March, 2006
Legislative News
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



How to Choose a Lobbyist

JANET SWANDBY

Your ASHI chapter may, at some point, feel it requires the professional experience of a lobbyist. As the frequency and intensity of legislative activity have escalated in the last six years, more chapters have retained a lobbyist and others have asked ASHI headquarters for advice on how to secure one.

“What does one look for in a lobbyist?” Here is a checklist of items to consider as you interview lobbyists to represent your interests in your state Capitol.

Experience


The best lobbyists have experience as insiders. These are the people who have either held elected office or served as staff to lawmakers. Insiders know what makes a politician/legislator tick. They know the legislative process firsthand and base their advice on that specialized experience.

The right lobbyist will have many contacts in the Capitol. It is easy to be impressed by the lobbyist who touts his relationship with key legislative leaders. Leaders can be important, but it is dangerous to put all of your legislative eggs in the leadership basket. Leaders are usually more interested in who can help their party gain seats in the next election than in passing good public policy. Leaders, therefore, pay more attention to organizations with political clout (that is, large numbers of members or access to hefty campaign contributions). ASHI chapters are not likely to get the attention of leaders, and, remember, leaders can change. If your lobbyist is dependent on his relationship with a particular leader, your lobbyist’s stature can be diminished in the blink of an eye.

Be wary, too, of a former legislator or staffer who is aligned too closely with a political party. While it is true that one party maintains the majority in each legislative house and, therefore, has more power, the minority party should not be ignored. All state legislators have a vote, but too many times partisanship has meant defeat for a particular proposal. Home inspection issues are not aligned with either political party—you will find Democrats and Republicans who will be supportive. A potential problem might be a former legislator who clung to “the edge” on either the right or the left while in office. This lobbyist may have a hard time gaining the respect of his former colleagues, including members of his own party who are more moderate.

Legislators.gifFormer legislators can make excellent lobbyists, but some former legislators are “liked” by their former colleagues; however, they are not “respected.” There is an important distinction. Former legislators may have access to legislators, but access does not equal influence. Check on the former legislator to be sure he will be effective. Especially assess his abilities as a communicator. Often, legislators have depended on their staff to do their writing (and maybe even their thinking). Without staff, you will be stuck with a “good old boy”—someone legislators like to have a beer with, but who will never be able to raise the visibility of, or respect for, home
inspection.

Be wary, too, of persons whose experience has only been within the political/legislative arena. You will be better served by someone who can balance his or her political insights with an understanding of the world outside the Capitol, gained through nonpolitical work experience.

And be sure to ask who will actually do the work for you. Is it the lobbyist you are interviewing or one of his or her less-experienced associates?

Reputation

What is the reputation of the lobbyist, both inside and outside the Capitol?
Most essential is a reputation of honesty and integrity. After all, a lobbyist’s most treasured commodity is trustworthiness. Lobbyists must be trusted in order to be effective.

For example, how does a lobbyist handle conflicts of interest? Ask for a list of current clients and carefully consider whether there is any possibility that your legislative goal will be in conflict with the agenda of another of the lobbyist’s clients.

Contrary to the popular image of the lobbying profession, it is the trustworthy who are the most effective, and you want to retain a lobbyist who has a reputation as someone who gets the job done. Carefully review his or her accomplishments. You should feel confident that the lobbyist has achieved success with a variety of clients and in more than one area of expertise.

The two or three lobbyists in your state with the highest profile may not be the best matches for your ASHI chapter. Being the “little fish in an overcrowded pond” may be an uncomfortable, or even dangerous, place to be. If the lobbyist represents a dozen or more well-recognized corporations (Wal-Mart, Georgia-Pacific, telecommunications giants, etc.), how much of his time will he devote to a small group of home inspectors? Your chapter could end up paying too much for too little effort on your behalf.

The best lobbyists will be those who can cite their experience working in coalitions—working in concert with other organizations and other lobbyists to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. The lobbyist who can site the compromises she has crafted, and list the clients who were happy with these compromises as references, should be given careful consideration.

Communications

In the final analysis, lobbying is communicating. As a profession, it is an odd marriage of teaching and sales. A good lobbyist has to be an excellent communicator. And in today’s world, that means both the written and the spoken word. It is no longer enough to be a good schmoozer. Check into their experience in the communications field, and ask for examples of their work.

Be sure to discuss your expectations with regard to regular communication or updates from your lobbyist. For instance, will you expect telephone calls to one chapter leader or would you prefer e-mail updates to the entire Legislative Committee? We have found that some lobbyists have not kept up with changes in technology and do not use e-mail or the Internet. In today’s world, this will severely hamper a lobbyist’s effectiveness. We have noted that a good percentage of men over 40 never mastered typing (or, using today’s parlance, “keyboarding”). In a field centered on communication, these men are now at a disadvantage (and it is their clients who will ultimately suffer).

Beware of the lobbyist who is going to take care of everything for you. If she does not promote your understanding of, and participation in, the process, you should be concerned. A good lobbyist will encourage grassroots contacts and building relationships with legislators.

Finally, communication is a two-way street. Listening is an important part of communicating. You want a lobbyist who listens to you and truly understands your chapter’s goals. The goal is not to pass a bill (any bill). Or stop a bill (instead of recognizing when there is a change in momentum).

Comfort

More important than any other criterion, you need to feel comfortable with the lobbyist.

While you may feel most comfortable with someone who knows your profession or industry well, that person may not be the best choice to represent you. An important role that a lobbyist fills is of translator. A good lobbyist has to play the role of the “naive legislator” to assist you in developing an effective strategy. The strategy must include crafting arguments that will be most persuasive with lawmakers who, in all likelihood, know absolutely nothing about home inspection.

And the lobbyist must be able to translate the nuances of the legislative process into terms that you understand.

More important than experience with, or an in-depth understanding of, home inspection is a lobbyist who has breadth of experience and is a demonstrated quick study. How quickly does the lobbyist grasp the real problems you are trying to solve?
And related to your comfort, remember the lobbyist you retain will truly be representing you and your chapter in the Capitol. Does this lobbyist project the image you want for your chapter? Would this lobbyist fit into your chapter’s culture? Does he present himself professionally, both in person and in documents he prepares on your behalf?

Contracting with a lobbyist is like retaining any other professional. You want to be represented by the best— the most experienced professional, whose reputation of accomplishment and integrity is impeccable. And, you want to work with someone who reflects your values, and who will professionally project the stellar image of your chapter that you have worked so hard to establish.

How to Find Lobbyists

Talk to people you know who are politically savvy. Which lobbyists do they know? Who have they or their associates worked with? Check the Internet for lobbying firms in your state. Check whether there is a professional association of lobbyists. Get a list from them. In a good number of states, lobbyists have to be registered with the state and, more often than not, these lists are posted on the Internet. And ask legislators for recommendations.

Be wary of Internet sites that list lobbying firms. These are similar to “Who’s Who Lists,” which means if you pay, your firm is posted on the site. Contrary to their claims, these sites do not review the firms’ credentials. If anything, these sites are most likely to include law firms that have a lobbying section. The best lobbyists are not necessarily affiliated with large firms. The large firms command the highest fees, and have a high profile, but do not necessarily have the most impressive list of accomplishments.

Be Prepared

lobbyists.gifDon’t wait for a crisis to interview lobbyists. I realize that there will be those in your chapter who will debate whether a lobbyist is a necessary expense. Some will want to save money, believing that members can do the lobbying on their own. Grassroots lobbying is essential, but you still need the expertise of a professional. You will actually waste time and money trying to do the work on your own. Finding a lobbyist with experience, a good reputation and strong communication skills, who is also comfortable with your chapter’s culture will put your chapter on the right track for influencing home inspection legislation in your state