Being Politically Involved Is Important at State Level

March 21, 2001
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LAS VEGAS, NV — From the overhead projector, the following message flashed on the screen in front of the room: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Unfortunately, less than 20 Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) members were in attendance to read the quote, which was attributed to Plato. Then again, presenters Bob Axelrod, Cher Coker, and Chris Colditz did not necessarily count on addressing an overflow crowd at ACCA’s 2001 annual convention, held here recently at the Rio Casino Resort. They knew their seminar topic, “How to Affect Change in State Politics,” was not going to be the main attraction of this particular morning’s session offerings.

“None of us here are surprised with the small attendance,” said Colditz, of Laco Mechanical Services, “because we still don’t get the message. If we aren’t proactive, it’s going to get us. And until it gets them [contractors] and grabs them by the gut, they don’t get the message.”



PLENTY TO GAIN

Colditz, who is currently serving as president of the Illinois ACCA (ILACCA), relayed how ILACCA started its long process of becoming proactive in state politics. After questioning a soon-to-be-enacted state law and finding out that the coalition which she thought was protecting ILACCA “did not even get on their [state Senate’s] radar screen,” Colditz said she had no other choice.

“We decided we needed our own lobbyist,” she said, and then proceeded to provide information on the pluses and minuses of having a state lobbyist.

“You stand to gain plenty by getting involved in state politics,” assured Axelrod, president of Cooling Equipment Services, Inc. of Chicago. “Number one, you are getting control of your work environment. It’s far easier to get involved at the law-making level rather than to go to court afterward. The legislators are willing to listen, but you have to be there.”

Axelrod, who recently served as chairman of ACCA’s Safety Task Team, said with involvement one gets input on taxation issues, input on restrictions and regulations, and can neutralize political opposition. By being in front of the legislators and gaining their respect, a contractor can also become, eventually, an hvacr legislative consultant to state government and “can establish the rules of the game,” he said.

“Consumer groups really don’t care about the contractor’s point of view,” said Axelrod. “It’s up to us to tell our state governments what they need to know from our perspective.”

“The goal should be simply this: No rule or law that affects our hvacr business is written until we request it or approve it,” said Colditz.



TRACK THOSE LAWS

For the small audience, Axelrod diagramed how a bill becomes law at the state level. In effect, it was a condensed “State Law 101” class.

“Now, at what point can we affect it [a bill]?” he asked, before quickly providing the answer to his own question. “At almost any point in there. If our voice is heard, which is our ultimate goal, we can affect whether or not that bill will become a law — or if it gets passed at all.”

As part of her job as ACCA’s manager of state relations, Coker said she tracks laws considered important to ACCA that are being considered in all state legislatures. She encouraged attendees to contact her with any concerns or tips in regard to laws being considered or “unjustly passed.”

Axelrod noted that ACCA chapters should also seek out tracking services that provide status reports of state laws. Someone noted that its chapter has such a service at a cost of $800.

Axelrod noted that it is up to respective chapters to pick very specific issues, establish priorities, and establish awareness. Each chapter, he said, will have to set up finances, which will pay for such costs as CPA fees, fundraisers, travel expenses, and, if need be, a lobbyist, which can have a $40,000 to $50,000 price tag.

“A politically active chapter continuously monitors for threats to its members’ hvacr business,” said Colditz.



GET A LOBBYIST IF NEED BE

The panel agreed that, generally speaking, the majority of people do not have the highest opinion of lobbyists. However, each panel member said the right one could be a chapter’s “partner in public policy.”

“You have to do your homework,” warned Axelrod. “There are some industry-specific ones who I don’t think I’d want to get close to with a 10-foot pole.”

Colditz said a lobbyist must get all the facts, know how the system works, be honest and respected, know key players, “have a passion,” and “must work smart.” She noted that a lobbyist should have a large sphere of influence, including in the legislative body, governor’s office, attorney general’s office, and other governing bodies.

“The idea here is to pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win,” she said.



Sidebar: Lobbying Your State Legislator

In their presentation “How to Affect Change in State Politics,” panelists Bob Axelrod, Cher Coker, and Chris Colditz provided material for attendees to bring home to examine, including the following adopted from “How to Lobby Congress, The Nonprofit Organization Handbook”:

1. Know your facts. Be accurate in expressing them. Despite the myth that successful lobbying implies influence peddling, most effective lobbyists trade in facts, not influence.

2. Know your opposition. For every political cause, there will be political opposition. Identify your opposition early, fairly and accurately analyze the arguments, and attempt to neutralize them.

3. Correct errors immediately. Although every lobbyist attempts to be completely accurate in every written or spoken statement he makes, errors do unfortunately creep in. Mistakes should be corrected as soon as possible after they are discovered.

4. Plan, coordinate, and follow up on every contact. Each contact you make to a legislator, legislative aide, or legislative staff member should be researched in advance. Careful notes should be kept of the meeting and each meeting of substance should be followed up with additional written memoranda.

5. Avoid zealotry. The more strongly you feel about an issue, the more important it is to be aware of the danger of zealotry. It is the enemy of credibility, the lobbyist’s greatest asset.

6. Cultivate your allies. Make sure they do their part. If you are able to join forces with groups, your chances of success are increased. Allies don’t just happen, however. They must be sought out and cultivated.

7. Know the legislative process. Understand how a bill becomes a law in your state, know the rules for submission of materials to legislative committees, and follow the process through the session and beyond.

8. Watch your money. Because professional lobbying campaigns often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, you must be very careful about how you spend your funds. Keep in mind that you are a public entity and state funding is generally prohibited for lobbying efforts.

9. Grow thick skin. Develop immunity to slights and insults and don’t allow them to ruin your concentration on the objectives at hand. And don’t take them personally.

10. Win. No one should be involved in lobbying as an academic exercise. It’s serious business, which can affect thousands of lives. Be committed to your cause and believe in what you are doing.

Publication date: 03/26/2001

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