• September 6, 2022

Q&A: Veteran Gubernatorial Staffer Thomas Doherty

We caught up with Thomas Doherty, a former senior advisor to the governor of New York, to discuss how government affairs teams can effectively communicate with America's governors.

Thomas Doherty served as a senior staffer to New York Republican Governor George Pataki, working on gubernatorial appointments and state and local government affairs. He has also served as Assistant to the Chairman for the Westchester County Board of Legislators and as district representative for a New York congressman.

We spoke with Tom, who is now a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, about how to communicate with a governor’s office, the role of grassroots and grasstops activity, and how to make a successful case. The conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.

Governors’ offices are busy. What’s the most important thing organizations can do to advance their goals?

You need to sell them on why it’s good for them. Why is this in their best interest? I learned that very early on, because many clients walk in with the idea that ‘I don’t understand why they won’t do this—this is good.’ We understand it’s good for you if you can sell X apparatus to the State of New York or the State of Wisconsin, and your company is going to benefit. But how is the State of New York or the State of Wisconsin benefiting from this project?

What are the arguments that resonate? Are they on the political level, on the fiscal level or all the above?

All governments are feeling financial pain, so you walk in understanding that, for them to spend money, it’s got to be really worthwhile. There’s got to be a benefit to them spending money. You’re always going into it knowing they’re gonna ask, ‘how much does this cost?’

There are programs that have a clear political upside. They’re also going to be times when there is no clear political upside, and you need to make the case. You have to prove to them why your idea is better, prove to them that they’re not going to lose money, etc. So, there’s always a layered approach.

How important is it to use outside voices?

If you’re smart about doing it, the more voices of support you have, the better off you’re going to be. Years ago, I represented one of those call centers for debt collection. They had a really great facility in Western New York, where they were hiring kids out of college at $60,000 a year. So, they were really important to this community. One of the things I did when we were looking to sell some of their stuff was, I made sure I had the local legislators on board, the local town supervisor, I had the Assemblyman, I had the state senator, and I made sure they recognized what they could do. It was putting calls in and layering that approach.

The constituent stuff is also a very, very important piece of it. Are you doing mail? Are you doing phone calls? Now, you have to do social media as well.

How Important is grassroots activity?

It’s obviously very important. Anytime you lead more voices to something and show more support for something, you are more likely to get in the room and get their attention. You want to personalize things. You want to make it look like people put in a little bit of time. Many times, in the governor’s office, you’re gonna get 5,000 postcards. That doesn’t have much impact. Now, if you get 500 individual letters or if you get 500 people calling, that’s a big difference. It’s about doing it smart. It’s about building a network of people that you can rely on. You know, it’s much like a political campaign—do you have an operation to get out the vote? Well, it’s the same thing.

Is getting time with a governor unrealistic?

If you’re sitting in the governor’s office and the head of Eastman Kodak calls you, he’s getting a call back and he’s getting a meeting with the governor or his chief of staff. If you are a local business confronting a problem in Binghamton, New York, that’s probably going through the state senator.

I think it just goes to the size of the operation and who you know. It’s always how do you get the governor’s time? Everybody wants him to attend to everything. You’re being pulled all over the place. I mean, scheduling a governor is one of the toughest jobs because you’re saying no to everybody. You’re building out a schedule and you’re looking at six months.

How is that different from meeting with state legislators?

Legislators are just a lot easier, because they feel the effects. If you’re the head of the Chamber of Commerce in the city of White Plains, the chances of you getting a meeting with the assembly person, and them knowing you personally and speaking to your group twice a year, are very likely. The governor, on the other hand, can afford to put somebody off. There are 18 million people, and you’re not going to make everybody happy. But when you’re running for the assembly, you have got to keep everybody happy because the last thing you need is that organization coming out against you. That could have an effect.

It seems like a meeting with staff is pretty valuable.

Actually, that is who you want to meet with, because elected officials come and go. Knowing the lifers is important, because they’re the ones who understand. They know the numbers. They know the programs. They know what succeeded or failed in the past. So, getting in front of them and making your argument is the place you need to be.

What’s the best way to have a successful meeting with staff?

I always go into meetings recognizing that they’re doing me a big favor. Because they could be meeting with 25 other people. I never walk into a meeting thinking I’m doing them a favor. I’m always walking in knowing how busy they are and that their time is important.

The most important thing is to communicate why this is good for them. I’m selling you on legislative changes because this is good for you and ultimately good for your constituents. They are not going to do this because they know me, because they like me, or because I used to work there. They will do it because it is in their best interest. If you’ve done it for the right reasons and it’s a good program, well, then people will ultimately accept it.