How To Make Progress In A Hectic Harrisburg Environment
With new Pennsylvania legislative maps and many freshman legislators, follow these tips for making your cause — and your clients — heard.
It’s a new year, a new Pennsylvania legislative session, and a lot of our clients are asking the same question:
What the hell is going on in Harrisburg?
All the pundits and lobbyists agree that we’re in murky waters, with no timeframe for a clear resolution. The 2022 election wasn’t a partisan wave, but it was a sea change in Harrisburg. Thanks in large part to newly redrawn maps, one out of every four Pennsylvania legislators are freshmen for the 2023-2024 session. That includes six new State Senators and 49 State Representatives. (After special elections anticipated this spring, those number will increase to seven and 53, respectively). It’s a generational level of turnover.
How do we move our issue forward amid all this confusion?
Some of our clients are working on a major, high-profile issue with lots of stakeholders. Or, they’ve been working for years to advocate for legislation on a niche issue that is very technical. Or, they’re looking to increase budget allocation for a key priority. Whatever the goal, the next step is the same: Build relationships with freshmen elected officials.
New members = new opportunities. The key is to be strategic and patient about the firehose of information that new lawmakers are trying to absorb.
Here are my top five tips for clients to get to know the newest members of our state government.
Choose a local emissary. Lawmakers care most about constituents, employers and organizations located in their district. It’s important to identify a member or supporter who is a constituent and who can serve as an ongoing point-of-contact. Even when an organization leader wants to lead a meeting, it’s much better to go in alongside a constituent.
Be patient but persistent. A new lawmaker has a lot to do to set up their office, from establishing staff to arranging the furniture. It all takes time. A slow response in the early weeks of a new term isn’t personal. Just make sure to follow up at regular intervals.
Staffers are your friends, too. Everyone wants to meet the elected official, but it’s also worthwhile to stay in touch with — and take meetings with — staffers. Legislative and district staff makes the world go round. Often, lawmakers hire a mixed staff of newbies and veterans. In Harrisburg, committee staffers are especially influential and they tend to stick around long term.
Engage with the ‘official’ social media accounts. Pennsylvania sets strict rules about social media. Lawmakers must keep separate accounts for official state business versus campaign or personal accounts. Freshmen lawmakers’ official accounts are new, and don’t have many followers or interactions. If you follow and engage with the official account early, you will stand out.
Set aside party assumptions. Unless your issue is overtly partisan — heck, even if it is — it’s worth building bridges. You can’t assume where a new lawmaker stands based on the letter next to their name. Most lawmakers take an earnest interest in their constituents and want to keep a good rapport with them. Assume good faith until and unless you see bad faith.
Finally, I’ll end with advice for dealing with all of Harrisburg, not just freshmen: Be patient. It takes time to educate lawmakers about an issue, and to generate momentum for action. Often, progress comes in a slow boil over multiple sessions. That’s why it’s so important and worthwhile to meet new legislators: you’re investing in relationships with people who will impact state government for a decade or more. Good luck!
Keegan Gibson is a director in Ceisler Media's Pittsburgh office.