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Legislative Leaders' Perceptions of Advocates for Children and Families

Author: C)1995. State Legislative Leaders Foundation

 [The following is an excerpt a report published by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation entitled State Legislative Leaders: Keys to Effective Legislation for Children and Families. According to the report's preface, it is "a portrait of state legislative leaders that describes not only their perceptions and views about children and families and those advocates who speak for them, but also the leaders' innermost convictions and beliefs about the role of state government....For state legislative leaders to provide the needed leadership on issues affecting children and families/, they must be made (and make themselves) better informed about the true nature and severity of tile problems facing children and families and the remedies that can be applied using the levers of government They must become pro-active and move to seize the initiative, mobilize support and push solutions.... This call for a more pro-active leadership will require an old-fashioned v view enlightened public service-elected officials as the stewards of the public trust, driven by a vision of the common goad that supersedes the loudest voices. ]

It is important to underscore the fact that state legislative leaders exert tremendous influence over the entire legislative process. Though they may be generalists in terms of their understanding of issues, they nonetheless are fully capable of shaping and guiding public policies that affect children and families. Individuals and groups who advocate for children and families often appear to the state legislative leaders unwilling to do what needs to be done to be effective with state legislators. Leaders commented on the advocates' inability to focus on specific legislative efforts and their lack of understanding about how the legislative process works. Though leaders expressed a willingness-and for some a keen desire-to "help kids," few leaders felt their impetus to help would emanate from the efforts of the advocates.

While some state legislative leaders could name individual advocates, they were generally unfamiliar with groups that advocate for children and families or the groups' priorities and agendas. Yet though unable to identify advocacy groups by name, the leaders nonetheless had very strong perceptions about them. What follows is a summary of the opinions and perceptions of the 177 state legislative leaders interviewed for this project. In addition, where it seemed necessary and appropriate we have added our own analysis.

"Labels" and attitudes matter. The word "advocate" is not one which most state legislative leaders ever use, nor is it a word with which they are very familiar or feel comfortable. For many legislative leaders, the terms "advocate" and "advocacy" conjure images of individuals whom they regard with a certain amount of suspicion and disdain. Advocates appear to legislative leaders all too often to be people who view the entire legislative process skeptically.

It is important to recall that many of the leaders come from backgrounds they consider to be "poor" or "working class." They are proud to serve as elected officials having earned positions of prominence in their communities. As presiding officers, they are also in the unique position of having earned the respect and support of their legislative peers. The therefore often find it difficult to work 1; with advocates whom they perceive as disrespectful of the legislative process and the leaders themselves. From the leaders' vantage point. many of these advocates come across as "intellectual elitists.''

Professional lobbying skills are respected. Leaders emphasize the facts that common sense, effective interpersonal skills. and the ability to compromise are the essential characteristics of those who succeed in influencing the legislative policymaking process. From the leaders' perspectives. advocates for children and families don't always demonstrate an appreciation or aptitude for these essentials. As they explain:

"Children's advocates should ask themselves: How do I get my children to do what I want them to do without getting into a big fight? It's the Same here. "

"I can't say that I have seen great success. They (advocates) show a naivete about the process they can 't see the other side of an argument, or they pick the wrong horse in the legislature "

"The best lobbyists are ones ones that give you factual information on both sides of the issue and are willing and able to compromise on the issues. "

Truly successful lobbyists, weather its paid or volunteer, build reputations over a period of years to being reasonable, useful and trustworthy. The effectiveness of those who lobby (or advocate) is directly related to the effectiveness of the messenger and not just the message.

In the eyes of many legislative leaders, the messenger on child and family issues is just not regarded as a "serious player."

"They [lobbyists] play a very important role. They show you the other side. They know the process, have a good means of communication one-on-one. They must know the process. They're ineffective if they just write letters and don't make the direct contact."

"I think that children's issues need professional lobbying and need a higher degree of activity."

Child and family advocates are invisible to leaders. As noted, most state legislative leaders indicate they have very little direct contact with child and family advocates and are not familiar with any specific child and family advocacy groups in their states. While some leaders are able to identify an individual as a child and family advocate, very few leaders are able to name even one child and family advocacy organization in their state. As one leader commented:

  • "I try to listen to the advocacy groups, look at their information. To be honest, I can't tell you their names."
  • Leader after leader speaks of infrequent or no communication with advocates for children and families:
  • "The children's lobby does not have as strong a voice as it could. I hardly ever hear anything from them."
  • "We're not aware of their children's problems. They don't point it out to us. They're not doing it."

"In other areas of policy; there are powerful organized interests and and individuals who will judge legislators and will keep them from oscillating so far. Not so much with children's issues. The number of people who walk the halls in the state capitol who even know these issues, much less care about them or are willing to advocate for them. It's really depressing."

An ongoing presence in the state capitol offers distinct advantages. The proximity of advocacy groups' offices to their state capitols clearly plays a role in the ability of these groups to provide a continuous presence throughout the legislative session. While many lobbyists and special interest groups maintain of offices within walking distance of their state houses, less than half of the groups surveyed for this project even had an office in the capital city.

Those leaders who express some familiarity with groups who advocate for children and families believe they lack a coordinated, manageable legislative agenda and well-defined goals. The leaders feel that at times these groups seem to be competing against one another and that such behavior ultimately hurts the advocates' efforts. The leaders commented:

"Most of my initiatives On children's issues have come because some individual with credibility came to me directly, someone I knew and trusted. A lot of the advocates who come up here and demonstrate don't have the c credibility that gets them anywhere. The! just come and make noise. They're for kids in the broadest sense, but when you try' to narrow their focus to a specific piece of legislation, their members are all over the map. By contrast a really effective advocacy organization is good at focusing in on a specific piece of legislation and Commenting clearly on it, and knows how the process works here. It's not just an exercise in doing good, it's pointed, it's effectively channeled."

"The elderly did it back in the '70s. They worked together with one voice and that basically is what the advocates for children have to do. They have to set priorities."

"To he effective, the advocates for youth and children have to be better coordinated and better focused."

"If there really were a well-organized, competent group out there - child care providers, or any child advocates - there would definitely be more money or day-care subsidies. As it is, you have low wages, less qualified day care workers, high turnover, inadequate facilities and the overall environment for young children is much poorer than it should be-they are suffering greatly... Most legislators don't get the connection between these conditions and a lack of school readiness and there's nobody there who can hold their feet to the fire at election time asking, 'Why didn't you do this?' "

Many leaders also commented that, considering the fiscal situation in their states and voter resistance to increasing taxes, the stated goals of child and family advocates they hear from are often unrealistic. Furthermore, they see this problem as being compounded by the advocates' resistance to compromise. State legislative leaders tend to see themselves as pragmatic deal makers. In contrast, they frequently view the advocates as inflexible ideologues with too little understanding of the political process by which competing interests are accommodated.

"They have to realize you can't get everything, especially if it gets expensive, but by working together they're probably going to get most of what they want."

Leaders are not aware of grassroots or local constituencies for children. Interviews with the legislative leaders made clear that they do not draw great distinctions between the legislative process and the electoral process. In their view, the legislative and electoral processes are part of one continuous process. The issues legislators address during the legislative session and relationships formed with constituents. advocates and other groups often must lend themselves to supporting the re-election process.

"I'd try to establish some kind of grassroots network that I don't think really exists on children's issues. I've never had anyone come up to me and say 'Why don 't you do more for the Parents / Teachers program? Or ' Why don't we do more to lower the social worker ratio?' 'Why don't you put more emphasis on training unwed mothers on how to be parents?"'

"I could very easily drop my concern for kids and nobody would even notice."

Leaders lack timely, accurate and compelling information in a usable form. While it is true leaders seldom have or take the time to read research reports and other lengthy documents, when they do want information on a particular issue, they usually want it immediately and they want it to be accurate, understandable and compelling. Particularly in part-time legislatures where professional staffing is limited. legislative leaders indicate that solidly-researched information is helpful, especially if it is data that relates to individual legislative districts.

"Most people who call themselves 'advocates' provide a little information too late and then complain. That doesn't work."

Leaders perceive advocates to be partisan. The perception of nearly all the leaders interviewed is that most advocates are liberal Democrats. To illustrate, several legislative leaders feel child and family advocates ignore conservative Democrats as potential allies simply because of their [anti-abortion] stance. In state after state. Republican leaders expressed similar views about the partisan nature of children's advocates:

"I wish more of the advocates would respect our philosophical differences. I read some? of their newsletters and press releases and my viewpoint just gets bashed I mean they are really criticizing [that1 I'm not compassionate, and so on. When they write that kind of stuff about me, well, the! 're not going to be too effective coming in to see me later. That's just human nature."

"There is a sense on the part of Republican legislators in broth houses in my state that the overwhelming majority of these people [children's advocates] would rather hate all Republicans. We [Republicans] get accused of being insensitive, of lacking compassion... I believe the advocate tend to deal with Democrat members more than they deal with Republican members. I think it is unfortunate. There are many members of our caucus who want to approach the resolution of a problem, but in a little different way. But it's not because they don't have shared concern about the broad theme of children. It's just not true. We're parents and grandparents. We have an involvement We want to help... "

In sharp contrast to the leaders' perceptions, fully 65% of the child and family groups surveyed said they believe their organizations are perceived by legislative leaders to be totally nonpartisan. Only 29% indicated they believe legislative leaders thought their organizations were oriented toward Democrats.

Accountability is complex. Threats are unpopular with all public officials and engaging in acts of public recrimination against legislators who fail to support certain proposals can be risky. Leaders in both parties express resentment about "scorecards" kept by interest groups and other efforts that criticize voting records. They feel these ratings demonstrate a lack of understanding of legislative realities and build unnecessary barriers to further dialogue between advocates and legislators. As several leaders explained:

"Successful people in our business avoid permanent enemies."

"Don't attack the legislators. Come in and sit down and show the members the the facts."

"Advocates just don 'r use common sense. How do they think I want to he treated The contract lobbyists! know."

And yet. it must be noted that leaders do respond to organized campaigns with political clout behind them.

"The seniors are well organized. They meet regularly.. They're, well-financed. They have volunteer lobbyists with a great deal of experience. They come to your office knowing all the bill numbers, all the relevant committee assignments-- they're extremely well-organized they're vicious in campaigns...."

The leaders report the lack of understanding of the political process by those who advocate for children and families is a major barrier to advancing child and family agendas. The unmistakable sentiment of legislative leaders is that these individuals and groups have little "feel" for the political process.

"So often advocates for any issue have excellent people who have never done this /lobbying! before and the first thing they do is threaten you. Do not threaten me."

How to Succeed in the State Capitol

(Legislative Leaders' View)

  • Establish consistent visibility and ongoing relationships with legislative leaders, legislators and legislative staff.

  • Build consensus around a realistic and manageable agenda that recognizes the role of compromise in the legislative process.

  • Develop grassroots support for child and family issues on a district by district basis.

  • Involve new voices and leaders from other sectors. Employ bi-partisan strategies.

  • Become active in the electoral campaign process.

  • Provide legislative leaders with factual and compelling information in a useable form.

  • Become actively involved in the state budget process, get involved early. identify the key legislators and stay involved throughout the entire process.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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