Lobbying, Advocacy, and Making Noise

“You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under, if you are really going to get your reform realized.”

Emmeline Pankhurst
Leader of Women’s Movement for the Right to Vote in the United Kingdom
Image from Wikipedia above is one of many times Pankhurst was dragged to prison


I remember when I first started out in this business (if it can be called that) in my 20s, people older than I would sometimes share stories. Often it was to cool my enthusiasm or to explain why things were the way they were. I always loved a good political story. I remember one my boss told me about the venerable Lorraine Wojahn, one of the first and longest serving women in the legislature, walking up to him when he was a young staffer, annoyed about something and stabbing her finger in his chest. He was terrified. But he learned from the mistake. I find myself having to tell stories as well, both to validate my own credibility (often to myself) and to redirect other people’s energy. Here’s one.

Lobbying and advocacy are very different things. Lobbying is a professional service like hiring a lawyer. Usually, those services are billed hourly or using a retainer. The idea is that a person is busy running their business or their organization. A lobbyist can help make a case on a particular matter or many that will benefit that business or organization.

Advocacy is a bit different. Advocates are often volunteers or lead non-profit organizations. Advocacy is not about a particular issue but about a set of broad principles that impact many people over time. Advocates typically are working for the long haul and trying to make big and lasting changes to a system or sometimes to make an entirely different system. And advocate or advocacy organization can work for years on many issues before the benefits can be achieved.

Lobbyists have a skill and advocates have a mission. There isn’t any value judgement in calling this out any more than saying a plumber fixes pipes and an architect designs houses; we need both. And sometimes, one person can end up doing a little bit of both of these functions, focusing on very narrow technical issues while pushing a broader point.

Back when I was about 25 years old and working for the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA), an organization representing elected school board members, we spotted an alarming section in a huge bill about youth and families called the Becca Bill. The Becca Bill was aimed at trying to fix the juvenile justice system and to give parents and schools more power to intervene when kids were acting out and getting into trouble. The bill was a combination of more and stronger penalties and more social services.

The thing we found was a mandate that school districts with the highest truancy would lose up to 5 percent of what was called complex needs funding. These were dollars that went to mostly urban districts with many immigrant families, kids getting free or reduced lunch, and with a variety of other challenges. This is where I started. I looked at which districts would be hardest hit. One of the districts getting millions in complex needs funding at the time was the Tacoma School District and the Senator representing Tacoma was a well respected African-American legislator, Senator Rosa Franklin. The sponsor of the bill was blustery Senator Jim Hargrove from the Olympic Peninsula. I knew Senator Franklin could take on her fellow Democrat on the Human Services Committee where she was co-chair.

I took my facts and figures to Senator Franklin thinking this will be great. She’ll get it. Urban versus rural and all that. Plus it was a significant amount of money the district might lose. I figured Franklin would just get this notion of penalizing districts for truancy. I was wrong. Franklin, as it turned out, was very unhappy with the Tacoma School District. She wanted something done about truancy and this would get the districts attention. I was stunned. That was my whole plan, play the urban Democrats against the rural ones, the bigger, more complicated school districts against the legislators from rural areas trying to punish the unruly cities with lots of poor kids. It failed.

Well was this truancy thing even a problem? Maybe by showing that the whole truancy thing was a red herring I could get a story in the press pointing out that this was a sledgehammer versus fly type of thing. So I called my colleagues at the Superintendent of Public Instruction. What were the truancy rates or attendance issues in all the districts in the state? Let’s see those numbers. They didn’t exist. Schools didn’t uniformly track attendance or report it aggregate. I had no way of pushing back because we had no clear data. How many kids ditched school in Kent last month? We had no good numbers.

I went to Senator Hargrove. We used to stand outside the doors of the Senate chamber and send in notes. If the Senator felt like it he or she would come out and talk. Hargrove had a weird habit of talking with women outside the doors, but with men like me, he’d take us inside the chamber and we’d sit on one of the big leather couches in the wings. I told the Senator again that this was a bad idea. Didn’t matter. He had the votes and the support of Senator Franklin. OK. How about this, since I looked and we have no data, why don’t we track it first, set a threshold and then attack the actual problem not penalize districts. We had a deal.

I thought I had a win. But my colleagues were pissed. Now schools would have to track attendance. Districts would go bankrupt hiring staff to track all the paperwork and to run around trying to get kids back to school. They all went off to get those numbers together. It was awkward. Among all the education organizations we were the only ones making a deal with the dreaded Senator Hargrove. They testified against our plan. And some argued, because at the end of a string of truancies the prosecutor would file a case against the kid AND the parent, that we’d crash the courts too.

In the end, our compromise passed. The world didn’t end. And twenty years later I have met school people who say it works fine. I even met a person who actually got caught up in the truancy system we proposed. I’m that old.

Now why did I tell you this long boring story. Because I know what I’m doing, and I want you, the reader, to recognize what happened in that story. There was interests aligned at cross purposes. The goal that everyone had was helping prevent a repeat of the circumstances that led to the death of Becca, the young girl the bill was named after. There was lots of money involved and systems that were larger than this one problem. But people, legislators, my colleagues from other education organizations, and others used data to make their cases, and rational arguments. When we failed with one legislator we “worked” another one. If one angle failed, we’d try again. We went to the press. We tried everything.

In today’s discussions of land use and housing it isn’t working like this. Mobs of angry people show up at City Hall and the Council passes legislation. There is no data and there is no rational consideration of arguments. When it came to the Grand Bargain and now Jenny Durkan’s transition, builders and developers who actually build housing aren’t at the table. We’ve been locked out. Imagine the story I told if we were simply told the bill was passing and it didn’t matter what schools thought or how they functioned. That’s why I make noise.

When I write scathing critiques or my language is strident or I sound outraged it isn’t because that’s my default setting. I’d much prefer to work with the system to get a solution for today’s issues and tomorrows opportunities — and for the people who need housing in this town. But that’s not even on the table. What’s shocking about the City Council is that it is homogeneous ideologically but Olympia is hyper partisan and divided between urban and rural. Yet the Council simply doesn’t want to know anything from people that understand and actually build and manage housing. And neither, apparently, does the new Mayor. So I’ll say what I’ve said over and over again, we’ll meet with anyone, anywhere, at anytime to figure out ways to create more housing of all kinds in all parts of the city for all levels of income. All I need is an address and a time. Until then, like Pankhurst, we’ll keep making noise.



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