Excerpted from the March 2006 ASHI Reporter
Your ASHI chapter may, at some point, feel it requires the professional experience of a lobbyist. Here is a checklist of items to consider as you interview lobbyists to represent your interests in your state Capitol.
The best lobbyists have experience as insiders. These are the people who either have 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. 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. Home inspection issues are not aligned with either political party.
Former 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.
Be wary, too, of persons whose experience has been only 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?
What is the reputation of the lobbyist, both inside and outside the Capitol?
Most essential is a reputation of honesty and integrity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beware of the lobbyist who is going to take care of everything for you. 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.
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 filled by a lobbyist is that 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.
And related to your comfort, remember the lobbyist you retain truly will be representing you and your chapter in the Capitol. Does this lobbyist project the image you want for your chapter?
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.
How to Find Lobbyists
Talk to people you know who are politically savvy. 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. 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.
Don’t wait for a crisis to interview lobbyists. Finding a lobbyist with experience, a good reputation and strong communication skills, who also is comfortable with your chapter’s culture, will put your chapter on the right track for influencing home inspection legislation in your state.