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Career Path: Growing Good Relationships

Legislative affairs is really just another branch of donor relations

By Carol Bonomo




How do advancement people advance? There are many answers to that question, but it’s probably safe to suggest that none include “college degree in advancement.” This is good, because my undergraduate degree is in opera singing. But I could write, and I ended up in advancement as a speechwriter.

Then one day my campus president came back from a California State University system meeting talking about “legislative liaisons” for each campus and what they would do. The job sounded dreadful, filled with public policy discussions and legal talk.

“Who are you going to ask?” I inquired sympathetically.

“Why, you,” he said.

Me? Back-office-give-her-a-pad-of-paper-and-a- thesaurus-and-leave-her-alone me? But how do you say “no” to the president, especially when he’s your direct supervisor?

My president needed to staff legislative affairs quickly, and I, apparently, needed a glamorous trip to Sacramento. That’s how my advancement career advanced.

I wasn’t coming to this job from a political science background like many of my new colleagues. I was not hired fresh from a legislator’s staff, and I wasn’t a public policy expert plucked from the faculty. I was a communications staffer in advancement. But isn’t legislative work about both communication and advancing the institution agenda?

Building expertise

I learned my new trade through a philosophical approach I developed by observing the hard-working development officers around me. My approach has three elements.

  1. I treat the legislative delegation (federal, state, and civic) assigned to my campus as if they are donors. This is a pretty fair assumption for state and federal legislators, since universities in our system typically receive up to 85 percent of their budgets in yearly state appropriations, and nearly 75 percent of our student financial aid comes from federal programs. Instead of regarding legislators as the faceless affront to access and affordability in higher education, I see them as partners and donors to the cause—even when the request for “more” is met with “no.”
  2. I treat legislators with respect as individuals. This means that at times we agree to disagree: Should immigrants receive in-state tuition? What does “paying our fair share” mean regarding utility fees? I write thank-you letters and publicly acknowledge legislators’ support whenever I can, and I quietly write, “sorry, maybe next time” when support fails to materialize.
  3. I educate myself on the other major issues competing for my legislator’s attention so that I understand my higher education requests in relation to the full portfolio of competing demands. I also remember birthdays, children, good news, and success stories, and I delicately refrain from reminding legislators of public or private failures. I listen more and talk less.

    In short, I follow the best practices of every development officer worth the title, rather than the practices of some of the lobbyists in the business.

  4. And, finally, I embed myself—and by extension, the university—into the community that both voted for the legislators and supported the founding of this state university. It’s part of knowing a legislator’s portfolio. Hang only with higher ed, and you might very well hang alone. Stand by your chamber of commerce friends, your alumni, and the businesses that need your graduates, and you’re tougher to isolate and remove from consideration.
The good, the bad, and the ugly

It’s been 12 years since that first trip to Sacramento, and I have taken dozens of similar trips in the intervening years. In addition to yearly state budget struggles and successes, our campus has received nearly $3 million in federal appropriations.

I could not have imagined then where legislative affairs would take me, but it certainly moved me and my career out of the back office. I stood on the Senate floor of the state capitol to recognize and acknowledge our founding senator during his last day of office after a long and illustrious career, and I eulogized him at his funeral. Perhaps my proudest accomplishment was in the name of history, when I solicited—and received—the papers of our first congressman for our library archives.

I approach legislation as the work of legislators, and legislators as human beings and legacies in waiting. I ask what they need from me, I say what I need from them, and I listen hard to their answers.

I’ve had some bad days in legislative affairs, too. Donors in the legislature are no different from donors who aren’t politicians, and some of them will break your heart and stain your idealism. I might have described as a proud moment the day I walked beside my congressman into the glare of the national press at our campus. He choked on his tears and announced he would retire rather than fight allegations of impropriety. I was proud to be able to lend support to someone who had been a friend to the university for more than a decade. Then nine months later, I stood in the back of a courtroom and witnessed him being sentenced to nearly 10 years in federal prison.

But I recovered, because I have other legislators and legislation to occupy me, and in the long term the work matters more than any term-limited legislator.

Speaking of term limits, I hope my next career move will be to director emeritus of legislative affairs. After all, seniority is very important in the legislative world. And I just might retire to Sacramento. It’s starting to feel like home

About the Author Carol Bonomo

Carol Bonomo is director of legislative affairs and special assistant to the president at California State University, San Marcos.

 

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