• September 13, 2022

Q&A: State Legislative Expert Don Bolia

Few have seen more state legislative action than Don Bolia, a veteran of 27 legislative sessions in Georgia. We caught up with Don to talk about how to build relationships with state lawmakers.

Q&A: State Legislative Expert Don BoliaAs a former staffer to Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former executive director of the Georgia Republican Party and a lobbyist with decades of experience, Don Bolia has seen state government from every angle. He has been involved in 27 sessions of the Georgia legislature.

We spoke with Don, who now owns Peachtree Government Relations, to discuss how to build relationships with lawmakers, use grassroots tactics effectively and make the most of state-level advocacy. The conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.

You have worked at every level of government. Tell us a little bit about how state and federal differ.

From a federal standpoint, it’s almost entirely staff based. If you represent doctors, lawyers or insurance agents, you’re going to get your Hill visits in. But the true lobbying really occurs at the staff level. If you look at the Georgia General Assembly, a typical house member shares one sixth of an administrative assistant. They don’t really have robust staff, so you really have to develop a rapport and a relationship with legislators. We are their de facto staff. I represent schools, and so they come to me and ask how legislation is going to affect school districts.

If you’re an association or a nonprofit, what is the best way to go about building a relationship with lawmakers?

The ones that are effective are the ones that build relationships not between their lobbyists and their legislators but between their members and their legislators. I consider it a victory if my members have legislator cell phones programmed in their phones.

Of course, it depends on how big your organization is. But even if you’re small, everyone gets to vote. If you break down a House District in Georgia, I think they’re sitting at 60,000 or 65,000 people. In Georgia, our voter registration rates are very high. We’re at roughly 75%. And then you take 20% of that as the people who will vote in a primary. So you’re really down to primaries where you got 10,000 or 12,000 people voting. So you win by 6,000 or so votes, and maybe less. If you’ve got a member of your trade association who lives in that legislator’s district, and they’re one of 5,000 votes they need, they care about that person.

Once you build that local rapport, where you are trading cell phone numbers, when someone has an issue about your particular industry, the legislator is probably going to call you first. They’re gonna want to know how people in their district feel. And that’s really where you want the game.

Associations and nonprofits have a lot of research. Some have polling. How much does that resonate?

It is huge. I’ve never met a legislator or statewide elected official who didn’t want to look at polling information. Polls are expensive. If your trade association is willing to do a poll on a series of issues that are important to you and it’s good information, it actually does resonate.

How effective are constituent voices in the statehouse?

If I represent the Georgia Association of Journalists and there are 5,000 of us, the numbers are appealing, right? So, you’ve got to make sure your organization shows that you have statewide strength. For instance, I represent insurance agents. They don’t have a lot of money to give, but there’s a lot of them. There are 40,000 licensed insurance agents and insurance agents spend their entire lives cold calling on the phone. If I give them a list of 10 or 20 people to call, they’re gonna call.

Is getting a sit down with the governor just a pipe dream?

I think it depends on the state. For instance, if your governor is an attorney, my guess is the trial bar can get a meeting anytime they want. If the governor happens to be a farmer, I’m sure that the Ag folks have a lot of access. Georgia’s governor was a bit of a developer, so he knows a lot of those folks. But he’s very accessible. If you’ve put in your time, and you’re willing to be slotted for a 15-minute meeting in two months, and you represent a small association, I’m sure you’ll get a meeting.

If you’ve got 15 minutes, how do you make the most impact?

I think that you have to be succinct. Don’t go in there without a specific ask in mind. You ought to go in there and ask for generic things. I advise my school clients, don’t ask for more money. Everyone wants more money. But if you could fund this one little program that does this, and here are the results, and out of a $30 billion budget it’s $2 million, maybe that works.

Can you talk about the interplay between face-to-face lobbying and grassroots advocacy?

When the legislature is in session, legislators are being pulled 1,000 different ways. They’re voting, there are roughly 2,000 bills and resolutions introduced in any given session and they’ve read almost none of them. I’ve always said that grassroots are hypercritical when they’re not in session. You want to do all of that grassroots work for months and months before they go into session. Go to the district and have coffee with them. If you own a small business, have them come out to the business. All that grassroots work should be done early on.

I wouldn’t bring a group of 50 people in to talk for an hour when that legislator’s clock is ticking. Having time at the Capitol during the session is not bad, if you can make it quick and easy. But if the legislator gets stuck with that group for an hour, and people are asking all kinds of questions, they’re gonna be pretty pissed. It is better to do all that work in advance.

What else do you recommend to make an impact?

There are so many little things that you can do at the grassroots level that don’t cost you anything. You know, you can put up a yard sign that costs you absolutely nothing. You can put a bumper sticker on your car. You can show up to a campaign rally. There are so many things. Everyone thinks they relate money to politics, but the reality is that a little elbow grease is going to go a lot farther than if I wrote a check and then disappeared.