A Grassroots Primer

A Grassroots Primer

Christine H. Hermanson, D.D.S.*:

I have belonged to organized dentistry since the start of my career. One of the primary reasons is to provide me with a political voice, one that is amplified by virtue of sheer numbers. I have watched the legislative process more closely the last two years, but still have insecurities about getting involved. Since our legislature is not in session until January, I felt this was a great time to learn more. I recently sat down with Minnesota Dental Association Director of Legislative Affairs Tom Day** and grassroots political consultant Mike Dean† of Tipping Point Strategies for their advice on what dentists can do to influence lawmakers.

NWD: What advice would you give to someone with no prior experience in contacting his or her legislators?

Mr. Day: First, I would say remember they are just like you and me. They mean well, and they want to serve their constituents. Then, be prepared: you will have 20 minutes when meeting with them. After small talk, you probably have five minutes to really get your message through.

Mr. Dean: Develop a long-term personal relationship with your legislators. When meeting with them, be educated on the issue, and don’t assume they are familiar with it. Even if they have heard of it, they deal with so many issues they may have forgotten. As well, support events they are involved with in your community. Greet them in coffee shops and businesses - you don’t always need to talk politics.

NWD: What is the best way to contact a local legislator?

Mr. Day: The single most effective way is face to face, establishing that personal relationship. Letters, emails, and calls also work. In past jobs I have put together a “commando squad” of 10 to 12 people who could show up at the Capitol at the drop of a hat to lobby for a particular issue. Remember, during session, things become crazy.

Mr. Dean: Legislators get bombarded during session, so contacting them from June through January, when they are away from the active legislature, will have the most impact. Chatting with them, engaging them, educating them on an issue is the most critical way to put an issue in front of them.

NWD: How much difference does one call make to a lawmaker?

Mr. Day: Every legislator keeps track of contacts pro and con on an issue. If a legislator gets even five calls on an issue that he or she thought no one cared about, it can be huge. It is best to speak directly to the legislator, but sometimes contacting the staff is the only possible way.

Mr. Dean: On the state level, legislators often receive your letters personally. As an individual, you have a tremendous amount of power. Legislators are more likely to support an issue if it is coming directly from a constituent. Lobbyists provide information on a daily basis that the constituent really cannot, but it is the personal story of how this issue impacts your practice that creates a personal face for it. That is very critical. Even though they prefer to speak to constituents, it is worthwhile for you as employers in their district to contact them. If you live in the district of a head of a committee or someone who is in a leadership position, your voice is even more critical.

NWD: How specialized are the legislators?

Mr. Dean: They tend to specialize in a few issues of interest to them, then rely on their staff and others. You want to identify which other legislators influence them and also focus your grassroots operation on them (committee chairs, party leadership). It is up to the lobbyist to identify those persons of interest and develop strategies.

Mr. Day: It is impossible to know all the issues. The committee will know their bills very well, but the legislators in general will rely on the committee to inform them.
Each legislator is versed enough to speak on most broad issues for about five minutes. It is the job of the lobbyists to explain the issues in greater detail, and the job of constituents to incorporate a
personal appeal.

NWD: Should we contact legislators outside of our district?

Mr. Day: Yes and no. It is important to make those phone calls, but do not expect a letter back from them. At least you will have made it clear there is not apathy on the subject.

Mr. Dean: I would say it’s really frowned upon. Online technology is partly responsible because of the ease of sending mass emails. It’s okay to meet with leadership officials out of your district if you are doing a lobby day or having a group of grassroots advocates making your case. Whenever possible, however, you want to focus your efforts on “I am a constituent, and here are my concerns.” It is much more persuasive to the legislator. Otherwise you are just a lobbyist.

NWD: How else can we influence the political process?

Mr. Dean: Donate to candidates as an individual. Get involved in the political campaign. Educate family and friends. We are finding that is becoming a more effective way for organizations to get their messages out. In the past, if you wanted to influence a vote, you would do advertising. Traditional “bombardment” advertising doesn’t work anymore because people have built up calluses against it. Now we are moving to “viral marketing”, engaging your group of grassroots supporters to push your messages out. If family and friends are politically engaged, they will mention it to their friends and family, and they will mention it to their legislators... it’s the same concept as a personal referral.

Just be politically involved. Read the newspaper. When you see your local legislator mentioned in the local paper, it’s always good to send him or her a note — “Great job,” “I saw this,” “Here’s some input on this.”

Mr. Day: Monetary contributions can be very important because it gains you better accessibility. There is not nearly so much benefit donating after an election as donating during the race. You want to contribute to someone who is credible, who is accessible, will listen, and who has influence or power.

NWD: What is the most common misconception the public has about our elected officials?

Mr. Day: That legislators are all fat cats. In reality, legislators are all type A personalities: very hardworking, very passionate, and they believe what they are doing is for the best. State legislators may have one assigned staff working for two or three legislators. A large percentage of legislators are former staff members, so the people you treat as kids today may be chairing the tax committee in 20 years.

NWD: What is the most common misconception elected officials have about the public?

Mr. Day: That we are largely apathetic. Since the majority of dentists are not calling their legislators, they assume no one cares and they may as well go ahead with the direction that is laid out for them. One of our jobs is also to demonstrate that the dental profession is a very hard working, soft hearted, kind profession. The amount of donated work done by dentists always amazes me. People don’t see that.

Mr. Dean: That the public is not well educated on the issues or that we do not understand the political process. Freshman or sophomore legislators tend to be much more responsive to constituent concerns.

NWD: Please give us some insights on how things work at our state capital.

Mr. Dean: There are different leaders on different issues. Loyalty within the party caucus system is really pushed, especially within the House. The caucus leaders set the agenda early in session, and it can be challenging just to get an item put on the agenda. Even if you have a majority in favor of an issue, it can fail because an influential member is opposed to it. Some new legislators become very frustrated with how much control the party caucuses have over them. During budget years, (odd years), it’s very difficult to pass policy issues. This year’s three billion dollar deficit will consume much of the legislators’ attention. This does not mean you shouldn’t pursue anything, but expect it to be difficult. Still go to the Capitol, still educate, keep the issue on their radar screen with the expectation that in the next session you will more likely pass policy agenda because the same legislators will still be there.

Mr. Day: Twenty-five percent of the legislators are the actual leaders. Everyone starts with a great agenda, but as freshmen they realize they are only one of 201 and are at a disadvantage because there is so much to learn. Their lofty goals soon become more realistic. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes agreements among legislators to support one another’s bills. Every citizen, on average, is represented by seven different interest groups: city, county, church, profession, and so on. If you can connect with legislators in any of those areas, your messages on the other issues will also be heard. If the dentists really got involved on an issue and called their legislators, there would be no need for an MDA lobbyist. Citizens are their own best lobbyist.

NWD: How have the state and local political scenes changed in the span of your career?

Mr. Day: It has gone from old school to new school. In my 17 years as a lobbyist, I have seen things become more ethical and more open. Most legislative meetings with lobbyists are now done in the open and not in smoke-filled rooms.

Mr. Dean: Legislators are not staying in office as long, perhaps eight rather than 20 years. High turnover gives fresh perspectives, but it also gives more power to the lobbyists, because they have the institutional memory. Public pressure is just as effective as lobbyists in influencing legislators, so grassroots efforts become more critical. Technology, with blast phone calls and mass emails, makes it much easier to engage the public than in the past. Grassroots operations, used since 1998, have now exploded with liberal, conservative, and mainstream groups using the strategy very effectively. The question remains whether it will become less and less effective once everyone is doing it.

NWD: What are some of your strategies?

Mr. Dean: My goal is to motivate the public to support an issue. Change can happen if the right people support it. Individual meetings with legislators should be followed up with grassroots letters and grassroots phone calls. Get your membership engaged, and then push your message out to the larger public to engage. Have friends or “average” people communicate with legislators about the public side of your issue — e.g., increased health care costs or lower quality care.

At the beginning of session, I want to flood the legislators’ offices with as many letters and emails as possible. There are only so many issues that will be addressed each session, and I want to make sure my issue is on that short list. I spend February, March, and April convincing them. That’s the time for quality contact with personal visits. Toward the end of session (May) I come back again with quantity when we have to make the final push.

Mr. Day: One of our goals is to get a couple of dentists elected to the state legislature, so there is someone knowledgeable at the table representing us.

Top Ten List for Getting Involved
10. Remember that legislators put their pants on one leg at a time just like you and are fellow citizens who have chosen to serve their constituents similarly to you working on behalf of your patients.
9. Sign up with the MDA’s online advocacy program in the Legislative Action Center on the MDA website www.mndental.org. It makes it very easy to send pre-written e-mails when legislative issues arise.
8. Ask a legislator to visit your office to give him or her firsthand knowledge of dentistry. If the legislator is already a patient of yours, offer to show him or her around during their next appointment.
7. Extend yourself. Most lawmakers and their staffs want to know as many of their constituents as possible. You should have little or no trouble getting acquainted with your lawmaker.
6. Get involved financially with a candidate’s campaign. It does not buy votes, but it does improve access. At some point you may even consider hosting a fundraiser.
5. Speak up. Legislators can be smart and informed, but nobody knows dentistry and dental issues better than a dentist. You are the best one to share information with your legislator.
4. Attend Dental Day at the Capitol. This is the best way to learn the issues, create or enhance relationships with legislators, and conduct grassroots lobbying with other dentists.
3. Educate yourself. If you are unsure about the issues, feel free to ask the MDA lobbyists. Despite the political ads, they are really good people and on your side.
2. Use your ideas. As a dentist who is active in your community and a constituent, you possess great deal of potential to credibly influence issues in your district. This is a valuable asset you can use to develop a relationship with your lawmaker.
1. Join the MDA Grassroots Network. If you have a working relationship with a legislator, or just want to get more involved, this is the political advocacy program that our members use to help represent the interests of the dental community at all levels of government.

*Dr. Hermanson is Northwest Dentistry’s Associate Editor for the Saint Paul District. She is a prosthodontist in private practice in Maplewood, Minnesota.
**Mr. Day is currently the MDA Director of Legislative Affairs. He had been a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C. for Congressman Vin Weber, served as a state lobbyist, and owned Bipartisan Solutions, a contract lobbying firm.
†Mr. Dean is executive director of Common Cause, Mpls, and owner of Tipping Point Strategies, which focuses on grassroots organizing. He interned in Washington, D.C. with Senator Herb Kohl and was coordinator for UM grassroots efforts.