“I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
— President Franklin Roosevelt, to New Deal advocates in 1932
On October 9, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the Preschool for All Act of 2015, aligning himself with the opposite side of the state’s bipartisan legislature, President Barack Obama, brain science, and a host of national and statewide advocacy organizations that fight for kids.
While not unexpected, the governor’s action has set advocates and others in the legislature back a year in their efforts to confirm a real commitment to preschool for every child in the Golden State. As we look toward 2016, let’s reflect on how each character in the messy process of passing legislation for kids assumes a role in the process:
ANTAGONIST: The Governor
The governor sets the rules of the game in California, and the only lever advocates have is rallying their own bully pulpit for change.
With a Democratic majority and a budgeting process that starts in his office, the governor wields enormous power through a veto or the budgeting process to convey his will.
As a communicator, he routinely relies on surprise (releasing the vetoes on a Friday afternoon), previewed by a select column (Dan Walters) or an editorial in the L.A. Times that pre-broadcasts why the issue at hand may not be a good investment.
He will never say that kids are not important. His arguments are always practical and pragmatic: “We can’t afford it” or “It’s not necessary.”
Advocates MUST always be fearless in their advocacy. If the advocates don’t call out what is unfair to children, no one else will. Aggressive, strong language that pushes the lawmakers is essential.
Unlike well-funded lobbies that represent adults, California children rely upon a small cadre of advocacy organizations – First 5, Children Now, Early Edge, Advancement Project and the PTA, to name a few – that bring the voices of children into the statewide policy discussion.
Their role is to influence and rally public opinion, most often through thought leadership and the news media to urge lawmakers to act.
SUPPORTING ACTOR: The Legislature
They may call the legislative shots, but rely on advocates to turn up the heat.
Members of the legislature advance and carry legislation that addresses the interests of their constituents and the state as a whole. To achieve success, they must engage in a complex process of coalition building, negotiation and horse-trading.
They may advocate on the floor of the State Assembly, but their voices are always strengthened by the work of passionate and strategic advocates.
NARRATOR: The News Media
Obligated to cover lawmakers and issues that matter to the public, the news media can shape and interpret the field of play.
Too often, advocates approach the news hat-in-hand: “I’d really appreciate it if you covered…”
Kindness and favors do not generate news coverage. Strong messaging bringing to life why pending legislation is crucial and will have an impact on children’s lives does. Driving that point of view is always the responsibility of advocates.
AUDIENCE: Parents, Teachers, Pediatricians
Effective advocacy communications must always creatively tap and showcase the adults that are closest to children. The adults who are closest to children are the ultimate constituency, the voters with a direct stake in legislative outcomes for children. Grassroots constituents must be rallied to mount pressure to pass legislation when needed or vote the right decision-makers in office.
Imagine if the millions of parents of young children along with preschool teachers, day care providers and pediatricians responsible for the health and developmental needs of young children were organized into political force.
Brown’s veto of the Preschool for All Act would simply not have been possible.
Pat Reilly is the founder of PR & Company, a full service communications strategy firm for social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, foundations and for-profits with a social mission.