Advocacy Lesson #1: Don’t Call a Senator a B*/#!

A witness testifying in support of a state innocence commission became upset when the chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Committee didn’t support the bill. Enraged, he called her a “bitch” and stormed out of the hearing room. I admire the gentleman’s passion for his cause, but think that his anger diminished his message.

This incident illustrates some principles I have learned during this legislative session:

1) Never lose your temper: No matter how angry you are, say “Thank you, ma’am” and come back next time. About 20 years ago, the CEO of a major US airlines called the chairman of the taxation committee a SOB as he walked out of the hearing. His reward was a tax increase on his airline.  You can agree to disagree then either martial more support for your cause or find common ground with your opponents.

2) Do your homework: Before you testify, look up what bills that legislator has filed in the current and earlier sessions.  Read the committee members’ profiles to learn what their background is and what type of work they do.  If many of these bills advocate for victims’ rights and tighten rules on the accused, then the legislator is less likely to support an innocence commission. If the legislator was an assistant DA and criminal court judge before election to the Senate, then she is unlikely to support your bill from the get go.

3) Public hearings do not make or break a bill: The legislature doesn’t work like the US Senate in Mr Smith Goes To Washington. I dream of making the great speech that will persuade everyone as to the rightness of my cause, but that is not how things really happen. Most of the work comes before the committee hearing. If you haven’t been talking to the committee members and their legislative aides for months by then and have a sense of where they stand, then you have not prepared correctly.

4) Do the electoral math: Does supporting your bill make electoral sense for that legislator? If voting for your bill will increase the change of drawing a primary opponent, ask how you can translate a yes vote into something that representative can run on or defend. For example, a conservative rural Republican can defend support for Medicaid expansion as a way to keep rural hospitals stay open.

5) Learn from your mistakes:  Even with the best preparation, you can lose a committee vote.  Legislation can die in many ways.  Be ready to come back again next session after drumming up support in the interim.

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