On January 5, 2016, I walked onto the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives for the first time as a legislator. I was welcomed into the family by many of the veteran legislators. Through-out the day the words used to describe the legislature were family, fraternity, and team. Over and over it was explained to me that I was now a member of the club.
During those first few days I was invited to dinner and had multiple legislators and lobbyist spend time learning about me and my family, in other words, they were building a relationship. It felt good to be included and to be “on the team” but what continually bothered me was that I wasn’t elected to be in a club or a fraternity. If I were to be on a team, it would be on the team of people who chose me to represent them, the people who listened to my principles and values during my campaign and asked me to vote according to those, not according to some new relationship I’d formed in Jackson.
I quickly learned once those relationships are formed, they will be used against you unless you comply with their wishes. Leadership and lobbyist build the relationships but are quick to take it away. It reminds me of something my wife has said, “the one who cares about the relationship the least has the power.” The realization of truth that every politician must see is that these relationships with lobbyist and often leadership are not real, because as soon as the politician stands on a principle and against their desires the relationship is ended. Indeed, they use the threat of ending the relationship as a way to keep legislators under control.
Lobbyist are experts at building relationships. They begin on day one with the freshmen legislators by taking us to dinner, talking about hunting, fishing or anything other than the legislation they want passed. I’ve never had a lobbyist simply walk up to me and immediately begin talking about legislation they wanted. They always build a relationship first. They know the importance of the relationship, and how it affects a legislator’s vote.
On the other hand, citizens and citizen led groups who are advocating for or against legislation rarely spend time developing a relationship with the legislator they are trying to influence. When a citizen approaches a legislator they are usually all business. They don’t ask about family, they don’t talk about college football, they get right to the point. This is understandable, citizens don’t have time to hang-out in the capitol rotunda and chat about football or hunting and they don’t have the money to buy steak dinners for legislators every night. But this puts them at a disadvantage with legislators who vote based on relationships and not on principles and core values.
What can citizens do?
There are two ways for citizens to combat this, one is to elect men and women who will place principle above relationships. We must elect political leaders who value principle over short term relationships. Citizens must demand that personal gain in any form not be the motivation for a legislator’s vote. Judging this during a political campaign is extremely difficult but, I believe it can be done with diligent research and examination. This is one reason I believe term limits are important. If a politician knows there is an end to their time in the legislature the relationships becomes secondary to accomplishing their goals on which they’ve campaigned.
The second and certainly less desirable method of dealing with this is to acknowledge that weak-willed legislators exist and “play the game” of relationship building. If you choose this path be prepared to spend time and money building fake relationships. Once you’ve built those relationships you must be at the capitol the day your legislation comes up for a vote which often changes intentionally to avoid the pressure you exert by being present. Be prepared to spend money on dinners and lunch with legislators so they have to face you and explain their vote. If you can’t win their hearts and minds then win by developing a relationship and then use that relationship to sway the vote. But this method is a short term, costly solution that does nothing to solve the problems or issues of our state and you are unlikely to out play the professional lobbyist at his own game.
In my article a couple of weeks ago we discussed how most politicians place re-election above all else and identified the two things needed to make that happen. One was money, usually provided by lobbyist and the other votes, which are controlled completely by citizens. A citizen group can affect change in government but they must know and understand the battle they are fighting. Wield the stick of votes by leading voters to men and women of principle and values and away from those who value relationships over principles.
Representative Dana Criswell represents House District 6 in Olive Branch, MS.