Exporting Clout

For most lobbyists, mystery is the name of the game. After all, how do you justify those high hourly fees to corporate clients if getting your way on Beacon Hill isn’t some high (if not black) art?

But Judith C. Meredith, dean of human service lobbyists, has always given it away. Of course, she has her paying clients–including, over the years, the Coalition for Basic Human Needs, Massachusetts Tenants Organization, the consumer-advocacy group Health Care for All, and the city of Boston–but Judy Meredith has also made a side career out of peddling the secrets of influence peddling to advocates for a variety of liberal and poor-people’s causes.

In 1982, Meredith wrote Lobbying on a Shoestring, a text that taught a generation of rabble-rousers how to conduct legislative campaigns. And now, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she’s done it again, co-authoring Real Clout, a spiral-bound (the better to photocopy with) manual to help grassroots activists across the country expand access to health care for the poor and uninsured in their states. In terms of what grassroots organizers need to know about lobbying their state and local governments, she says, nothing much has changed over the years.

A step-by-step guide to influencing public policy
“It’s the same two rules of influencing public policy,” says Meredith. “Elected and appointed decision-makers make different decisions when watched by the affected constituency, and they pay more attention to local constituents than they do professional lobbyists. Any smart, professional lobbyist always organizes a grassroots constituency because it increases his power–or her power. The second rule is, you have to get the right information to the right person at the right time–which is about organizing and mobilizing the grassroots. You have to talk to your legislator before they make their decision, not complain about it afterward.”

For Real Clout, Meredith teamed up with Catherine Dunham, who was a top policy advisor to then-Gov. Michael Dukakis from 1984 to 1991. Now a national program director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Dunham founded the Boston-based Access Project, which supports community-based efforts to expand health-care coverage, in 1998. Dunham taught Meredith about the importance of lobbying administrators as well as elected officials.

“When I first met Judy, she said she didn’t do regulations,” says Dunham. “Well, regulations are where it’s at. The regulatory process is made horribly complicated and boring–I don’t think on purpose–but it is the comma and the semi-colon in the language that determines whether North Adams gets what it needs or doesn’t.”

Real Clout offers civics lessons for the real world, in the form of step-by-step game plans for legislative and budget campaigns. It’s also full of practical observations about the nature of politics today. Here the battle-worn voice of Judy Meredith comes through loud and clear. Rules reforms, intended to open up the tightly-controlled legislative process, only mean “more work” for grassroots lobbyists, the book explains. “Gone are the days when powerful legislators, who championed new, costly, or controversial programs, could deliver for powerless community activists by tucking in a little amendment here, crossing out a few words there, or transferring some money in the middle of the night, two minutes before the end of a session.”

What makes Real Clout, which is being given away free to 2000 community groups across the country, particularly timely, however, is the $206 billion national tobacco settlement. With every state government sitting on a new source of money presumptively earmarked for health programs, there is something for “health policy entrepreneurs,” as the book calls them–and Meredith has met with consumer organizations, coalitions of church leaders, and neighborhood groups from South Carolina to Nebraska–to go for. “This is a terrific opportunity,” says Meredith. “It’s the first new revenue stream anybody has seen in a long time.”

Meet the Author

The new money will grease the skids, but what makes politicos ripe targets for intelligent, well-organized campaigns is that they are hungry for what Meredith calls “hero opportunities.”

“At this time in the public-policy arena, elected and appointed public officials know they are not respected by the general public, and they are in despair,” says Meredith. “They are looking for ways to make new public policy that will make a measurable, concrete difference in the lives of their constituents. They are looking for ways to be a hero.”