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- 2011 - October - 24th -

‘The business of politics is business’

by Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor

What’s a lobbyist? What do they do?

Experienced lobbyists Mike Hightower, Ginny Myrick and Janet Owen shared their insights recently in a session called “Power of Political Influence: How to gain it. How to use it. How not to lose it.”

It was part of the speaker series at the University of North Florida and sponsored by the Coggin College of Business alumni.

Hightower is vice president of governmental and legislative relations at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida Inc. Owen is vice president of governmental affairs at UNF. Myrick, a former City Council member, is a senior policy adviser at the Holland & Knight law firm.

All three lobby for their clients in legislative matters, especially during sessions of the Florida Legislature at the state capital in Tallahassee.

The panel was moderated by Matthew Corrigan, chair of the UNF Political Science & Public Administration department.

Here’s some of what they said.

Corrigan: Define your perspective on the power of political influence and what it means.

Owen: The bottom line is lobbying is political influence, influencing the outcome. That’s what we do. We’re all kind of lobbyists. We are all trying to influence the outcome in our daily lives without, sometimes, getting paid for it.

Myrick: Everybody in this room has substantial influence, and your influence may be great, or it may be a smaller circle. It may be your family, your husband and your children, your wife, your church, your children’s soccer team — you all have the capacity for potential influence, which is to change the outcome of a certain path that something is taking.

Political influence is the ability to effect change without it being really obvious, and that’s the key difference. Trying to do it quietly behind the scenes is how most lobbying is conducted.

One thing beneficial about lobbyists is that we often bring the other opinion, the unintended consequence, to light, with somebody who’s introducing some legislation.

A lobbyist usually represents one of those groups that would be definitely injured by the legislation.

We say, ‘Have you thought about this? Let’s take a look at how this really affects what you’re trying to do. Is this really what you want to do?’ It’s a matter of broadening the perspective on the knowledge base of the elected official.

Hightower: Each of us, in our own way, we lobby from the minute we begin to communicate with each other. Think back to what you lobbied to get when you were a kid, what you were trying to get from either your parent or your sibling, whether or not you were successful. Lobbying is something we do every day.

It is in the techniques that you will learn over time that will define your success.

I am very proud of the fact that I am a lobbyist. I am proud of the fact that I represent the largest health insurer in the state of Florida. We’re a $12 billion company. I like the idea that I represent 4.1 million folks and 6,500 employees. My job is to make sure that I become the face of Blue Cross. What I also found is, I need a team, and I have a very good team.

We become what legislators don’t have, institutional knowledge, and understanding of what happened. If you have no understanding of what went before, the chances are that you will repeat it, and it will not be pretty.

Term limits put a huge onus on those of us who either represent our company or our advocacy, that what we say, we have to know it better.

We are the silent advocate to the public advocate, the legislator, who must then, as we all know in Tallahassee, (find) 61 votes in the House and 21 votes to get it out of the Senate. So I’m looking always for 61 votes and 21 votes, and I’ve got to find somebody who’s able, one, to take my message, and two, be able to count the 61 and 21.

Corrigan: You say techniques. Could you be a little more specific?

Hightower: There are some fundamental rules of the game. No. 1 in our game is your word is your bond. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, it doesn’t matter how much monetary support, it doesn’t matter what your company does, if you in fact do not play it straight, if you are not honorable, bottom line, if you lie, then it’s time for you to get another job.

Owen: I would recommend to you a book by former Gov. Bob Graham, called “America, the Owner’s Manual: Making Government Work for You.” What I loved about this book is so many people try to influence the outcome, and they really don’t have a basic understanding of what level of government is responsible for what functions.

Are you lobbying something one time? Do you want a thousand people in matching shirts, with the same talking points, who are going to get something done once? You’re going to develop techniques that might be a little more scorched-earth, and they’ll be successful if done correctly.

To succeed in the long term, your technique is going to be different, and all three of us have to build relationships and trust. That means knowing staff. It means knowing birthdays, and I’m not talking about unauthentic pandering.

We’re all relationship builders over time, but that is a technique.

It’s amazing how many people just don’t know the process, and don’t know who’s responsible for what.

I represent UNF, I represent the faculty, the staff, the trustees, President John Delaney, who’s very popular over there, so I don’t take credit for a lot of that. My calls are returned because they want to meet with President Delaney, or they care about UNF. My job is not to mess that up in any way, and to represent as honorably as I can.

Myrick: There are many different kinds of lobbyists, and these are in-house lobbyists. They have one client. They have one company that they advocate for.

I am what they call a contact lobbyist, so in the eight years that I’ve been with Holland & Knight, my list of people that I represent is over 90 different companies.

They hire me because I have the ability to access decision-makers, and you get that ability by knowing who they are, and being engaged in their campaign, so you’re in a position to say, I know that person, and they will return my phone calls. Access is a big part of why I am hired.

The other is reputation and integrity. You have to guard your reputation, I think even more so for women than for men. So the second reason that someone might hire me is that I have a good reputation.

On the flip side, I’ve been lobbying now for over 20 years, and several times I’ve declined to take a client if I can’t find out enough about him.

I’m not sure about that person, or he comes to me and they give me a quick song and dance about their new startup company, and how much they want from the government, and there’s no track record on them at all. I’m very leery of that. So I turn them down.

If I bring in somebody who’s tainted in some way, I am tainted. It’s important to me that whoever I take in there, I’m proud to be representing them.

Corrigan: If someone wants to get in the lobbying game, how would they go about it?

Owen: I see lobbyists that come from three main areas. One is former legislative aides, and they know the process. They’ve been working at it for years, so they can sell their expertise.

In a sub-category would be former elected officials who do it because they also love the process, and it’s interesting to see the impact of term limits. You can have a former speaker of the House, a former president, lobbying, and they’re important, and everybody still genuflects when they walk by. But eight years later, it’s (among new players) ‘who are you, and why should I care?’

There are others who are lawyers, folks who represent clients where they have the need to change public policy for their clients.

That can also lead into the next group, which would be if you care so deeply about an issue that you’re going to go over to Tallahassee and you want to make change.

Hightower: If you want to be a lobbyist, first understand what you’re getting yourself into and your family’s getting itself into.

You need to understand that it is the neatest job if you like advocating and you represent a good client or a cause.

But you need to approach it as a business. The business of politics is business. It is not fun. You are dealing with people’s lives. You’re dealing with something that’s going to impact the quality of life.

Lobbying is full time. It is 24/7. As soon as you finish the session, you’re starting the following year.

No. 2 is, every two years, there’s an election, and every two years, somebody gets turned out, and somebody runs for that office. So you have to start all over again.

When it’s over, you write thank-you notes, you thank the people that were there for you. The ones that didn’t vote for you, there’ve been many times I’ve had to go in there and apologize, because we are into relationship building.

It is not about Mike Hightower. It is about I am the face of Blue Cross Blue Shield. How I am viewed, how I say it, how I don’t say it, that is how people will view the values, the vision, of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Myrick: I don’t think anybody I’ve ever met has ever said, ‘I want to grow up to be a lobbyist.’ I haven’t met anybody who said that. You morph into it. Either you do it by serving an elected official, being an elected official or really loving politics in some way.

It’s a very, very complicated process. You have to know which body takes care of what problems. If you bring your problem to the wrong person, they don’t even want to talk to you.

The other aspect of lobbying is you have to know who you’re talking to, and you have to allow that person to withstand the slings and arrows and take the bullets, because they’re the one who’ll stand up on the public floor and take your case. They’ll carry your water for you, if you have a controversial bill. You have to give them cover. You have to say, ‘you can say this with good conscience.’

Here’s a little quote that I just love. Lyndon Johnson said, ‘Being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. All you can do is just stand there and take it.’

Unless you understand that, that you’re asking this person who has fought a good fight to get that seat, to get up and argue your position, you have to give them the ability to feel good with their conscience to know what they’re doing, and be able to articulate it.

Hightower: If you’re a lobbyist and you’re asking a legislator to move a piece of legislation, and you are in their office multiple times during the year, they will come to us, or our client, or our company, one time, to get re-elected, for help.

Unfortunately, it has become so expensive to run for public office, it is not unusual that a House member will have to raise $300,000. It is not unusual for someone who’ll run for the state Senate to have to raise $2 million, and may have their opposition run $3 million against them.

That is part of the game. That is part of the process. It’s not like it’s illegal or it’s unclean.

If you want those individuals to be there, to be an advocate for the business community, they have to be elected. They need financing to do that. There’s a whole different conversation for that. But it’s part of the rules of the game.

You need to know that if you’re going to ask someone, a legislator, to stand up and help you, that they’re going to come back and ask you, when they run for re-election, to help them. Be ready for that.

That’s the relationship that’s both ways. Fundraising and being part of the process is part of being a lobbyist, and that’s part of the game.

Corrigan: What happens when you don’t get what you want? What’s the value of a mistake, and how do you overcome a big mistake?

Myrick: Quite often, you can modify the outcome before you get to that point, because you can count your votes.

Part of lobbying is killing a bill. The other part is modifying it so it’s not quite so damaging to your client, and I think the third aspect is neutralizing somebody who may be opposed to it.

If you can say, ‘if you can’t agree with me, can you just not say anything, and I’ll give you a good reason to do that,’ so you give them a few facts that would support that.

But in the end, you have to know the number of votes that you need to get it from Point A to Point B.

If you don’t have the votes, you pull it back, or you ask for the chairman to defer it until you can rally around some other support. So there are ways of keeping from falling off the edge.

Owen: Truthfully, it’s client management. I am so fortunate, because in working for President Delaney, he understands the political process. He understands that it might take three or four years for a major idea to get passed.

When your client, or the person that you’re representing understands that, that takes a great deal of pressure off.

You get a feel early on if you’re doing well. Who’s sponsoring your legislation? These folks in Tallahassee are limited in the number of bills that they can file in the House. In the Senate they are not. But they use up all their bill slots, so if you’re not there early, sometimes you’re just cut out because everything’s full.

Hightower: I go into every session and it’s always over-promise and under-deliver. The one thing that you have to remind (the client) is we don’t vote. Those people who are on the floor vote. The best that we can do is make the case.

When I hear a lobbyist spout off that ‘I don’t have to worry, that legislator will do anything I want,’ I will tell you, I have taken a young lobbyist to task, saying, ‘when you say things like that, you have compromised not only our profession, but you in fact have compromised that legislator that you have talked about.’

In two of those cases, I said, ‘that legislator is a personal friend of mine, and I take that personally, and I will tell you, I would strongly suggest that you not do that again.’

Corrigan: How are you dealing with lobbying in this age where information moves so quickly?

Myrick: The technology piece does not so much change what we do, but it’s very fast-paced. Within a morning, I can talk 10 different times to one of my clients by email, much faster than I can in speaking on the phone. It’s a huge advantage to help us be responsive.

The other thing I wanted to touch on was the difference technology has made in how you run a campaign. That is absolutely dramatic, within the fundraising arena, the get-your-message-out arena, and rallying people to do and be at the right place at the right time.

Hightower: This from a teacher who posted on Facebook: ‘Dear students, I know when you’re texting in class. Seriously, no one just looks down at their crotch and smiles.’

kmathis@baileypub.com

356-2466

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