By Christina Canfield and David Michelson, MEA Lobbyists
This will sound strange, but one type of activity we regularly conduct as lobbyists requires us to threaten our MEA members with a swift kick! Before you get too alarmed, let us clarify that we have fortunately not yet had to follow through on that warning.
The threat comes before Legislative Councils, informal meetings that members and leaders all over the state hold on a regular basis with their state representatives and senators—both Democrats and Republicans—some of whom we agree with, and some… not so much.
That is where the (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) possibility of a kick comes in.
These meetings are held at a restaurant over dinner, with only one rule that we follow: “Dialogue, not debate.” There is no agenda, training, or follow-up debriefing. Everyone arrives at the same time and leaves at the same time to prevent pre-planning or post-gossip.
The goal of Legislative Councils might sound loosey-goosey, but it lays solid groundwork for a productive relationship. Our goal is for the legislator to enjoy the experience enough to want to return and continue the conversation with our members.
Hence, if anyone were to argue, criticize, or otherwise attempt to debate about political issues or policies in ways that created a confrontational atmosphere, we would have to kick that person under the table as a polite reminder of the one and only rule. Dialogue, not debate.
Generally, Legislative Councils are attended by 6-12 MEA members of all kinds, plus local leaders and staff, in addition to the lawmaker (who occasionally brings a guest). Sometimes we lobbyists attend Legislative Councils in a particular region where they are just getting started. In other places, our people have done enough of the meetings to continue unaided.
Again, we have never had to make an under-the-table reminder in many years of Legislative Councils. We did have to quit one session that devolved into angry feelings, but that resulted from behavior by a state senator intent on riling up the dinner party with combative statements.
The vast majority of Legislative Councils are a great opportunity for our members to discuss issues, to share specific classroom experiences, and to illuminate needs for more support. Often the relationships become friendly enough that our members feel comfortable calling their lawmakers’ offices to comment on pending legislation—and their calls get through.
These discussions can make legislators more sensitive to educators’ classroom and professional needs. Non-confrontational dialogue can help policymakers understand the work of support staff and the often-ignored realities they face in ensuring students are safe, healthy, and well-fed; and schools are warm, clean, and smoothly operating.
The conversation at Legislative Councils can lead lawmakers to modify legislation or opt out of sponsoring bills that would create obstacles to effective public schools.
It can be tempting to argue and debate with politicians, so we continually remind our Legislative Council participants of the rule—Dialogue, not debate. Fortunately it is our honor to work with smart and passionate professionals who learn fast, work hard, and lead with their hearts.