Tips for Leading Your Members Through Hyperpartisan Political Times

Driskell_tips_for_leading_your_members_through_hyperpartisan_political_times January 31, 2022 By: Quardricos Driskell

This is an incredibly politically divisive time for America. However, associations still have legislation they support or oppose, and helping members navigate talking to legislators is key to that mission. These nine tips can help associations and their members navigate these tumultuous legislative times.

As we examine how to work in and through an atmosphere of political polarization and intolerance among competing special interests, it’s instructive to remember that the “unscrupulous behavior” we occasionally witness among elected officials isn’t new.

In the lead up to the Civil War, there were several verbal assaults and name calling. Famously, an actual physical assault occurred on May 22, 1856, in the U.S. Senate chamber, when Representative Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democrat from South Carolina, used a walking cane to attack Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Republican from Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, the country was as politically divided then as it is now. Because of this hyperpartisanship, it can be challenging to work with members of Congress.

For example, partisan divisions within Congress may result in legislative gridlock or halt negotiation and compromise. Likewise, a divided government within state legislatures and between the legislative and executive branches can rise to partisan standoffs. This impasse can lead to legislative refusal to approve appointments, denial of votes for presidential initiatives, and vituperations that imbue the civic society of our country.

We live in difficult and demanding times. Nevertheless, government relations professionals must always be ready to work with lawmakers and move their legislative agenda despite the dubiety.

All of this impacts our work as association government relations professionals. However, in these peculiar and volatile political moments, associations and their government relations staff must still leverage, navigate, and depend on existing and new legislative and political relationships. As such, how do we rise above the political battles and work within an increasingly polarized and highly toxic, partisan environment to halt regulations or legislation that threatens the work of our association, while securing legislative wins achieved through a comprehensive strategy that includes direct lobbying, coalitions, PACs, and so forth? Here are some considerations to keep in mind:

  • Understand and accept that membership input and buy-in are critical to engaging lawmakers with a history of incendiary remarks.
  • If you don’t have to meet with lawmakers who consistently dominate the news cycle because of inflammatory comments, don’t. It also keeps you from having to justify to your executive team, boards, or members why you met with certain members.
  • Keep the conversation with lawmakers relevant and data driven and find connections between the lawmaker’s district and your organization.
  • Utilize the power of your membership: the lawmakers’ constituency. The truism in Washington remains members of Congress listen to their constituents. So utilize your members during any fly-in events.
  • Ask lawmakers questions about themselves to get a glimpse into their lives and families or their motivations. It’s amazing how you can feel about someone once you know their story. It gives you and them a way to establish better personal connections.
  • Be strategic about what events you attend, so you don’t have to explain your presence at an event if something is said or done that is controversial.
  • Ask to see the guest list to know the companies or associations that will attend an event such as a fundraiser. If similar companies or associations within your industry are in attendance, that is usually a good sign.
  • Know your stakeholders and cultivate relationships with lawmakers. That way, if an offensive comment is made, you can justify to your members how they have been helpful and impactful to your mission and work.
  • Don’t be apprehensive about reaching out to an office and expressing disappointment about a statement a lawmaker said that is directly opposed to your association's mission. Often you will find that lawmakers are amicable in private conversations and willing to address your members about a comment.

We live in difficult and demanding times. Nevertheless, government relations professionals must always be ready to work with lawmakers and move their legislative agenda despite the dubiety.

This is part one of a two-part series on how association government relations professionals can be successful despite excessive political partisanship. In part two, we’ll address how to manage it when it surfaces among your association members.

Quardricos Driskell

Quardricos Driskell is legislative and political affairs manager at the American Urological Association in Linthicum, Maryland, and a member of ASAE’s Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council.