By Brian Christenberry
When I graduated from Indiana University with a political science degree, my career goals were straightforward — simple though perhaps a bit lofty. I wanted a position in state government where I could craft public policy, assist in drafting laws and just make Indiana a better place. My friends and family applauded me and thanked me for pursuing a career in “thankless” public service.
Fast forward two years to my career transition into “government affairs,” aka “lobbying.” Everyone’s reaction changed. I could hear the skepticism and, dare I say, disappointment in their voices as they paused a beat before saying “Oh…a lobbyist” or “So…what would you be doing exactly?”
To this day, it’s hard to explain what lobbyists do. In many circles, “lobbyist” is a four-letter word — with just more letters! A recent Gallup poll determined that only five percent of Americans thought lobbyists had high levels of honesty and ethical standards. As a profession, we squeaked in just below “car salesmen” and “congressmen.” No offense to car salesmen, but when both our professions are looking up to Congress at 9 percent, we have some work to do to clear our names!
So, allow me to try to debunk four major myths about lobbying and explain why what we do matters to you.
Myth 1: Lobbyists are sneaky influence peddlers who basically bribe politicians to do what they want.
Truth: This high level of confidence in my profession makes me think I might get a warmer response about my job if I said I was a rodeo clown or an artisanal pickle farmer. Those are certainly noble pursuits, but I contend lobbying is a noble pursuit as well. We fill our days educating, informing and advocating for our members’ (that would be YOUR) interests. As lobbyists for Indiana’s electric cooperatives, our focus is safe, reliable and affordable energy for all Hoosiers — and our job is to make sure our government leaders understand and support these goals.
Myth 2: The best place to find a lobbyist: the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of political big-wigs.
Truth: Actually, if you were to loosely define “lobbyist” as an informer and influencer you might find one right now in your house … in the next room, in fact. And instead of smoking a stogie — he or she is watching TV! Take it from a dad like me: Kids are among the most skilled practitioners of the lobbying trade. Whether it is another story before bed, one more snack or just one more hour of playing in the backyard before bedtime, children state their case, fight for their convictions and constantly try to sway us as parents. In most cases, they win. Lobbying, I believe, is the most natural skill set we all possess in life. Therefore — here’s a scary thought: we’re really all lobbyists! In fact, as a cooperative member, every time we talk about our cooperative’s history of bringing electricity to those in rural areas who did not have power or our co-op’s community commitment we are actually lobbying on our co-op’s behalf!
Myth 3: Big corporations hire lobbyists. The average American and the typical Hoosier have no use for lobbyists. They’re not interested in us so why should we be interested in them?
Truth: Guess what. We all have hundreds of lobbyists working for us every day behind the scenes and we don’t even realize it. Whether we are cancer survivors, AARP members, school teachers, outdoor enthusiasts, professionals, tradesmen, butchers, bakers or candlestick makers — we have people fighting for our interests at all times.
Myth 4: Lobbyists specialize in corruption with a capital “C.”
Truth: The government affairs team at Indiana Electric Cooperatives is focused on the Cooperative Community — that’s with two capital “C”s! Our key mission is to build relationships with policy makers and to keep them in contact with the people and stories of your electric cooperatives. There’s an old adage which states cooperatives “were born in politics and will die in politics.” I believe we will die if we don’t tell our story or advocate for our community. We have a great story to tell and great storytellers at all of Indiana’s electric cooperatives to tell it.
Brian Christenberry is state government relations manager at Indiana Electric Cooperatives.