February 01, 2007


 Political Advocacy 101

Posted Jan. 15, 2007

Political Advocacy 101

State legislatures are fast becoming battlegrounds over the practice of veterinary medicine. Legislation addressing a range of veterinary-related issues, from animal confinement to complementary and alternative medicine, is becoming increasingly common. Last year alone, more than 225 animal welfare bills were considered in legislatures across the country.

Gone are the days when veterinary medicine was left only to veterinarians. As the status of animals is examined more closely, a growing number of people are speaking out about how they think animals, which they consider valued members of society, should be cared for. For instance, there are calls for tighter regulations over the food animal industry as well as exemptions to allow chiropractors and other nonveterinarians to provide medical care for animals.

And they're doing it through statewide referendums and by lobbying their elected representatives.

A few years ago, the AVMA stepped up its efforts to be a resource for state and local veterinary associations as they became more politically active. In addition to creating a Department of State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs within the AVMA Communications Division, the Executive Board approved hosting public policy symposiums—a kind of crash course in the legislative process and how to influence it.

Approximately 100 people gathered for the second symposium held in suburban Chicago, Dec. 2-3, 2006. Many of those in attendance are leaders within their state VMAs, such as executive directors, presidents, presidents-elect, and vice presidents. Several AVMA officials were also on hand.

The first day of the symposium featured state VMA representatives recounting the legislative and regulatory challenges they've faced. Presentations were also offered on building a successful grassroots program and effective lobbying.  

Get involved

AVMA President Roger K. Mahr opened the meeting by noting how the veterinary oath obligates the profession to work for the benefit of society. Political action is part of that public service, he said. 

"Public policy is primarily designed for the protection, health, safety, and welfare of our society," Dr. Mahr said. "And for that reason, it is extremely important that our profession, and we as veterinarians, be recognized as the lead resource in these animal health and welfare issues."

The public holds veterinarians in high regard, and veterinarians should leverage that respect when talking with policymakers about issues important to the profession, Dr. Mahr observed.

Dr. Lee Denney, one of three veterinarians in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, explained that legislators aren't experts on every topic, so lobbyists and constituents provide needed information on the myriad of bills they consider. "I cannot encourage you enough to get your local veterinarians to contact their representatives," she said.

Dr. Terry Steczo, who served in the Illinois House of Representatives for nearly two decades, said constituents who contacted him about a specific bill strongly influenced his vote. Few people made the effort, however.

"Honestly, I'm surprised at how few people called or wrote to express an opinion," Dr. Steczo said, adding that a personal letter or phone call is the best way of contacting a representative.


Real life

Three state VMA leaders described the legislative challenges they faced in 2006. In each state legislature—Arizona, Tennessee, and Florida—the number of bills pertaining to veterinary medicine has risen substantially. Some of the more troubling proposals would allow exemptions to the state veterinary practice act. 

Florida VMA Executive Director Donald Schaefer explained how his association is addressing these issues. For instance, the association is communicating more with the state veterinary board and has increased its profile with Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation. In addition, the Florida VMA is working closely with the state Department of Agriculture in the rule-making process.  

Growing grass roots

Associations must develop grassroots networks if they hope to defeat bad legislation or see favorable bills enacted. Being prepared is essential for effective advocacy, according to attorneys Adrian Hochstadt and Julia Fullerton, assistant director and senior policy analyst of the AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department, respectively. 

Not only is an understanding of the legislative process necessary, but having a clear message and ready response when challenges arise is also fundamental.

Lobbyist and consultant Randall Witter said grassroots networks should work to educate members about who their elected representatives are and issues important to the association. Identifying veterinarians who have social or personal contacts with legislators is also a must. "I can't overemphasize the importance of having a key contact. That relationship is more important than the influence of a lobbyist," Witter said.

Witter also advised associations to create a policy statement on government matters, establish a governmental affairs committee, and subscribe to a legislative monitoring service.  

Media relations

Speakers addressed ways to work with the media to advocate positions on the issues.

Dorothy Pirovano, a former reporter who is president and chief executive officer of Public Communications Inc., spoke about how to "play nice" with the media to generate positive coverage. She said veterinarians can contact the media first, as sources available to speak for the profession. She suggested learning how to "press the audience's buttons" so the public remembers the message.

Sharon Granskog, AVMA assistant director of media relations, said veterinarians provide local perspective on the issues while the AVMA provides the national perspective. The AVMA media relations staff places officers in the media, puts out press releases, writes topical backgrounders, and tracks news stories. The staff also refers reporters to local sources—and will help veterinarians who are working with local media.

Pirovano concluded the session by offering interview tips. She advised spelling out the most important points and emphasizing why a topic matters to the community.

"Reporters focus on the 'so what?'" Pirovano said.  

Political action committees 

Chris Copeland, the Texas VMA director of government relations, spoke about the pros and cons of state VMAs having political action committees.

He said a successful governmental relations program relies on a grassroots program and effective lobbying as well as a PAC, which is what allows an association to contribute money to candidates for office.

"You need to get involved to play the game effectively," Copeland said.

The advantages of a PAC for an association include greater access to officials and visibility in the capital, Copeland said. A PAC can help association members participate in the political process. The PAC can pay for events where members have an opportunity to interact with legislators or match members' contributions to candidates.

One disadvantage of a PAC is all the reports that the PAC must file with the state ethics commission, Copeland said. The association risks alienating some members by supporting certain candidates or issues. Other members might feel they need not involve themselves in politics because of the PAC. Conflicts can arise regarding PAC funding.

Member contributions to the TVMA PAC have risen and fallen over the years. Currently, about 75 percent to 80 percent of TVMA members give to the PAC.

Fundraising for a PAC does tend to be a challenge, Copeland said. The TVMA PAC has tried many approaches to soliciting contributions through the dues statement. Starting in 2004, the approach has been to ask members on the statement whether they wish to give $25 of the dues to the PAC—with a note about the importance of the PAC to the TVMA legislative program.

The TVMA recently surveyed members who chose not to contribute to the PAC. Of those noncontributors who responded, about 40 percent said they would have contributed if they had understood from the dues statement that a contribution would not change their dues. The remaining 60 percent of respondents would not contribute for a variety of reasons, such as believing that the TVMA should not fund political candidates or believing that PAC funding should remain separate from general TVMA funding.

The TVMA PAC has other fundraising techniques. The PAC sends letters soliciting contributions from lifetime members and classmates of veterinarians who are running for office. The PAC also e-mails members about legislative happenings, with a link to the PAC contribution form.

Copeland said the TVMA PAC gives the funds it raises to the campaigns of veterinarians, friends of veterinary medicine, key committee members, and key leaders.  

Pressing issues

Peter Weber, executive director of the Illinois State VMA, spoke about new software programs and Web sites that allow associations to conduct governmental relations more efficiently.

The grassroots Capwiz software, which tracks legislation and offers a number of other features, is available to state VMAs at group discount rates. The Capwiz vendor, Capitol Advantage, reported that 17 state VMAs were participating in the group purchase program as of October.

The symposium wound down with two half-hour breakouts on the topics of livestock and animal welfare; dangerous-dog and breed-specific regulations; regulating nonveterinarian treatment providers; guardianship, noneconomic damages, and other legal remedies; and pharmacy issues. Reports from the breakout groups revealed common concerns from state to state.

Dr. Henry Childers, AVMA immediate past president, delivered closing remarks. He said the AVMA's second public policy symposium was a success.

"The state regulatory and legislative initiative has been one of our most successful efforts," he added.

Dr. Childers urged participants in the symposium to share what they'd learned with their grass roots—the members of their state VMAs.