Why animal advocates must organize politically now!
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2001:
Why animal advocates must organize politically now!
by Julie E. Lewin, President & Lobbyist, Animal Advocacy Connecticut
* An organized minority can drive public policy, because
every legislator knows that an organized minority can swing elections
in his or her district.
* To achieve in the legislative arena, an issue group must
have either corporate power or an organized grassroots which uses the
power of the vote.
* Grassroots power comes from enduring accountability,
facilitated by at least one full-time lobbyist in the statehouse who
reports back to constituents in each district how their legislators
vote. Many legislators openly champion the causes of animal
exploiters, confident that humane voters in their home district will
* Media coverage of a controversial issue rarely achieves
substantive change in public policy, unless backed by a grassroots
constituency organized by legislative district, which can translate
public concern into individual legislators’ votes. Otherwise,
opponents dominate the process and the results, if any, are
* Think BIG, but from the bottom up. Goals should be
consistent with the size of your organized grassroots and your
commitment to a maintaining full-time, long-term presence in the
statehouse. Otherwise you are amateurs and the animals continue to
pay the price.
I’m on a mission to inspire animal advocates across the
country to organize politically. Organizing politically means
establishing a professional, political lobbying organization in
your state. All other grassroots issue groups-seniors, labor
unions, environmentalists, advocates for health care, women and
gay rights-have had such state organizations for decades. They know
that only political lobbying organizations, not local or national
charities, can get them where they want to go.
Why? Because organizing politically is the only way to
translate broad public concern into power in the statehouse.
Political power results from the accountability of legislators to
their informed constituents. The statehouse is the most important
place to have influence, as state laws tend to have more impact on
more animals than federal laws or local ordinances. Even in areas
regulated by the federal Animal Welfare Act and other federal
legislation, states are empowered to set and enforce stronger
Although a popular social agenda since the 1980s, animal
advocacy remains at kindergarten level. Advocates function in the
margins rather than as potential players within the ruling elite.
They pursue legislative goals which have serious opposition using
part-time volunteers, with a representative from a national humane
organization showing up once or twice. Advocates submit unrealistic
bills and evaluate their performance not on whether the bills were
enacted, but to what stage of the process they survived. Meanwhile,
they often ignore or are unaware of the constant flow of anti-animal
bills which easily become law, and never learn the subtleties of the
legislative process, let alone the nuances of sophisticated and
effective lobbying strategy.
For years I lobbied our statehouse for a national humane
organization. We made an important difference, but nowhere near
what could have been gained through a state-based political
organization unhampered by the IRS rules governing charities, which
severely limit spending to influence legislation. This is not just a
matter of lobbying time. The IRS rules also inhibit doing serious
surveys of legislators, polls of constituents, and distribution of
information about where bills and individual politicians stand.
Connecticut has had a legislative coalition of local humane
groups convened by a national organization for a decade. Although
committed and effective in their other endeavors for animals,
members never identified their people by legislative district, and
the coalition is perceived at the statehouse as a bunch of naive
Therefore, in January 2001, before the Connecticut
General Assembly convened, I founded Animal Advocacy Connecticut.
Although AACT is still in early infancy, its first session
is testimony that this was the right decision. For one controversial
bill, AACT drew 62 co-sponsors, more than any of the other 3400
bills. AACT killed a detestable, sweeping bill submitted by our
state’s wildlife agency, which in previous years could have sailed
through. We drastically weakened this bill at every stage of the
legislative process, gaining votes from multiple legislators who
violated party discipline to stand with us and from others whose
votes the hunting/trapping lobby could always count on in the past.
The agency was in shock.
At the same time, over the fervent opposition of our state
agriculture agency, we enacted a precedent-setting provision for the
sterilization of feral cats, and we halted other anti-animal bills
which previously would have been more difficult if not impossible to
AACT began to assemble three groups of legislators to promote
strong laws for animals: Capitol Cats, Capitol Dog Squad, and a
legislative study group on the link between violence to humans and
animals (the State Child Advocate is sending a staff person). We’ve
founded Progressive Animal Control Officers/Connecticut and Animal
Advocacy Attorneys/Connecticut to help advance the AACT agenda.
In beginning to think politically, many advocates make the
fatal mistake of looking to existing coalitions of local charitable
groups and national charities to lead them. These cannot substitute
for a strong grassroots organization. National groups, while able
to provide much support, are not geared to commit the necessary
resources and are no substitute for a local and vibrant political
force. Their impact in your Capitol comes solely from their members
in your state who are informed about how their legislators vote, not
from the fact that they have a large uninformed membership or a
So the relationship must be the reverse. How can existing
groups help you? Let them look to you and your new grassroots
political organization for leadership. If advocates within existing
groups will join you, that is excellent, but don’t regress to the
Advocates may think that recent success in enacting felony
cruelty laws shows that the status quo works. But establishing
felony penalties for cruelty, although a challenge, is not a real
test. Felony cruelty penalities rarely have organized opposition,
since imposing higher penalties for convictions under existing law
does not raise the standards of care for any animal or prohibit
anything not already illegal. Legislators climb aboard, because
voting to increase penalties is politically popular as part of being
“tough on crime,” unlike criminalizing cruel but commonplace
behaviors toward animals or voting to spend tax money on them.
In assessing your potential to achieve a grassroots base,
recognize that vast numbers of people who care passionately about
animals have never been a member of any humane group. I wear a
sticker which says, “Will You Help Organize For Animals? Ask Me!”
and recruit folks everywhere.
Organizing politically works on the local level as well.
Municipal and county officials can also be held accountable in the
voting booth. Once you enter network members in your database, they
are on call to oppose a proposed fire department rodeo or anti-animal
ordinance, or to launch a humane initiative. Your organized
existence will increasingly prevent anti-animal events. If you get
cooking in the statehouse, your state’s congressional delegation
will come to your table.
AACT has applied to the Internal Revenue Service to become a
501(c)4 political lobbying organization. Revenues of organizations
in this category are tax exempt, meaning that the organization does
not pay business or sales tax, but donations to them are not tax
deductible. Charities with IRS 501(c)(3) status, like most humane
societies, cannot directly fund a (c)(4), but can legally pay a
(c)(4) for lobbying services.
A (c)(4) political organization is not a political action
committee, often called a PAC. Starting with a PAC rather than a
(c)(4) has many disadvantages and no advantages. PACS are designed to
endorse political candidates and funnel donations to them. Until you
have a large, organized grassroots with an impressive track record,
few if any legislators –even those who are supportive–will want
your endorsement. Your endorsement is a public announcement to
opposition groups and candidates, as well, and in some cases can
take more votes away from a candidate in a close election than you
are able to swing.
To deliver endorsements effectively, you need to be able to
give your favored candidates political cover, meaning that your
endorsement comes with reliable voting support. Your (c)(4) can
develop reliable voting support. Members of your (c)(4) can donate
to candidates without going through a PAC.
Other disadvantages of PACs are that members’ donations to
PACs are limited, unlike donations to (c)(4) organizations, and
that the public reporting requirements for PACs are comparatively
enormous, including identifying large donors and the amounts they
gave. This may discourage large donors who don’t want their support
recorded in publicly available documents kept by state agencies.
A PAC is not an effective way to achieve an organized
grassroots; it is trying to become strong from the top down, not
the bottom up.
After bringing me out to speak in Indianapolis, advocates
there, including some representatives of existing groups, are forming
a sister organization, Animal Advocacy Indiana. Will advocates in
other states bless us with siblings? I’ll gladly present my
Grassroots Organizing Workshop (GROW) out your way and help you any
other way I can.
We are also beginning to plan a national confererence, “How
to Organize Politically in Your State.” Might you attend?
Note: Although specifics will differ, the same approach can
work in any constitutional democracy, including in India, Korea,
Pakistan, and the Philippines.
CT 06437; 203-453-6590; firstname.lastname@example.org.]