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Advocates Discuss Navigating Polarized Political Climates and Shifts in Party Control

A week after the midterm elections, Alliance allies gathered to hear from state partners and think together about how to shift their advocacy strategies to maintain and grow their effectiveness given the new political realities in their states.

Conversation kicked off with a simple question – What brought you into this room today? Attendees shared:

  • State politics are increasingly being impacted by national politics and polarization.
  • Some attendees’ states have moved more to the right, or they are anticipating such a shift.
  • Some purple states are experiencing gridlock, and nothing is getting accomplished.
  • Increasing need for two strategies – one red, one blue.
  • Child care is not a legislative priority. States won’t raise taxes, and some leaders think that federal funds “fixed” child care.

The group also shared how they are adjusting their strategies due to these shifts.

  • Some allies are feeling pressure to work more incrementally, since “radical” ideas could tank their whole approach, while others are shifting to a more radical approach, as incremental changes don’t seem to be meeting the need.
  • Shifting messaging.
  • Working to get closer to the party in power.
  • Thinking about whether children’s issues can be a bridge between the blue cities and the red rural areas.

The Alliance invited three state allies to each share how they have navigated choppy political waters, with a new party in power and/or new leadership.

  • Karin Bowles shared the Virginia Promise Partnership’s experience pivoting immediately in response to an election.
  • Adrienne Olejnik discussed the medium term, sharing Kansas Action for Children’s experiences building relationships with new legislators and adapting relationships with grassroots and other partners when a political shift takes place.
  • Christine Tiddens shared how Idaho Voices for Children’s long-term thinking has shifted towards forging forward for big, bold, transformative change.

The Virginia Promise Partnership was created out of an effort to reimagine child care in Virginia. The partnership includes more than 30 organizations and has advisory committees that include parents and providers. Partners know their bold goal—to ensure all Virginia families have access to affordable quality child care by 2030, regardless of income—will take years to achieve. Karin shared how the Partnership pivoted quickly to keep their agenda viable after a new Governor was elected.

  • Early in 2021 they began the development of a policy roadmap to reach the bold goal, engaged providers, parents, and member organizations, and identified their values, principles, and vision. Then they began mapping out policies to make change, increase investment, and close gaps for Virginia families. By September 2021, they had agreed on a policy roadmap.
  • Then the gubernatorial election in November resulted in a new governor from a different party.
  • Realizing that the new governor would be bringing in lots of new people — many from outside the state, with different priorities from the previous administration — the partnership assessed what the change meant for the roadmap and how to best position it for success. They considered what the new governor’s priorities and values were and who was he listening to.
  • The partnership ended up revising some of the language used in the roadmap without changing or walking back on any of the policy priorities, principles, or vision. They talked about the policies differently, stressing parental choice and voice, which were big issues in the election, as well as opportunity and importance of child care for parents to rejoin the workforce. They emphasized the link between early childhood education and success in the early grades.
  • All of this helped position child care as an issue that the new Governor could (and did) support.

Kansas is a conservative state—the legislature has conservative supermajorities that support limited government, low taxes, and strict requirements for government programs. Particularly with divided government (current governor is a Democrat), proactive opportunities are possible, but limited. Kansas Action for Children (KAC) thinks carefully about how to build their reputation and use their limited political capital. Adrienne shared some key medium-term lessons KAC has learned are helpful after political shifts:

  • Set legislative goals with your capacity in mind.
    • Maybe the goal is to talk with every committee member on a given issue or get three new legislative champions for an issue. Those should be considered progress.
  • Think about four buckets of lawmakers:
    • Who is brand new? What do you know about them? What is your strategy to meet with them?
    • Who are returning champions and how do you keep strengthening those relationships?
    • Who is returning that you haven’t gotten to know as well yet?
    • Finally, recognize that talking with some lawmakers might do more harm than good. Don’t burn bridges but do put them in the long term airport parking rather than spending a lot of time building relationships.
  • Do your homework to build these relationships.
    • Find an affinity with each lawmaker you want to build a relationship with. Who do you know personally? Who shares an aspect of your identity? Who enjoys the activities you do?
    • Politicians love to talk about themselves, and you can learn something every time they talk, use social media, send out their newsletters, etc.
    • KAC created a OneNote notebook with a page for each lawmaker. (Contact Adrienne if you’d like to see this.) They keep detailed information on the legislators, their votes, and KAC’s notes after they meet with them. Lobbyists review those notes before they talk with legislators.
  • Think about voting blocs of lawmakers.
    • Often if you can get X lawmaker on board, it makes it more likely you will get Y and Z as well.
    • Who are your shortcuts? It can mean a lot to approach someone who others ignore, and they might become a champion on an issue.
  • Connect with your partners and share, rather than hoard, your information.
    • KAC shares their legislative profile information externally with partners.
    • They share their privilege and the capacity they bring to the legislature to lift up their partners’ issues or help expand their partners’ capacity.
    • Because KAC is in the capital full time, they see the shifts coming early and often have to be the ones to recommend a strategy change to partners, which can be tough. Keeping in constant conversation with your partners, sharing information, and approaching each other with humility will set your coalition up for success when strategies do need to shift.

Idaho is also a very conservative state, with 94 percent of the legislature and every statewide office held by a Republican. So political diversity in the state means factions within the Republican party. Many moderate conservatives in the Senate, committee chairs, and legislative champions were primaried out this year by far-right conservatives, who already had control of the House. Idaho is headed into 2023 with 50 percent turnover in the legislature and lots of new faces. As this shift began, Idaho Voices determined that they were not going to lose sight of bold, long term goals. They led the effort to expand and implement Medicaid and won the first state funding (and Medicaid filing) for home visiting. Their newest effort is to build a long-term campaign for state funded preschool, which Idaho currently doesn’t fund at all. Christine shared some of Voices for Idaho’s Children’s long-term planning strategies post-election.

  • Branding
    • Voices for Idaho’s Children uses brands in advocacy work for longer term campaigns—each new campaign gets a new brand. For example, their early learning brand was First Steps Alliance, and the Medicaid brand was Close the Gap.
    • Brands sometimes need to get retired. For example, Close the Gap became too associated with progressive policy, so they officially retired it. They are now moving forward with a new brand–Idaho Kids Covered—to work on post-partum Medicaid extension.
    • Branding allows the organization to focus staff expertise into one area with a name that legislators can easily understand. For example, Idaho Kids Covered makes it clear they are there to talk about health care.
    • Campaign-specific branding also insulates the larger organization’s brand.
  • Fundraising
    • Can’t talk about long-term success without talking about money.
    • Idaho Voices is very open about fundraising with team, partners, and funders. They won’t commit to taking on a long-term campaign without the funding committed for three to five years.
    • They have seen that stopping a campaign partway can be devastating to partners, grassroots organizers, and people on the ground doing the work with families, and that can be hard to come back from.
  • Strategic planning
    • Strategic planning is not fun, but we need to be clear about our steps to get to our goals, and we need to set realistic expectations. How are we defining forward progress?
    • We must be adaptable. Strategic planning has to be flexible and reactionary to elections and other shifts.

After a short Q&A and full group discussion, attendees brainstormed with their tables about strategies they could use in the immediate, medium- and long-term when politics shift. They also thought about what strategies, even during these polarized times, could move their racial equity work forward and help them continue to work towards centering lived experience in their advocacy.  

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