A veteran of the state legislature talks about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to communicating with lawmakers
At a recent statewide economic conference in Hartford, CBIA President and CEO Joe Brennan told 500 business leaders, “We have to be relentless in our advocacy” if Connecticut is to become a top state for business.
For many businesspeople who may be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of state-level policymaking, becoming an advocate for business and economic growth might sound like a lot of work and perhaps a bit intimidating.
But, says Brian Flaherty, that doesn’t have to be the case. And he should know. Hired in December as CBIA’s new senior vice president of public policy, Flaherty served in the Connecticut House of Representatives for eight terms, representing the towns of Watertown, Middlebury, and Woodbury.
Most recently, he was vice president for public policy and external affairs at Nestle Waters North America in Stamford.
CBIA News talked to Flaherty about the role businesspeople can play in educating and influencing lawmakers.
CBIA News: Many people are cynical about the ability of one person to impact legislative decisions. What do you say to those people?
Flaherty: One person can make a difference, and I’ve seen it happen.
I had a small employer in my district who had only five employees. At the time, there was a proposal in the legislature for a set of unemployment compensation reforms. On paper, I understood essentially what the proposal was trying to solve. But I didn’t fully get it until this man walked me through his books and showed me how the existing law impacted his business.
One bad experience with the unemployment comp system because of one employee suddenly shot his experience rating and unemployment comp taxes up almost exponentially. And he felt powerless. But I didn’t fully get it until I saw it. His company was small enough so that any little policy move could have a major impact on his business and his employees.
He became a valued advisor to me in evaluating the proposed legislation and whether it would work to solve the problem it needed to solve.
CBIA News: What what would you tell businesspeople who might feel a little intimidated by approaching their state legislators?
Flaherty: Legislators come from the same walks of life as the rest of us. They’re our neighbors, our kids’ coaches. They go to the same churches and shop at the same stores. I’ve served with truck drivers, house painters, farmers, insurance agents, and manufacturers. Most legislators are not career politicians, and they need you to get elected and stay elected.
Although they have desks at the Capitol, their offices are in the districts they represent. That makes them very accessible, very present throughout the year. By and large, they’re motivated to serve and hungry for information.
CBIA News: What’s the best way for a businessperson to get his or her feet wet?
Flaherty: The world often turns on personal experiences or stories about the unintended consequences of laws that are passed every year. So anytime you can humanize your business or an issue, do it.
Invite your legislators to your workplace. There’s no substitute for letting them walk a mile in your shoes. I’ve never learned more than when I had the opportunity to walk the shop floor at a company in my district. In my experience, it’s a small investment of time with a great return.
CBIA News: What kinds of constituent communications resonated with you?
Flaherty: A personal email or letter, but not a form letter. Better yet, a phone conversation. Even better, talking face to face over a cup of coffee.
Politics’ stock in trade is a handshake, a look in the eye, and a story well- and truthfully told. That’s where the personal connections are made, and they’re always more memorable. It’s not unlike building a business one customer at a time, except the marketplace at the Capitol is one of ideas.
CBIA News: What tactics generally don’t work?
Flaherty: Exaggeration. Not every situation is the end of the world. Not every good idea is the cure for the common cold. Credibility matters and is generally assumed, but if you overstate your case, it undermines your credibility—and your legislators’ ability to help.
On the other hand, if you’re honest and factual, your legislators can turn your experiences and stories into good policy. That’s how representative democracy is supposed to work. The process can and does work, and I believe in it. ■
CBIA has the tools and resources you need to engage your state legislators:
1. Get started by identifying your state senator and representative.
2. Contact CBIA’s Nicole Cline (860.244.1929; email@example.com) for advice on connecting with your legislators.
3. Follow and interact with lawmakers on Twitter.
4. Sign up to receive CBIA’s digital Government Affairs Report.