Mandan News

Dan Ulmer: The inner secrets to lobbying


I’m not sure about you but it’s sure been a crazy week for me. The legislature’s in and I had to actually work all week… ‘n’ boy am I tired.

Last Friday, (for those of you checking your watches that’s actually two Friday’s from today’s publication) disabled from a severe case of consumption, I got home at 6 p.m., went to bed and got up Saturday at 8 p.m. In one sense it was another one of those divine intervention things where the universe said, “Hey stupid! Lie down and rest before you climb into the blender of another biennial legislative session.” The angels around me were right so I passed out…

Both my loyal readers might attest that I have not missed more than two days of any legislative session since 1983, and this is my 30th year, or 15th legislative session (you can look it up if you want to).

It seems to me that I really didn’t awaken until Tuesday when I had to get up and put on a suit and tie. For you first timers I’m a lobbyist in a state that has legislative sessions every other year… and I’m required to wear a suit and tie every day from January thru April. So once the session ends I gladly hang my suits in the closet for a year and a half when the next legislative session begins. During that time the shoulders on my suits attract a fair amount of dust…. so every other Christmas vacation I have to take out my suits, dust off the shoulders, and while making sure I can button all of the pants, I try to find that one pair of pants with the blown out rear end.

I need to tell you here that both of my loyal readers know that I have no sense of fashion. So, for the record, if it doesn’t seem too wrinkled and smell too bad I’m quite likely to just put it on and head out.

Anyway, I get up at 6 a.m., pick up a banana, orange and apple at Central Market, a latte at Cappuccino on Collins, and head toward the capitol. Now lobbyists really don’t suffer from excellent reputations… and I get all that. But very few folks understand what we actually do. Although this may sound rather sinister, the best description I’ve ever heard is that a lobbyist is a creative lurker, and our most valuable tools are our two ears.

When I began my career in the legislative arena my dad said, “Danny, you have two ears and one mouth, can you guess which of those two gifts God wants you to use more often?” My dad was a genius.

Listening is the only skill that allows one to critically think. Talking is nice but most of us aren’t too hot at thinking and talking at the same time. Of course there are always exceptions; in particular, them folks who like to hear themselves talk, but as you know, talkers don’t make very good listeners… but listeners seem to make good talkers, especially them listeners that take the time to hear all sides before they talk about what they heard.

There is something to the old saying, “It’s better to remain silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

So we lobbyists actually do more listening than talking, as there’s 141 legislators in Bismarck sharing their thoughts and questions whilst wondering how to vote on any of the thousands of issues they have to vote on. Our job is to answer their questions, to share what we know, and to do that we lurk around the session with our ears wide open so we can hear them when they call.

In North Dakota we lobbyists are not influence peddlers; rather, we’re information carriers. Each of us represents a given self-interest of our sponsors (in my case a health insurance company), as such I’m perceived as an expert in this arena because if I can’t answer a given member’s question about health insurance I have access to someone who can… thus we also consider ourselves educators, and good educators take the time to make sure that their students know all sides of any given issue… and most of the lobbyists I know make sure that members know both the pros and cons of any given issue especially their own issues.

Oft times the truth is filled with shades of gray… black and white issues are rare. We elect legislators to sort and balance those shades and that only works if members have all sides’ facts on the table.

So remember, when you’re working with others you won’t really get much done unless you at least take the time to understand what those around you are talking about…

Here’s hoping you hear something worth listening to.