Challenges face lobbying, PR in California’s ‘blue wave’

The state Capitol in Sacramento. (Photo: Adonis Villanueva, via Shutterstock)

As the new class of California legislators filled the hallways of the state Capitol on a chilly week in early December, it quickly became clear that political “business as usual” had come to an end.

The Republican platform received a stinging rebuke from the California electorate in November, with Democrats capturing three-quarters of the seats in the state Assembly and a supermajority in the state Senate (29-11).

Every statewide officeholder, including Gov. Gavin Newson, is also a Democrat.

The post-blue wave environment means that the old school, relationship approach will be less effective than proactive policy and district impact programs.

As if to underscore the new political reality, shortly after members were sworn into office for the 2019-2020 session, legislators put their new legislative agenda into bills.

Newly introduced proposals included single-payer healthcare, regulations to render any attacks on the environment by President Trump irrelevant, and a labor-backed measure to codify the recent state Supreme Court decision on independent contractors. Future legislation is expected to be a wish list for left-leaning constituencies such as labor and legal activists.

For public affairs companies that work to impact policy on behalf of their clients – and especially those that represent business interests — the post-blue wave environment means that the old school, relationship approach will be less effective than proactive policy and district impact programs.

Why will the new approaches be necessary?

In a political environment with a balance of partisan makeup, many times the ability to influence decisions and secure an adequate number of legislative votes can be done through traditional lobbying within the walls of the Capitol. The debate inside the Capitol often plays heavily in a narrowly divided house; winning may be a matter of convincing a few critical legislators to move or kill legislation.

But now, in a single-party dominated state, convincing enough decision-makers will require well-constructed policy arguments and the involvement of influential district interests.

With 61 Democratic legislators in 80 seat Assembly and 29 Democratic legislators in the 40 seat Senate, tipping the political scales will not be easy.

To stop a bill that would adversely impact a particular industry will require 20 Democratic votes in the Assembly and nine Democrats in the Senate. And since the Democratic majorities are so large, more decisions will be made in private, possibly in the Democratic Caucus meetings.

There are ways to overcome a blind allegiance to belief – and it’s not simply presenting data and facts.

This Legislature will most likely continue to make significant policy changes in the budget process where opposition is harder to secure. Even in the state Senate, where there are generally more moderate members, the ability to impact legislation will be a challenge. Relationships will remain important, but persuasive public policy arguments and strong district “influencer” programs must be part of the program.

To be successful in California, public affairs professionals should infuse their client strategies with three key elements:

Well-grounded research
Nothing informs the future as much as the past. In our decades of work with California government, we’ve found that nothing beats impeccable research. That doesn’t just mean a quick assessment of prior legislation, voting records or a media pull (although those are components that should be included). It means doing a deep dive into the issue to understand jobs, economic and business issues, and a gaining a fuller understanding of the potential impacts to the state.  Too many times, stakeholders present arguments about the impact a law will have on their business, industry, or organization and neglect to show why a particular policy will not be good for the state.

Persuasive and defensible policy arguments from credible messengers
The basic psychology of confirmation bias tells us that our brain isolates and highlights evidence that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. But there are ways to overcome a blind allegiance to belief – and it’s not simply presenting data and facts. People must be persuaded to overcome their bias. So, legislators and regulators will need more than a cursory explanation of your position to be open to a new understanding of policy implications.

Carefully consider that your client sometimes may not be the best messenger. Each industry group, constituency, business group or other stakeholder comes with its own reputation and set of perceptions. Find ways to tell your story through the eyes and voices of new, or even surprising, messengers. In this new political reality, experts and academics armed with facts and good policy arguments will be even more important in convincing legislators to consider different points of view.

Connection to districts
Elected officials bring their own personal ideals and ideas to the Capitol, but they are ultimately elected by their constituents and must be responsive to the voices of their districts. “Hometown campaigns” take the influence away from Capitol special interests that are focused on a single goal and broaden the debate to include practical, real life problems and solutions.

A word of caution: modern policymakers are sophisticated. They can easily discern between an “AstroTurf” campaign and a real district grassroots effort that involves people who truly have a stake in the issue. So, district campaigns cannot be artificially “created”; they must tap into authentic local support or opposition and build upon that.

The reality of the California supermajority is that business as usual won’t work, and public relations and public affairs firms will need a different approach to deliver successful results.

Editor’s Note: Alison MacLeod  is a partner at KP Public Affairs and Patrick George is director of public relations at KP Public Affairs.


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