Winning the Political Game: Advice to New Legislators

With a number of new legislators taking office this month, and acknowledging that lawmakers get a lot of advice from a variety of sources, here are two simple suggestions from me:

1. Pick your priorities and focus on them. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Don’t be in a hurry to do too much, too fast. Civic-minded people have a tendency to want to right every wrong and fight every evil. You can’t do it all, and you won’t be effective if you try. You will also neglect other important priorities like family and profession.

A wise politician/farmer once said, “I survey a lot of fields, but I only plow a few of them.” So choose your targets. Specialize in a few areas. Don’t run too many bills. Try to understand the legislation and you’re voting on and the budget decisions you’re making. But don’t try to be the expert or leader on numerous issues, despite the temptation to jump in. Like a rookie basketball player, let the game come to you. Take advantage of opportunities, but don’t press too hard. Don’t irritate your veteran colleagues.

2. Communicate frequently with your constituents. Don’t take them for granted or assume they’ll vote for you in the future just because they have in the past. It’s amazing how complacent and neglectful some elected officials become. They think because they have important positions and get their name in the paper, everyone loves them and will return them to office term after term. Here’s the reality: most of your constituents don’t know who you are and couldn’t name you if asked who their legislator is. They’re not reading the newspapers and even if they voted for you in the past, their attitude is: “What have you done for me lately?” You will always be vulnerable to an aggressive challenger who works hard and has the right message. So never stop campaigning. Communicate with your voters. Hold town meetings. Produce a newsletter. Direct voters to your web site or blog. Hold cottage meetings. Give speeches to service clubs, chambers of commerce, etc. Divide your constituents into four groups:

A. Opinion Leaders (business leaders, ecclesiastical leaders, other officials like mayors, city council members, planning commission members, neighborhood leaders, etc.). Make a complete list of them and communicate/meet one-on-one and in small groups with them as often as possible. Go to lunch, stop by their office, let them know what you’re doing and ask for their suggestions and advice. Do this even if they affiliate with the other party. Tell them you represent them and want their input. Make certain you are connected with them on social media

B. Political Activists. These are your constituents who attend political party meetings, who are precinct officers, who are delegates to state and county conventions and who are neighborhood activists. Make a list of them and meet with them on a regular basis, preferably in small groups. Call them on the phone. Listen to them. Connect via social media.

C. Active Voters/Registered Voters. You can obtain a list of all active voters (those who have voted in the last couple of elections, especially in primary elections) if you learn how to sort the voter file. Send them a regular newsletter or letter. Invite them to town meetings and events. Get their e-mail addresses and send them updates. Stay in touch via social media. Let them know you’re listening and you care.

D. Casual voters and non-voters. Communicate to them through social media and traditional media. Many of them aren’t interested in politics and won’t vote, but you still represent them, so seek to know their priorities and interests. Use survey research and give speeches to service clubs and other groups.