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Golden Rules of Effective Advocacy
From: A Guide for the Powerless — and Those Who Don’t Know Their Own Power; Samuel Halperin, Institute for Educational Leadership, Washington, D.C., 1981.
- Be fair toward public officials. With very rare exceptions, they are honest, intelligent, and want to do the right things. Your job is to inform them effectively about what you think is right.
- Avoid cynicism. Government and politics may be faulty, but so is every profession. A disdainful attitude is an expensive luxury these days for it poisons the well and immobilizes the will to work for social betterment. Those who live on an island should not make an enemy of the sea. Or try a Sam Rayburn maxim: “Never spit chewing tobacco on the cake you hope to eat yourself.” In short, the political process we too often disparage is still our best hope for effecting constructive social change.
- Be understanding. Put yourself in the public official’s place. Try to understand his/her problems, outlook and aims.
- Be friendly. Don’t contact public officials only when you want their help. Take pains to keep in touch with them throughout the year, every year.
- Be reasonable. Recognize that there are legitimate differences of opinion. Never indulge in threats.
- Be thoughtful. Commend the right things public officials do.
- Be charitable. The failure of public officials to do what you wanted may be your responsibility if you have not done a good job in preparing, presenting and following through on your case. Every public official knows that you can express your opinion at the ballot box.
- Be constructive. You don’t like to be scolded, pestered or preached to. Neither do public officials. Present an alternative, a new way of looking at the problem, a new formula, and not merely negative carping.
- Be realistic and persistent. Remember that controversial legislation and regulation usually result in a compromise not wholly satisfactory to any one contending party. Progress, although incremental, is no less real - and may even be more enduring for its evolutionary development that builds wider support.
- Be practical. Recognize that each lawmaker has commitments and that a certain amount of vote-trading goes on in all legislatures. Don’t chastise lawmakers who normally support you if they vote against one of your bills. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have deserted your whole program. Give them the benefit of the doubt; the lawmaker will appreciate it and remember that you did. And remember that while some votes may be firmly committed there will be others - both sides of the partisan aisle - that can be swayed on the basis of sound arguments properly presented and well documented.
- Be a good opponent. Fight issues, not personalities.
- Be informed. Do your homework. The mere fact that you want a public official to adopt your position won’t be enough.
- Be trustworthy. When promises are made, keep them. If you tell a public official you’ll do something, stick to your end of the bargain.
- Be loyal. Never leave officials out on a limb by changing your position after they have publicly taken the position that you have urged upon them.
- Evaluate and weigh the issues: Many bills are tossed into the legislative hopper “by request” and are never intended to become law. So don’t criticize lawmakers for every bill which is introduced, and don’t sound the panic alarm until you’re sure a bill or legislative action is “for real”.
- Be discrete. Participation in discussions about lawmakers being “bought” or “paid off” is worse than useless. You have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by such speculations. Furthermore, chances are extremely high that it isn’t true.
- Be generous. Remember that in success everyone can claim credit. As Senator Wayne Morse used to remind his colleagues in the years when federal education legislation was exceedingly difficult to enact: “Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan.” Thank policymakers for their positive acts at least as often as you inquire why they went wrong. Let them know you are watching their record closely.
- Be visionary. Especially when it comes to the political process, there is seldom an absolute and final defeat. A loss with one member may lead to finding a better champion elsewhere. Failure in committee may be overturned on the legislative floor. Debate in one chamber may often be reversed in the other. Victory may be snatched from the jaws of defeat in a conference committee. And so on.
- Work - and be persistent. In the immortal words of Charlie Chan: “Everything cometh to he who waiteth, as long as he who waiteth worketh like hell in the meantime!”
On this final point alone volumes could be written, adorned by lively case studies. All the political assets, stamina and persistence are surely the most underrated, least dispensable ingredients of success.