Q&A: Veteran Senate Staffer Denzel McGuire
We caught up with senior staffer Denzel McGuire to discuss how congressional offices view meetings with government affairs pros and how you can make real impact.
Denzel McGuire served as a senior policy advisor to Republican leadership in the Senate, as well as chief of staff, legislative director and policy director to several Republican senators. She was also minority Staff Director of the Senate Budget Committee and Executive Vice President of Federal and State Government Affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).
We spoke with Denzel, who is now running her own shop at McGuire LLC, to discuss how congressional offices view meetings with advocacy groups and how organizations can make the most of these meetings. The conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.
Most meetings take place with staff. Can you give us one good insider tip for getting the staff’s attention?
Communications to state offices are unjustly underrated. In addition to the D.C. office, Senators have offices throughout the state they represent. Frankly, constituents often have more access to these state offices because they are in the neighborhood. When I was in the Senate, we had to pay more attention when our state offices were getting bombarded. In the state offices, you get that personal connection. People can walk in, and I think that makes a difference.
What is the most effective way to use constituent voices?
When I was with GMA, we were fighting on GMOs. The other side had the ability to amass many more call-ins than we could. We were farmers and business people, and it’s hard for some of these companies to organize their employees to engage on an issue. It was much easier for the other side to reach out to people and to engage them on a large scale. So we decided we’re just going to have to be smarter.
We would have a plant manager from the district call and say, ‘this is what this means for this particular plant in your district. This is what it means in terms of jobs. This is what it means in terms of whether we can expand.’ We would figure out who the senator knows. Who does the senator talk to when he goes back home? What newspapers does he read when he’s back home? What does he care about? We couldn’t defeat them in numbers but we could be smarter about getting our voice out there.
Constituents offer perspective. They give people context. As I say to anybody who is lobbying The Hill, these members of Congress have to know about every single issue. Your constituents may be upset about a particular algae that is in a lake system. Your constituents may care about labor law. Your constituents may care about what we are doing in Ukraine. I think people don’t really understand that these members of Congress have way too many issues on their plate. And so you have to be particularly smart to penetrate with a message that resonates because you know how they think. You also need an actionable item. If you just express your opinion, but you don’t express what action you want, that just goes into the ether.
Do people really come in without a solid request?
Often they think the ask is, ‘support this’ or ‘oppose this.’ But usually, you need more than that. It should be more like, ‘please oppose this provision and talk to two members about why you oppose it.’ I found it very helpful to encourage members to have conversations with each other. It requires some subtlety, because you have to know which senators spend time together and which Senators are friends.
How important is it for groups to explain their impact?
It is very important to state your presence, and where that presence is. It forces a good staffer to pay more attention to you. I think the number-one thing people can do if they are coming in for a meeting on an issue is say, ‘we have this number of employees or this much presence in your state or district, and here are three anecdotal stories about why this particular issue matters.’ The anecdotal stories are so important. That is what resonates with a member.
You need to figure out a way to talk about the issues that are anecdotal and actionable. Frankly, you want a conversation that your member of Congress could repeat if he or she was at a dinner party. They use these stories, and you may not even see them use it. They might use that story to have a conversation with their friend on the floor or to have a conversation with somebody in their district.
How do you handle meeting with the opposition?
I would show respect for the office and say, ‘I know that we may not be in initial agreement on this issue, and I respect your position and where you are. But I’d like to inform you of some additional facts or stories on why we think you should continue to think about this issue and be open to it.’ It’s about showing respect for who you’re talking to and why they have that position.
If a person is not supportive or neutral, try to understand why they have that position. It is not because they are dumb or mean. Try to think like they think, and then how you can adjust your argument or assertion in a way that would be appealing. Change your message based on your audience.
Is it different meeting with a friendly office?
If you’re truly trying to proactively get something done, then you need to push your member more. If you meet with somebody who agrees with you, ask them ‘What else do we need to do to grow support? Who have you talked to? Will you do a statement? Will you do a press release?’ Sometimes, people think that somebody supports you and that’s where it ends. To be honest, you can press a person who supports you as much, or if not more, than a person who is opposed to you—in a smart way . When you ask them to do more, also ask them how you can be more helpful to them.
How do you follow up a congressional meeting effectively?
You can ask, ‘what are you going to do with this information? Are you going to talk to the senator?’ Be very pointed. Say, ‘can we follow up with you in a week and hear if you’ve talked to your Senator?’ Put some pressure on that. And, last but not least, if it’s a friendly office, ask what you can do to be helpful.