Political Savvy

How to be an effective "David" in a world of "Goliaths"

One of the articles in Strategies For Cultural Change (IC#9)
Originally published in Spring 1985 on page 52
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

In emphasizing the many non-political forms that cultural change takes, we don’t want to forget that governmental actions have their importance, too. Marc Sullivan has been centrally involved in two major successful campaigns aimed at creating a more sustainable energy policy for the Pacific Northwest. In this interview, he reflects on the essential ingredients in these successes.

Marc is the executive director of the Northwest Conservation Act Coalition (NCAC), an alliance of currently 34 citizens groups in the 4 Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. These groups cover a broad spectrum, including environmental organizations, progressive labor groups, good-government groups like the League Of Women Voters, and electric ratepayers organizations.

David Myers is an elected Commissioner of the Wahkiakum County Public Utility District in southwestern Washington, and represents Wahkiakum on the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) Board of Directors (see IN CONTEXT, #7).

You have worked for several organizations that lacked many of the advantages that we often associate with power in our society. They had no major corporate or government funding, nor established roles in the society and especially not in the power structure that makes major energy decisions. What influence for cultural change were these organizations able to achieve?

Marc: Let me talk about the two that I spent the most time with. The first was the Don’t Bankrupt Washington committee, which was formed to sponsor a ballot initiative that had to do with the WPPSS nuclear plant fiasco (see IN CONTEXT, #7). What they asked was that in the future bonds to finance the development of major energy projects not be issued without prior voter approval. An extremely bitter campaign followed. Yet the initiative won by a relatively substantial margin even though the opposition out-spent us by about 6 to 1.

The second is the Northwest Conservation Act Coalition (NCAC), which has had a major impact on shaping this region’s energy policy. Let me explain. In 1980, Congress passed legislation restructuring the region’s energy planning and development. This restructuring was the culmination of a four year legislative fight that began when the utilities and established energy powers in this region went to Congress and in essence asked for a considerable expansion of their authority to plan, finance and develop resources. In the course of that four year fight most of the organizations that later came together as the coalition opposed the passage of any such legislation, seeing it as the mere vehicle for advancing the interests of their foes.

In the end, we were not able to stop the legislation, but we were able to considerably reshape it, and reorient it. The original sponsors of the bill wanted to build more thermal plants (nuclear, coal, etc.), but the law that was eventually passed requires that for this region the highest priority shall be increased efficiency, conservation, using the energy that we have in a more efficient manner; that the second priority for development shall be renewable resources; and that only after you’ve exhausted these two options do you begin to look at the more traditional thermal resources.

Again, the original version of the bill was one that envisioned a very tightly concentrated technocratic elite for that planning and energy development. Over the course of evolution of the bill we managed to create a body called the Northwest Power Planning Council, which while by no means a perfect representative body, is one of the most politically accountable energy planning bodies this region has ever seen; and we managed to get one of the strongest mandates for public consultation and public involvement in policy development that this region has ever had

So just in the development of the legislative structure we managed to have a substantial impact. Even with these amendments, we were unhappy with the act, and probably would have preferred to see it not passed. It did pass, and the organizations that had been working on it for five years got together and said, "Like it or not, there it is. There is going to be this new body that is going to develop a regional energy plan that’s going to be the guideline of the region’s energy strategy, and we had better get in there and make sure that that energy plan looks as much like our dream as it possibly can." We dedicated our time for the past four years to seeing that that would happen, and with remarkable success. The plan that eventually emerged from that planning process provided that up to 97% of all of the region’s new energy resources for the next twenty years, for the rest of this century and beyond, could be provided by conservation alone. It provided that there would be no additional nuclear plants developed over that period, and only in some fairly unlikely high-growth scenarios, would we see any additional coal plants.

I think we were able to win that victory because we were able to combine a couple of things. First of all, political clout. We put together this coalition of organizations from all four states, coming from a number of different angles, and we were able to exercise some political influence. But in my view, what has characterized the coalition perhaps even more was that in addition to political clout, we had technical credibility. We were all determined to seize the technical initiative in the regional planning process. So we put together our own regional plan. A year before the Northwest Power Planning Council came out with the official document, we delivered to them a four hundred page model regional energy plan, backed up with four hundred pages of technical appendices in excruciating detail, engineering calculations that I myself don’t begin to comprehend. Then it was the ability to use the political clout to make people pay attention to our technical case that made us so enormously effective.

To our complete amazement, we were the only entity that did anything like that model plan. None of the utilities, none of the major industries, none of the state governments, none of the established powers, came into that process with a fully worked out model of what the final outcome ought to be; and as so often happens, the first, and in this case the only, draft on the table became the working draft. The chairman of the council called it a David and Goliath story. I think it is clear that we had the largest influence on the shape of that plan of any entity in the region, despite the apparent imbalance of political power.

David: Were issues of sustainability and ecology important in these decisions?

Marc: Clearly. One of the driving forces behind the Congressional decision was the recognition that cost is not the only way in which increasing efficiency and emphasizing renewable resources is more desirable than thermal plant development. Precisely those issues of sustainability and ecological impacts are also extremely weighty advantages for the conservation and the renewable strategy.

However, as it happens, my organization and those who are affiliated with it have, for strategic reasons, de- emphasized that angle of approach. As a lot of people know, the opposition to nuclear power in this country was for many, many years based precisely on environmental objections to it – nervousness about the danger of accidents, about what to do with the waste material, about the possibility of contributing to nuclear proliferation. What I think we have found is that, although a substantial number of people think those are significant concerns, in very few places in the country have a voting majority of the populace been willing to alter the energy strategy based solely on those concerns. What we have done, and done successfully, has been to de-emphasize those concerns and look at economics instead. We’ve begun to say, "OK, let’s take the value structure that is assigned by those who have traditionally favored thermal plant development, and see if we can’t win within that value structure without trying to change the values of the established powers." And what we’ve found is that, just on a pure economics basis, we can make the case that thermal plant development does not make sense. So for these strategic reasons we talk less about ecological issues, about sustainability issues, but that does not mean that they are any less real than they ever were.

David: What were some of the social pressure points you used, and how did you find them? How did you get people’s attention, how did you make them respond? I’m sure a lot of them wanted to ignore you.

Marc: Let’s start by talking about the struggle over the congressional statute, the thing that set the framework for our later work. This was a case of regional legislation that 4/5 of the congress had no interest in. Nonetheless, they were forced to deal with it at excruciating length considering their fundamental lack of interest. In that sort of situation, when you have a larger body trying to make policy for some peripheral group, what you find is that what they want to see is a consensus. They don’t want to impose the decision, they want someone to come in and tell them what needs to be done, and then do it. Our lever was precisely our ability to deny them that consensus until a major portion of our concerns had been satisfied.

David: Even more specifically, how did they know about you? How did you make yourselves known?

Marc: They knew about us for a couple of reasons. First of all, because we had affiliates within congress – people who shared our values, who shared our concerns and continued to enunciate them. Yet even more fundamental was that our concerns were not enunciated by a band of individuals. They were enunciated through organizations; and it was the existence of those organizations – those bodies with a recognized public image, with the ability to call in letters and phone calls, with full time staff, and with the money to do the lobbying – it was the existence of the organizational structure that enabled us to make ourselves heard. That is absolutely central. One of the most frustrating things to me about the last presidential campaign was the constant aspersions cast on the so-called special interest groups, which seems to me to be a complete misunderstanding of how the individual interests are protected and advanced in this society. In a society of this size and complexity it is simply a fact that the individual, in almost all cases, has and can have no influence as an isolated individual on national processes. S/he can have influence if and only if s/he can get together with like-minded individuals and create an institutional structure and organization. Once you have done that, once you’ve got that on-going body so that your ideas have a life of their own, have a force, have an image that can be recognized, you have made the first step. As long as you try to act as an individual, your case is going to be hopeless. It is romanticism, it is feckless romanticism to believe anything else.

David: You have mentioned the organizations, you have mentioned the Congressmen. What role does the congressional staff play in this?

Marc: The congressional staff obviously plays an enormous role in this thing. Congress looks like a big body from a lot of viewpoints. There are 535 of them. But, on the other hand, when you look at the variety of issues they have to deal with, the variety of constituents and constituencies they have to keep satisfied, it is obvious that a body of 5,350 would be insufficient to do the work. So the staff and its work is absolutely fundamental. On a number of issues, particularly on one like this where it is peripheral to the central concerns of the Congressman from Pennsylvania – he is going to rely on what he hears from the staff, because they are the ones he designates to go and be the experts on this, find out where it is at, and tell him what to do. And so, again, our ability to have, at the center of the process, writing the amendments and doing the research, staffers who were sympathetic and responsive to our agenda, was central.

That all refers to the Congressional process, which was merely the preface to the more fundamental struggle. It simply set the framework in which the actual struggle over the direction the regional policy would turn was waged. In a lot of ways, that second fight, the fight over the policy, was the more interesting one. I think there are a couple of key points to the success that we had there. The first I have already mentioned, but I think it is worth a lot of reemphasis, and that is technical credibility. There is increasingly no substitute for it. It interacts with political strategies, with political clout, with media strategies, and with visibility. But without technical credibility, you don’t have a prayer. There is at least one very specific reason for that. You have to give the decision-maker a reason for deciding your way. This is an extremely lawsuit-prone society, and any decision that a decision-maker makes is liable to be taken into court, and fought over. If that decision- maker cannot point to the record on which s/he based his/her decision and say, "Here are the rational reasons why I made this, here’s the evidence that was presented to me and here’s why I came down on this side," s/he is going to be overturned. And if that happens, you have lost everything. Everything you won by getting him/her to decide your way. In addition it is fundamentally unfair to that decision-maker to ask him/her to put him/herself in that position, to make a decision for which s/he does not have a record that can back him/her up if it gets into a fight. So for that reason alone, technical credibility is absolutely crucial, over and above its role in actually convincing the decision-maker. Even if in his/her heart of hearts, s/he wants to do what you want to do, you have to give him/her the ammunition to defend that decision.

Technical credibility is something that organizations working for social change cannot do without in the long run. It is also something we have to master, not let it master us. I think that that is something we in NCAC have succeeded in doing so far. Our technical expertise is still at the disposal of the political will of the organization, and it has not begun to dictate the agenda of the organization. But that does not obscure the fact that it is fundamental to our success.

David: The example of the coalition and the Regional Act is an example where the organization’s influence is on a small focused group of policy-makers. Let’s go to the example of Don’t Bankrupt Washington (DBW), and the initiative on large bond issues, where the task there was to influence the large electorate. Does this call for different tools and methods?

Marc: It does. It calls for wholesale instead of retail strategies. Strategies that reach out to a much larger group of people. There are several lessons you need to keep in mind if you are going to make that strategy work. The first is that you are unlikely to be able to create an issue. What you need to do is to seize an issue, and to shape and direct an issue. The question, the problem to be addressed needs to be present in people’s minds. You can begin to highlight it, to form the way in which they view it, but it is very hard to start from a base of no public awareness, and work up from there. That can be a frustrating constraint if what you happen to care about doesn’t happen to be on the public’s agenda. But realistically, I think it is a constraint that normally applies. You need to work with what is on the menu, and choose from that, not try to write your own menu. Because of the WPPSS fiasco, DBW had an issue with high public awareness.

Another key reason that that campaign was successful is because we created a dispersed organization. In every county in Washington, in all 39 of them, we had a semi-independent campaign coordinator, a semi-autonomous structure. They had their task that fit into the larger structure, but in a lot of ways, they were free to tailor the strategy to their own particular method that worked. The combination of a centralized objective with dispersed, decentralized structure to implement it is crucial to the wholesale aspect of politics where you want to reach out.

One of the more particular lessons that we learned there, and it was a controversial one at the time, is the importance of the media in ways that you might not think of at first. I mentioned the way the campaign was out-spent – like 6 to 1. The opposition spent well over a million dollars, which in a small state is an enormous amount of money. We managed to come up with not much more than $200,000. The question was, if you knew in advance that you had limited funds, how were you going to spend that. A lot of the people had the instinct that the way you spend that is on grass-roots organizing; by putting a campaign structure, not just in every county, but in every community, and every block, you get it down to the smallest detail you can. A smaller school within the campaign, but the one that ultimately prevailed, held that for all the importance of that grass-roots organizing, it was extremely important that we stage a more conventional political media campaign – that we put ads on television, that we put ads on the radio, and that we paper the newspapers. This turned out to be crucial to our success for a couple of reasons. First, because it let us reach a lot of people, at a cost per person that was relatively low. It’s nice to have a person standing on your door step talking to you, but you can hit a lot more people than you can talk to. But I believe that even more important than that is the credibility that it gave the campaign. People judged the seriousness of the campaign by what they saw it doing, and I don’t think people would have taken that campaign as seriously or been as prepared to believe that we could win and that it was worth working for, unless they had seen those conventional tools of electoral politics, those ads on TV, etc. So I think that in a symbolic sense, using the media approach was crucial to making the case that this was a serious effort with a real chance.

David: Did either editorial writers or reporters play any significant role in this campaign?

Marc: Both of them played a role, and they were opposite roles. Reporters played a key role in that at least some of them had already seized on the issue of these nuclear plants and their escalating costs and had managed to sustain a continuous glow of publicity on the issue throughout the period leading up to the campaign, and through the election. On the other hand, the editorial boards almost universally opposed us. I don’t believe that that did any damage to the campaign. On the contrary. The thrust of the campaign was a populist one. Let the people decide. I think that editorial voice speaking out against us and saying "No, don’t let the people decide," in fact backfired. People perceived this as the established power’s trying to hang onto their private little decision-making process. Both halves of that media process, in completely opposite ways, helped.

David: Many public issues evolve with agonizing slowness. They frequently take years and years to develop, and even when they seem to be coming to a head, it can be days and days of hearings that often occur in a town or capital that is remote from one’s base. This makes it quite difficult for a person to sustain public involvement, because at times it requires a lot of money or logistic support. It requires both an intellectual and emotional dedication to sustain an interest in a cause over so many years. This might be harder for citizens and citizens’ groups that are typically volunteering their own efforts or scrounging funds from individuals and other organizations. It tends to be easier for the established power structure, both corporations and governments, that have money to hire people to be there and to pay the travel expenses. How do you sustain the effort, emotionally, financially, and so on?

Marc: You sustain the effort in a couple of ways, one of which is by rationing people’s activity. It’s a delicate balance. You want to give people enough to do that they feel that they are contributing, but on the other hand, you have to avoid giving them such a heavy load that they fear it is going to dominate their lives. That’s one of the reasons why the existence of the organization is so crucial. That is one of the justifications for the existence of people like me and the folks on my staff, since we can provide a structure that can give our people a presence at the meetings, day after day after day, on a level that individual members cannot hope to sustain. We can’t ask our people to go down to the state capital for three days a week for the entire legislative session. That’s hopeless. Yet in order to maintain our visibility, we have to have some kind of presence there, so you get this professional staff, at least the central leadership, to maintain that ongoing presence. And then you have to find a couple of focus points. You say we are going to turn our people out on these particular occasions. We are not even going to try to turn them out on all the other occasions. We are going to focus in on those, and ration that activity that way.

Another thing that you have to do is to provide some variety for the people. You can’t keep them on precisely the same issue forever. One of the reasons that single issue organizations tend to have extremely limited lifetimes is because they are drawing on the same block of people on the same issue, and it begins to wear thin after a while. The organizations that last the longest are the organizations that work on a broad pattern of issues. People can move from one thing to another, and you can provide for a variety of tastes, and not keep calling on the same people. When this month’s issue is toxic wastes you are calling on a different group of people than you did last month when the issue was energy.

In the longer run, I think the challenge is to institutionalize the citizens’ interests. As you implied in your question, the advantage that governmental bodies, and businesses, and organizations like that have is precisely because they are institutionalized, they are built into the structure of things. Their funding is built into the structure of things. They have a virtually automatic way of getting money. In the case of governmental entities, they have the legal right to demand that people give it to them. In the case of businesses, many of them are selling products that people regard as necessities of life, so that the cash is almost guaranteed. To the extent that citizens’ organizations, the groups of individuals working for change, can approximate that institutionalization, they are going to be a lot better off.

The most interesting example I know of recently is down south of us in Oregon. In the last election, a ballot initiative to establish a citizens’ utility board, intended to represent consumers in proceedings before utility regulatory bodies, was passed. What is novel about this case is not the board itself, but that the initiative provided that they have the right to insert into utility bills their fliers, their membership mailings, their informational mailers. By that sort of approach, you begin to build yourself into the structure. You give yourself the right to reach out to people. You begin to give yourself the automatic right to reach out for money to support the organization. If you can begin to win that sort of institutionalized representation and the wherewithal to make it effective, then you can begin to make sure that your impact is going to survive over a long time.

David: You have just described a fairly high level of institutionalization. Thinking about an intermediate step, though, wouldn’t you say that the idea of a coalition of organizations is certainly more institutionalized than a group that depends on raising funds from individual members? Is that true?

Marc: In some ways. But in some ways I have come to believe that a coalition is an inherently more unstable structure than an individual-based organization, because the coalition is bound to be secondary in the interests of its constituent members. If you have an organization that is based on individuals, it may well be that you can pull together a group of individuals for whom your issue, your concern, is absolutely central to their existence. Many of the members of environmental organizations, for example, are wholeheartedly dedicated to the agenda of their organization. It is one of the central things in their lives. What you find with a coalition is that that is not true. If the issue were so absolutely central to the member organizations, they would be working on it themselves.

David: Your coalition has opened itself up to individual members. Wasn’t that one of your actions as the executive director?

Marc: It was, and part of the reason is just that sort of conflict between the organizational members and the coalition, and, more specifically, the competition for activists. The life blood of an organization is people who will do work. That is true of each of our member organizations. If they can’t get their people to do the work on their organization’s agenda, they are going to fade away, no matter how dedicated the executive director is. I’m in the same position. I need activists, I need people to come to hearings, people to write letters, people to call their congressman. But since my tie to those individuals has historically been through other organizations, I have been, in a lot of ways, competing with my own member organizations for the interest and activity of their individual members. In order to get a core of activists who are committed to our agenda, and over whose time I am not fighting with my own member organizations, we have had to go out and recruit more individual members.

David: You spoke earlier about economics, about using economic arguments to influence our culture, and about the technical expertise that’s necessary to affect our culture. Let’s touch on the role of philosophy and values. First, are philosophy or values of any use in the lobbying or influencing that the organization attempts to do? Second, are the philosophy and values of any use in putting your own organization together and accumulating the human resources and motivating them?

Marc: The answers are yes. Philosophy and values are a lot of use to us in trying to persuade people, and trying to persuade decision-makers. But, they are not of use in the sense that we can generally effectively change people’s values by directly going in and talking about them. On the contrary, they are important in the sense that we can go out and try to find people whose philosophy and values are similar to ours and then point out how the issues that we are talking about are compatible with that. Obviously, they are even more central in recruiting members. That’s how we find members – by finding people whose values, goals and objectives are compatible with the organization’s goals.

But, more broadly, the reason that we emphasize economics is that it is easier to convince people of a case if you are arguing within the same value structure. Economic values are the most universally accepted value structure in this society. To the extent that you can make your case within that almost universally accepted value structure, it’s going to be easy. My experience is that argument and discussion don’t do much to change people’s values. It is more effective to use the back door method of convincing them within the terms of what they think of as their value structure, getting them to change the way they behave without consciously changing their values, and then once their pattern of behavior has changed, when they are doing something different from before, then they begin to evolve a new structure of values that is compatible with that new direction. Taking people head on, in an argumentative way, on their values is generally a fruitless endeavor. You do better by finding out what their values are and then seeing if you can’t make a case within the terms of those values.