come back year after year, all this becomes clear after a period of time.

Preservation Vermont shares a lobbyist with several other organizations including the Housing and Conservation Coalition and the Smart Growth Coalition, and they’ve been very helpful in conserving my time in the legislature. I spend one day a week in the legislature, which works great. Vermont is small enough so you can hang out in the cafeteria and see just about everyone you need to see.

Paxton: I’ve played a similar role of being the coordinator of lobbying, but using many other resources as well. Working with state agencies and with others of a similar mindset is useful. Having partnerships in lobbying is very important. Typically for a particular issue there are other organizations that are just as interested in that issue, and you can often partner with their lobbyist.

 It is fairly unusual to have a legislator who simply operates on auto pilot. You have to make sure you are constantly reminding them about your issue, particularly at key moments. Otherwise, they may take up someone else’s issue when you need their help most.

Howard: You need to put an antenna up and read the newspaper a lot to find out who is interested in what subject. We try to identify people who have an interest in the subject and then go to them and ask for advice. And very often, once other lobbyists and other organizations get to know you and your issue, they will help you out.

 It is important to stay informed about the legislators and the legislature as it goes through the year. If they are struggling with budget issues, then it is probably not the right time to ask for an appropriation. Be aware of what is on their minds.

Bruhn: It is also about building an ongoing relationship with legislators—and not just during the legislative session. The session can be a frantic process and legislators are juggling many issues. And your issue might not be at the top of their mind every day. So it is important to build a relationship with them when the legislature is not in session.

Make sure they get to see some of the results of their efforts, such as tax credit programs, so they have a tangible experience in their minds. This helps them to understand that the legislation was important and that something significant happened as a result of their actions.

Howard: You then need to keep those relationships good and strong. After you have had the successes, you need to get your friends to thank them. Get your members to say, “thanks” and “this is really important.” Then in publications and newsletters say, “Thank you so much, Senator. We really appreciate your support in making this happen.”

Paxton: One way of describing the state legislature is that it is a rumor mill. It is like a beehive—everyone knows where the honey is. Lots of people are swapping information as it comes out. The degree to which you are tapped into that network is key. Otherwise you look like an outsider who has just stepped in the hive of activity. It is critical to be tuned in with the lobbyists who are there and who know what is going on.

It also matters which party you are working with. The party members who are in the majority have a lot more influence than the party members who are not. That can vary from year to year and from house to house. But we have a very distinct advantage in historic preservation because our field is definitely bipartisan.

Howard: I agree. This is such a bipartisan subject. To the extent that you can stay away from being partisan, it really helps. Legislators like to be bipartisan themselves. They like to say to the public that “we
crossed the aisle and made some good things happen.” Preservation is an issue that you can get both sides to embrace.

This sounds like a huge time commitment on your part. How do you balance advocacy with other responsibilities? At what point did you decide this is a priority for your organization?

Howard: Actually I don’t spend that much time on it. I do spend time reading the newspaper and trying to stay informed and on top of things. We strategically go after one thing per session. Our legislators really don’t want to hear from us multiple times a year on multiple issues.

If you can deliver to legislators the preservation movement with some degree of unanimity, they will support the bill and get it through. They do not want a fractious situation. They want it thought through, talked through, walked through, and worked through. With a lot of the legislation that we put through, we do a first draft of the legislation or work with the legislative staff to do a first draft of the legislation.

I make sure that I am ready to be there at the drop of a hat for the committee hearings when they are scheduled. And usually I don’t really say much in these committee meetings. I’m just there if they have questions. It’s more of a strategic commitment.

Paxton: The time spent is varied. It really depends on what is up that particular year. There have been years when we have been very engaged; other years it’s relatively light and things go very smoothly. We have discovered that opportunism is important. It is important to know what is going on in the legislature. So if the environmental community comes up with an easement bill, you want to make sure you are involved with that. It is being aware of the things that are floating around and making yourself available to the people who are pushing them.

Bruhn: There is a lot at stake every year in the legislature: everything from grant programs to smart growth legislation to state tax credits—all of the tools preservationists use every day. So it is really crucial to have a presence in the legislature if you are a statewide organization, and try to maximize it as much as possible and be ready to zip over to the statehouse as needed. Having a regular presence at the statehouse once a week during the session is very useful.

Howard: You can take this approach down to city council level or county commission level too. It’s really not that different. To work with the city council, I meet one-on-one with members of the council before a hearing.

Some of us are annoyed with the constant emphasis on “grassroots, grassroots, grassroots,” as if it’s morally superior to other forms of lobbying. I don’t think it is. One of the real hazards of grassroots is that when you have a big group of people talking to a council member or legislator, you immediately put that official on the defensive. You can’t have a meaningful conversation with them. If you go in with 10 people or 100 e-mails, you are dead in the water before you have even had the conversation.

Grassroots makes no sense.

Bruhn: Using the grassroots to say “thank you,” however, is extremely important.

Paxton: This gets into the whole notion of how you present yourself. Thanks to the media, what is most visible in politics is disagreements making headlines. But most of the time elected officials are working with each other. Like everyone else, every legislator is looking for respect. They want you to treat them with respect and dignity. Don’t play from behind. Whining that “we never get what we need” is not a good tactic.
You are dealing with them today and you are trying to get something done tomorrow.Always deal from a winning attitude.

It is okay to disagree with a legislator. It’s okay to have a legislator tell you “no.” What matters is how you handle it. Remember, legislators have to make choices and cast votes every day. Accept the fact that they don’t agree with your position. Show that you understand the nature of politics and that the person who is not with you today may be on your side the next day on a different issue.

What is your advice for people just starting out?

Paxton: Be a little unpredictable. Don’t always use the standard preservation line. This may be more effective on a local level rather than the statewide, but add a little life and variety and human interest into what you are doing to capture the interest of people.

Howard: Find someone in public office who likes preservation. Preservation is a very, very good electoral asset. I’ve watched people run for mayor for the first time and get elected on the basis of their preservation credentials, since it is all about community and place. Find yourself someone who can guide you through the process. It is very important to understand that this is about relationships, about keeping relationships, and keeping them clean. Do not say things behind anyone’s back in public or in private that will create a problem when it comes back around.

Bruhn: What attracted me to the field—and it is the same thing we need to relate to legislators— is that our cause is about a whole lot of different benefits. Tie a particular benefit of preservation to what is current, and help folks understand how relevant it is.

Paxton: Make different arguments to different legislators on the same issue. Make your arguments based on their interest. If the legislator is new or someone you haven’t worked with before, test that person out. Look at what piques his or her interest. Remember, preservation issues have lots of different sides.

What is the best way to rebuild relationships when you are not on the strongest footing with a legislator to begin with?

Howard: I try to distance myself from the rowdy crowd. The advantage of being strategic is that you don’t have to deal with the rowdy crowd. These are the folks who go into a legislator’s office, and if that legislator is not 100 percent supportive of their issue, they chew them out, rather than ask: “How can we make this a better bill?” or “How can we get your support?”

Legislators want to know that they won’t be attacked by someone out of the blue. A good part of my work is making sure that there aren’t big surprises for the legislators as the bill goes through the process.

Paxton: Sometimes there is not a lot you can do. Don’t change your approach. Be who you are, keep at it, be steady, and be reliable. Definitely continue to reach out to opponents.

As a statewide organization, we have one advantage. It is often our role to be the “good cop” in the state legislature. Especially with a local issue, it is important to try to be the entity that is above the fray and working toward a solution. It can be helpful to have a “bad cop”— a local group that is out on the edge. Keep talking to those folks as well, so they don’t feel like you are the enemy. But seeking to be a problem solver is the best role to play.

How often do you work with coalitions? When is it most effective? And when is it a little trickier?

Bruhn: Our best example of working with a coalition is with the Housing and Conservation Coalition. It has worked for 25 years. The focus is pretty simple. It is all about the money. We work to build the appropriation for this program, and it is pretty easy to get behind. Most of the organizations involved in the coalition get a lot of direct support from the program.

We have a smart growth coalition that has been pretty effective in getting some good legislation passed. But there is lots of variety of opinions within that coalition. Sometimes it gets a little testy because one organization’s interests may differ from the others, but nonetheless, it is really important to keep coalitions working together and get those issues worked out.

In sum, you can create a very powerful cause in the legislature or elsewhere by working with a number of other organizations.

Paxton: Coalitions should be issue-based. It is important to find where your interests intersect with another group, because you are not going to agree on everything. But if you do agree on a set of issues, then that’s what you should go forward on. Work opportunistically to achieve what you want. At the end of the day you will get your credit. In fact, in this field, it is the legislator who should always get credit. You should be last in line. Don’t get in a tiff about who is getting credit for leading and who is setting the policy.

Howard: Our best coalitions have been relationship-based and are strategic in their orientation. We sit down together before the session and talk about what is on our minds and what is on their minds and where we can be mutually supportive. Every time we’ve been a partner in what is a more grassroots-type effort, it gets fractious and frayed and the bill doesn’t get passed.

Bruhn: There are some side benefits to coalitions. When we first got started with the affordable housing folks, they were very distrustful of preservation. They were committed to providing housing as shelter and were less concerned about what the housing looked like. Over the years we’ve had discussions about how important beauty is to all of us. Some of us can afford to buy it and others can’t. But we all need it. The advantage of affordable housing in great old buildings is that there is a lot of beauty. Over time, by working with them, they have come to understand the value of working with historic buildings.

What methods do you use to lobby? When is it face-to-face and when is it a phone call or a letter?

Bruhn: Our contacts are mostly face-to face. We send very few letters. Once we are reduced to dealing with someone by letter, we are probably not doing as well as we should be.

Paxton: There is no communication during the session by letter, and virtually none by phone or by e-mail. Phone messages will not get to them. The whole system works by personal interaction.

Howard: It is face-to-face contact and all about relationships. Also remember that e-mails are now considered public record. So if you do send an e-mail, it can turn up in the newspaper the next day, so be careful what you say in an e-mail.

Paxton: In congress, staff is really the key. You can’t get access to people in congress except through their staff. It is important to know who they are and establish a relationship with them as well.

Bruhn: Sending thank-you letters is the exception to that no-letter rule. It is really important. Legislators need the positive feedback. Also find an opportunity to show them the fruits of their work, so they have a tangible experience with it.


Publication Date: Winter 2009

#ForumJournal #NationalTrustPartnersNetwork #Advocacy #Lobbying

Author(s):Paul Bruhn, Myrick Howard, and Gregory Paxton