Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Advocate's Response to Lobby Day

Lobbying with the EDC:
by Alan Duffy

Back when I was still living in Auburn, Alabama during graduate school, I used to think of how much I would like to be able to work with the EDC merging my two biggest passions in life. In addition to working as a researcher, educator, and advocate in the body image and eating disorders field, some people don't know that I completed my undergraduate degree in political science! So the opportunity to merge the two most important areas of my expertise had always been a dream. When in June 2008 I learned that I had been hired by the Student Health Center at American University in Washington, DC one of my first thoughts was "Great, now I can lobby with the EDC!"

In September 2008 I attended the EDC congressional briefing for the Mental Health Parity Act and I introduced myself to Jeanine, Kitty, Kathleen and others and said that I wanted to help in any way that I could. After attending the briefing for the launch of FREED Act in February 2009 I was excited to attend my first lobby day with EDC in April. Living in DC at the time and having no voting representative, I was asked my Jeanine to join the Virginia team and to lobby Congressman Mike Rogers (R-AL) who had been my representative while living in Alabama. Knowing that the congressman would be one tough nut to crack, I set about doing what is now the most important strategy I deploy in all of my lobbying and encourage all of my team members to utilize. It is vital that before ever entering a meeting with a Congressperson/Senator or their staff that you know something about them. This is obviously critical when it comes to how they stand on healthcare issues, health reform, and how they've voted on health issues in the past. Additionally, a key element to know is that in the same way as we are most concerned and passionate about eating disorders treatment, research, and prevention, most members of Congress have a "single issue" that they care about the most.

In the case of Congressman Mike Rogers, his big issue is supporting military families. Having lived in eastern Alabama for a few years, I was very aware that a large number of his constituents served in the military and that this presence was particularly felt in the area due to the close proximity of Fort Benning on the Alabama/Georgia state line, one of the largest Army bases in the country. I set about telling Congressman Rogers' staff in our meeting about the number of young women I encountered in Alabama that were "battling" an eating disorder while their husband or father was in Afghanistan or Iraq "battling" on the battle field. I also shared the scenario of men who fought through tough battles in the Middle East evading maiming or death only to return home from battle to discover that a loved one was losing their "battle" with an eating disorder. While Congressman Rogers has not signed on to the FREED Act due to his particular Republican party allegiances, his staff clearly saw and were touched by the notion of a male soldier from their constituency serving their country and coming home healthy, only to discover that the U.S. healthcare system had failed their loved one and left them losing their fight, their battle. This captured how I would prepare my team for future lobby days....

When in September 2009 I was asked to step in for an unavailable Gail Schoenbach as the New Jersey team leader, I utilized a similar strategy with the lobbyists working with me and saw similar success. Fast forward to April 2010 and I had been asked to take over as team leader of my state of residence (since July 2009), Maryland. I knew that I had big shoes to fill taking over the fort from my friend and colleague Chevese Turner, who is a tireless advocate. Having more time to prepare for the lobby day than with the NJ team, I made sure to fight for meetings with members resulting in one with Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and a brief appearance from Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD). I could have hoped but never imagined that we would convert three out of five meetings that day into cosponsorships.

So what was the key? Well to start, Chevese and the Ascanio family had already done incredible groundwork on previous lobby days with many members, especially Congressman Van Hollen. Second, I made sure that I knew as much as possible about each Congressperson, Senator, and event their staffers before we would enter our meetings. Third, I made sure that I got to know the team members a little before lobby day and that we spent most of our "practice time" on lobby day discussing their personal stories. With a large team, everybody can't talk in every meeting, so I was then able to strategize who would be best to deploy to talk in each meeting based on how well their story fit the member we were lobbying, and this worked very successfully.

I warned the team that I was going to employ a very different strategy in our meeting with Congresswoman Donna Edward's (D-MD) Legislative Director and that I would reveal my surprise before out meeting. I discovered that in her short first term tenure in Congress, Congresswoman Edwards has really focused on two issues: justice in Darfur; and sexual assault. Congresswoman Edwards was pivotal in the work on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and is really passionate about this. One of the other health issues I work with is sexual assault awareness and I'm all too aware of the correlations between an act of sexual abuse or sexual assault and the later onset of disordered eating or a clinical eating disorder.

When I told the team we were solely going to pitch FREED on the basis of the links between sexual violence and eating disorders, it turned out that more than half of our team members could directly relate to this on a personal level. We ended up meeting with the LD, Terra Sabag in Longworth's cafeteria due to the small size of Congresswoman Edward's office and she asked us to talk for as long as we wanted. Through our incredibly strong, supportive team, a number of members were strong enough to share the tough emotional stories of sexual violence that were connected to their eating disorder story along with all of the other stories at the table. The LD had tears in her eyes and thanked us for taking the time to meet with her and for being so strong. She promised she would talk to Congresswoman Edwards and if there were no legislative concerns, convince her to sign on. Unlike most meetings, where staff say they'll talk to the member and "try" to get them to sign on, I knew that Terra Sabag would discuss this with passion and vigor. She did and Congresswoman Edwards, along with Congressman Van Hollen, and Senator Cardin have signed on since that day. What's the moral of the story? Know the member, know their issues, and know how to relate to them. Thank you so much to all of the Maryland team who helped to make this possible!

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