The chamber of commerce’s legislative agenda is one of those quiet benefits for businesses. It’s one they don’t think about but it works behind the scenes for them like an investment. Your role as the chamber legislative director is an unsung one to most of your members.
But that doesn’t mean it’s any less important. What you do is critical to their business’ success, even if they don’t realize it. You are the backbone of the chamber and it’s essential that you hit the ground running.
Tips for Your First 90 Days as the Chamber Legislative Director
This position is about two things: business and relationships. You want to support legislation that is good for business and you’ll need to establish the relationships in order to get your voice, and the voice of every business owner in your community, heard.
You’re going to be working several different legislative pools during your time as the legislative director: mainly city and state. You could possibly be involved with something in a regional development arena or even a federal one, but your first 90 days are going to be focused on your city and state.
Be Aware of the Chamber’s Legislative Agenda
The chamber and the board have likely written up legislative priorities so your first job in this role is to figure out if that has happened for this year. This will largely depend on what time of year you take over the position and whether anyone was in the role before you or not. If you take over during an active legislative session things will be a little busier than if you take over when it’s not in session and there aren’t any election dates looming.
Do Your Homework on the Legislative Side
Again, depending on what time of year it is and your state, your legislature may be in session. If it is, do your homework to find out the status of pro-business bills. Some that may have been on your chamber’s watch list may have already died in committee, been tabled, or been combined with other initiatives.
On the city level, it’s important to know the issues that are going on at City Hall. Read through this year’s council meeting agendas as well as the list of ordinances and resolutions that have passed recently. Some cities may even have their council minutes, agendas, and passed ordinances and resolutions online.
The chamber legislator director job, like so many others in the chamber world, is about relationships. Learn what you can about the people who serve your district and community. Get to know their staff and assistants as well as the people at City Hall, the councilmen, their staff, the administrative staff, and others. While the days of smokey rooms and running the clock on legislative sessions may be over (that’s questionable, but at least the smokey rooms part is largely just myth now), it’s still about the people. You can be a resource for them just as they will serve as one for you.
Getting to know these individuals who are representing your business members will make them easier to approach and they’ll take your words more seriously if they know you. The voice of business must be heard and that falls largely on your shoulders.
These connections can also help in between legislative sessions, especially if there’s a cause to be championed in your area. State senators make a name for themselves through the legislation they pen and support. If your area has an issue that legislation can help with, knowing the people involved can help you get the support you need.
As part of building relationships, you’re going to need to be there. That means city council meetings and going to your State Capitol when your legislature is in session. When there, keep up those relationships and continue them even with they’re not in session. Visit your state legislator when they’re at their home office as well.
There may be committee meetings and committee hearings you want to attend. If a bill you feel strongly about is on its way to the governor, you may want to consider contacting the staff at that office as well. You may not be able to meet with the governor specifically but there are usually economic development staffers who can pass your concerns or interest along. These are good people to know anyway.
Also, don’t forget your federal representatives. Business taxation, internet sales legislation, and many other issues should be on your watch list. Keep in touch with your federal reps and staffers as well.
Earlier we mentioned it was important to build relationships so that your chamber’s voice could be heard on a federal, state and local level. But there are additional reasons that it’s important to stay connected with these people.
Should you require federal assistance in your community due to a natural disaster or other event, connections you have in the legislative area may be able to help you with funding and assistance. Having those kinds of relationships already in place could be a big benefit to your area businesses. Plus, the title of chamber legislative director will get their attention. When everyone else is wandering around trying to figure out who to call, you have specific names and people to reach out to who already know you.
Also, politics is a small playground. Local leaders often move to the state and then onto federal positions. Building relationships and staying connected to them as their careers change may mean you eventually have people in high-up positions who are looking out for your community because of the relationship you have with them, especially those politicians your chamber has endorsed.
Help Set the Next Agenda
Assuming there was already a legislative agenda for the chamber on the books when you came in, at some point, you will be working with the chamber board to set another one. Maybe you already have some issues you’d like to take on for your local business owners or maybe you’re not sure where to start with that.
If you’re thinking about the next legislative agenda you’ll want to approach two groups: your elected officials and your local business owners. In an ideal world, the legislators and council people would be as in touch with their constituents as you are. However, that is not always the case. They likely cover a larger area than who you represent. Find out what business issues they are most concerned with. What do they plan on championing in the next session?
You’ll also want to learn what’s important to your chamber members. Many of them may have issues closer to home like adequate parking downtown or parking meters cutting into visitor numbers. Take the time and speak with your members to find out what bothers them the most.
If you ask them what legislative issues they have, they’ll likely draw a blank. If you ask them what’s impeding their business, they’ll have a lot more to say.
Your small local business members aren’t the only ones you should be meeting with though. Your larger corporate clients likely are very aware of what’s going on with state and federal legislation and they may have some distinct concerns. Some may even have their own lobbyists so they may not find value in what you do for them. However, it is essential to continue to build those relationships. Go to lunch with the lobbyists too.
Rally the People
Many individuals nowadays are feeling soured by politics. They don’t want to get involved. But as the legislative director for the chamber, there are times when you need to be more than just a voice of business. You need faces as well. It is part of your role for the chamber to ensure business owners understand the benefits of legislation and can show their support of a particular bill or ordinance.
There are also times where a bill or resolution could be bad for business. If that is the case, it will be incumbent on you to educate your membership and get them involved both in and out of the voting booth. The most effective way of doing this is to ensure they understand what the proposed legislation or issue would mean for them. How would it impact their business?
Educate the Voters
As mentioned above, you may be involved in grassroots support (or defeat) of an initiative or issue. If that’s the case, it’s likely your role could involve one or more of the following:
- facilitating a debate between candidates or issues
- hosting a meet the candidate night
- hosting a lunch and learn surrounding an issue on the ballot
- allowing for a Q&A on a candidate’s platform or an issue
- bringing in a lobbyist to talk about getting more involved on the political level for business (or talking about it yourself)
Understand Your Chamber and Its Political Nature
Every chamber is different and some are incredibly politically involved while others choose not to support any candidates, pro-business or not. Check with your board to understand the level of advocacy your chamber has promoted in the past. You will very likely also be the lead person in determining chamber policy when chamber staff or board decide to run for political office.
Test the waters to find out if it’s time to take a bigger leap if support has been minimal in the past.
Chambers are designed to be the voice of business but some communities still do not feel comfortable “taking sides.” It’s important you understand the culture at your chamber and what the board, staff, and members are comfortable with. That doesn’t mean you can’t help them become more so as the chamber legislative director. But you should always understand what the political landscape of your chamber looks like before you start working the capital.