5. Advocacy

Sarah Tober
5 min readMay 6, 2022

The fine balancing act of mission driven lobbying

Pink dome as seen from the Capitol Extension during Texas Legislative 84th Regular Session. April 2015
Pink dome as seen from the Capitol Extension during Texas Legislative 84th Regular Session. April 2015

You don’t have to be a registered lobbyist to impact public policy making at the city, county, state, or national level. I have never been a registered lobbyist. Never given big checks to political leaders or led PACs (Political Action Committee). Never taken a policy maker out to lunch or brought food to their staff. Never taken a politician on vacation or given them big gifts.

Yet, as a community advocate, I have helped eliminate the rape kit backlog in Travis County, eliminate the previous pay ask at the City of Austin (an HR process known to contribute to the gender pay gap), lowered the statewide franchise tax for small business owners, and in the last Texas Legislative Session passed SB 941 (establishing a Statewide Scenic Byways program to be a part of the National Scenic Byways program) and SB 1090 (establishing that communities can pursue an IDA designation and preserve Dark Skies).

in my role as a statewide nonprofit president, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible lobbyist team and highly recommend that kind of expertise in order to get bills passed. This husband and wife team established a company that follows their same highly-ethical approach to politics and everyone in the Capitol loves them (or should). This same lobbyist was able to provide critical insight in building a capitol coalition and identifying friends and foes of my cause within a matter of minutes. A good lobbyist knows the delicate balance of relationships and when to use them, in addition to crafting policy.

To be successful in advocacy you have to have legal expertise. Note, I didn’t say you have to be a lawyer, but you have to be able to speak parliamentarian and understand the law of the land to get by in the state and national political arenas. I have written or participated in the creation of approximately 20 Texas legislative bills, city ordinances, and county resolutions. My proudest achievement was helping a commissioner in the county I grew up in to write a resolution that recognized the importance of protecting our dark skies.

If you love the game of chess, then advocacy should pique your interest. Knowing where and when to apply pressure is the difference between failed legislation and bill passage. Here are my top three advocacy takeaways:

Closing Loop Holes
Lawyers and lobbyists are notorious for their ability to find loopholes in our country’s laws. When I was fighting billboard blight, I heard from rural residents about a cemetery that had erected billboards at the edge of it. I traveled out to that area and could not believe my eyes. Here were billboards looming over people’s loved ones final resting place. As it turned out, these sacred spaces were not protected under state or national law. However, while parks and public spaces are protected from billboards, cemeteries were considered private property. Therefore, I worked with the bill author of House Bill 3056 to close this loop hole and give cemeteries the same respect as our public lands receive. One of the sacrifices my team and I made to ensure that SB 941 made it through the Legislature was to not give oral testimony on HB 3056, a quid pro quo that still haunts me. Sometimes in order for one bill to keep moving forward you have to give up another or push lightly back on another piece of legislation. Sophie’s Choice happens everyday in politics.

Photo I took in Spicewood of hill country cemetery marred by billboard blight. April 2020

Opposing Bad Legislation
This is where having a lobbyist can be necessary to navigate the Legislature. Knowing when and how to kill a bill is a job best left to the experts. While I could track these bills, provide written and verbal testimony, visit with legislators and their offices, and get my membership to write their legislators… nothing compares to a lobbyist in the pit actively killing a bill before or as it is being heard on the floor. You need their connections, their prowess, their relationships, and their capabilities in that dark hour.

The Cap looms… view from a late night lawyer and lobbyist party. During session the Capitol Crowd works long hours and these social gatherings serve as a place to commiserate and bond. April 2015

Proposing New Policy
Proposing new legislation is like throwing an incredible dinner party. You have to know who all the stakeholders are and make sure they are invited to the table. You have to make sure ALL of your guests are happy (or at least happy enough to not send the food back to the kitchen). Even though you will be completely exhausted, a good dinner host must always keep cooking. I could write an entire book about what I learned in passing two bills with the Texas Legislature, but I will say, none of it would have been possible without my favorite lobbyist and his team.

My time under the pink dome was a dream come true. Politics aside, coming to the Texas Capitol as an elementary school kid, walking under the dome and in era that wasn’t so far away from Gov. Ann Richards’ reign, I felt flutters of excitement for infinite possibilities ahead of me. Being an informed citizen who fully participates in Democracy runs in my blood. My days in politics are not over and I’m finding more ways to participate in my new locale. So stay tuned! And in the meantime you can catch the Pink Granite Podcast where we talked about the anatomy of bi-partisan bills and the importance of it in today’s political climate.