Political Advocacy: Chapters Adapt Lobbying Practices to Legislative Climates

red, blue and purple hands pulling map of United States apart

By Alison Laurio

After its 2021 statewide election changed a blue Virginia in a red sweep, NASW-Virginia Executive Director Debra Riggs said the question was not only if it would change the way the chapter lobbies but how it could change their ability to lobby.

One sponsor mentioned they should tone down language in a bill, make it less aggressive, she said. The sweep could tank their entire agenda, and “it will certainly change our ability to have success with some very important issues we were moving forward with.”

As more states are considered purple, lobbying in those and states solidly red and blue could become even more complicated than in past years—as can the color labels. A map using Federal Election Commission data from the last 10 presidential elections lays out “true” blue and red states as well as pink and baby-blue states that show those “less firmly attached to one party.” Swing states are gray. (See the Resources section on page 21 for a link to the map.)

In an opinion story in “The Hill,” published Feb. 7, 2021, contributing writer Albert Hunt, former Bloomberg News executive editor, said purple states in the 2020 election—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina and Georgia—all with rather close margins, were “the purple states that placed President Biden on the top while securing a Democratic majority in the Senate.”

Expert opinions and labels can differ—and also can be confusing. But whatever label is assigned to a state, NASW chapters and social workers are lobbying and negotiating not only to pass legislation to help level the voting field, but also to advocate on behalf of those they serve.

Voting Laws Passed

A Brennan Center for Justice paper released Oct. 4 states, “In an unprecedented year so far for voting legislation, 19 states have enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote.”

It says the measures are a backlash to 2020’s highest voter turnout in more than a century “despite the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to undermine the election process with the Big Lie of a stolen election.”

The voting laws vary widely, it states, from new criminal penalties for handing out food or water to voters in line, to a ban on turning in a ballot for someone who needs assistance.

“More than 425 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions,” but “at least 25 states enacted 62 laws with provisions that expand voting access,” the paper says.

Those policy changes include making mail-in balloting easier, lengthening voting times and increasing time for receiving and counting mail-in ballots. The paper concludes with “access to the right to vote increasingly depends on the state in which a voter happens to reside.”

Common Ground

red, blue and purple hand draws with a pen

NASW’s North Carolina Chapter Director of Advocacy, Policy and Legislation Kay Castillo said for the past few years her state has become more purple. While the majority of legislators are Republicans, Gov. Roy Cooper is a Democrat, and “with him come his appointed Cabinet members,” she said.

“It’s an interesting dynamic,” said Castillo, a registered lobbyist. “We’ve been able to work with Cabinet members like health and human services. In the past few years, we’ve been able to introduce legislation about civil rights and have it signed.”

While she believes there is an impact from the national climate, “We do have the benefit of working with the national office, and we do have a few friends at the national level we’ve worked with over time.”

Castillo said in statewide work they “find out who the champions are and work with those.”

“I tell members just because they have an R behind their name doesn’t mean they will be against a position,” she said. “I tell them to go in with an open mind and you can usually try to find common ground on something.”

That led to finding support for measures on telehealth, the military and aging, where advocacy has been relatively strong, Castillo said. “That doesn’t mean we get everything we want, but we are able to find common ground on some things.”

There are two social workers in state office, one each in the House and Senate. One is a NASW member. “What I’ve learned from them is you’re not going to get wins on everything,” Castillo said.

“Having social workers in office helps—it puts perspective on things,” she said, like helping find legislators who are champions on particular topics, such as school issues, for example. Issues over the past few years include voter ID, mail-in ballots and their receipt date, and disability rights.

“The other thing we’re strong on is our coalition work,” she said. “The joint voices—we try when we can to work together.”

Blue State Success

Considered a blue state, the Massachusetts chapter’s web pages list accomplishments from its last two-year session, 2019 to 2020, on supported bills and priority bills—where “the chapter takes a leadership role in coalition and strategic meetings to get this passed.” Those include nearly a dozen bills signed into law. An Act Providing Access to Reproductive Health Services passed, one of two instances where a governor veto was overridden.

One of the budgetary measure wins was $50,000 in funding “for Therapy Matcher, NASW-Mass’s free therapy referral public service program, allowing us to bring more LICSWs into the network to meet the demand,” the site says. The current session for 2021 to 2022 includes work on measures related to criminal and economic justice, education, health, mental health, immigrant rights, and professional practice.

red hand shakes blue hand

Texas Partnering

Alison Mohr Boleware, NASW-Texas government relations director, said they are stronger when pushing for bills if they’re working in coalitions with other groups, including those in the medical and health areas.

“It’s the same with opposing bills,” she said.

“We work with our partners.” The chapter also uses votervoice, a “new action program,” that provides alerts and enables a direct connection with legislators, Boleware said.

“We had more than 2,000 messages sent during the legislative session using that program,” she said. “We really worked hard to maintain communications with legislators at the capitol, to convey to them what social work issues matter to them and to their constituents.”

That allows talking to them on a personal level rather than opposing bills publicly, Boleware said.

The state’s legislative sessions were January 12 to May 31, with three 30-day special sessions starting in July and ending in October.

“We’re doing a lot of defense work rather than offense work and having to combat a lot of hateful bills,” Boleware said. “We were not able to pass any NASW-led bills, but we were able to stop some anti-LGBTQ bills from passing, so that was a success.”

And they helped pass the Student ID Card Suicide Prevention Act that requires high schools and colleges to display suicide prevention hotline numbers on student ID cards, she said.

The chapters and its members persist despite the challenges that some legislators are reluctant to listen to other perspectives or other experts on controversial measures, Boleware said.

Some who advocate feel burned out from their efforts, and some social workers feel disappointed with a legislature that seems unwilling to pass measures that would help all Texans, she said. “I think there’s a backlash from the political direction our country is going, but we are continuing to speak truth and trying to find commonality to show our values are for all Texans.”

Relationships Essential

Collaboration is the key for NASW-Tennessee, says chapter Executive Director Karen Franklin.

The chapter in December was working on a bill to increase the number of school social workers after a school social worker brought in a Republican legislator who had held a town hall on alcohol and drug issues, she said.

The bill does not go as far as the chapter would like, but in a state where two-thirds of legislators are Republican, “we are very aware of the need to work across party lines,” Franklin said. “That’s always central when developing policy, to develop a relationship with policymakers. It’s something our profession does.”

“I think one of the things I’m more conscious of is always being in for the long haul, thinking strategically and how we as a chapter are able to maintain relationships with state legislators and what are the issues that cut across party lines.

NASW recommends a social worker-student ratio of 1 to 250, and the state currently has a ratio of one to 2,000 students, she said. “This bill supports lowering it to one to 1,500, and I call that incrementalism. But legislators are talking about the issue now, and there is increased recognition.”

Franklin said the most important policy she was involved in over the last year was on a joint task force called the “Public Behavioral Health Working Group.”

The group sent recommendations to the governor for his budget that included millions of dollars in investments in school social work, social work education programs that train people, and various community mental health agencies, Franklin said.

She also thinks it’s important for chapters to be more involved with administrative work to address the myriad efforts social workers are involved with, not just legislative work.

“What’s more important is, in the current environment we have to know who our partners are, who our support is,” Franklin said. “We are more likely to impact change when working with other groups.”

She named, for example, the Tennessee Association of School Social Workers, who “represent us, and represent social work; who are our partners. We work together on important issues because it’s critical for us to be working with other organizations that share our values.”

“I’m a native Tennessean, and you don’t do things by yourself in Tennessee, you do it with a partner. That’s part of the belief system.”

Franklin said members should get to know their state legislators “as much as possible. I think people respond more to people they know. You can utilize relationship skills and social justice skills, and I think we have to be in on the long haul and pick our priority issues.”

Franklin said a red state group recently formed, a spinoff from a racial justice group that “allows purple and red states, as we call ourselves, to talk to each other about the challenges.”

“It’s a great profession,” she said about social work. “I think policy work is challenging now, but I think it’s absolutely crucial.”

Code of Ethics

Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, a professor in the graduate program at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work in Providence, was chairman of the task force that wrote the current NASW Code of Ethics. He continues to serve on the Code of Ethics Revisions Task Force.

Also chairman of NASW’s Technology Standards Task Force, Reamer was named an NASW Social Work Pioneer® in 2016.

On advocacy, he points to Section 6 of the Code: “Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to the Broader Society,” and in particular 6.01: Social Welfare. It states, “Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.”

Note the word “advocate,” Reamer said. “I think this standard among others distinguishes social work from other professions.” It is unique in calling for the profession to be deeply concerned about the struggles in peoples’ lives, he said. And it states the profession is obligated “to engage in advocacy efforts and to pay close attention to broad public policy issues—issues that affect peoples’ lives.”

Also very important, Reamer said, is 6.02, Public Participation, which says, “Social workers should facilitate informed participation by the public in social policies and institutions.”

“That was put in in the mid-1990s to encourage social workers to be very involved in public debate on social problems,” he said.

No other helping profession includes what 6.04 calls for—“Social and Political Action,” Reamer said. “I’m very proud of that.”

In part, it says professionals should engage “to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully.”

Social workers also should be aware of the political arena’s impact on practice “and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”

“The code sends a strong message to social workers, that they should engage in social and political action to ensure all people have equal access to employment opportunities to help meet their basic human needs,” Reamer said. “This conceptual foundation should shape social work actions in policy and in advocating, and it should encourage them to engage in social and political action to ensure all people have equal access to the benefits stated in 6.04.”

He estimated 80 percent of social workers pursue clinical careers, “so relatively a small percent of the field focuses entirely on advocacy and policy issues.”

But all social workers need to know who their legislators and public officials are, Reamer said. “All of us need to connect explicitly the public issues that connect with our clients’ private troubles. That’s social work.”

The CSWE accredited social work education program guidelines encourage advocacy and policy content, and Reamer has met many social work educators who “are earnest about incorporating discussions” on the topic. He believes some basic information on advocacy is covered, perhaps more in the generalist focus than the clinical focus. He would like to see more, so students can learn how political and structural issues can be addressed. He’d also like to see organizing and other social action activities more widely covered.

That would be ideal, Reamer said, but “I recognize the ideal sometimes is hard to achieve.”


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