Yet again, the brisk February weather in D.C. required my overcoat. While riding in the taxi to the Dirksen Senate offices, the sun illuminated the landscape to make beauty of the barren winter scenes, and heated my stay in the cabin. With hopes of a successful visit, I recalled the advice of the NCHER round table the previous afternoon. “This is a relationship business,” said one. Another said, “Focus on committee staff because members look to staff for direction.” One panelist even said of his prior staffing experience, “Members voted on my recommendation 90% of the time.” Another point stressed was, “Time is limited; expect up to only 15 minutes. If you speak about more than small-talk, then you have accomplished more than 70% of visits.” Lastly, always send follow-up emails and thank you letters. This helps to cultivate personal relationships and ensures your email address is recognized in their inbox.
My anxiety was still high, but some sense of preparation helped temper it. Knowing my role for the day was to follow Ron Gambill’s lead and add supporting statements to the predetermined points - this most effectively kept my anxiety manageable. Ron Gambill, CEO and Chairman of Edsouth, wields over forty years of industry experience and frequently sojourns to the Capital. By far, Ron is the best person I know that could teach me how to have a successful Capitol visit.
Eventually the taxi came to a stop and the driver asked, "Is this good?" Not knowing where I was, and hoping to conceal my ignorance, I responded with a confident "This is great." Stepping out among the iconic buildings, I comforted myself with a glance at my watch to confirm I had plenty of time to navigate. Within ten minutes, I located my desired location and made time to take some photos of the Supreme Court and the Capitol Building.
Surprisingly, entering the building where the Senators work only required walking through a metal scanner. No reservations necessary. The halls are adorned with marble floors, marble walls, and solid wood doors. Although the architecture appears older, the magnificence was stunning. The halls were never empty. Everyone dressed well. I even took a mental note that I need to purchase a nice pair of brown dress shoes with a matching belt. Judging by quantity, clearly brown is the new black. Media people randomly jogged after folks or to the next location. Most surprisingly, numerous younger people walk the halls as employees. Not sure if this should be tempered by my personal phenomena of aging, of which I'm still fairly new to in my thirties, but so many appeared in their twenties.
Our meeting with Senator Alexander (R-Tenn.) was scheduled to begin within 15 minutes after our visit with Senator Corker’s (R-Tenn.) staff. Fortunately, both Senators' offices are located in the same building on the same floor. As we walked towards the entry, multiple hallway doors were marked, "Do not enter. Access at 455." Ron shared that all of the rooms on this side of the hall were joined as part of Alexander's office. Since Alexander is a long-time politician with considerable tenure and influence, ample space for him and his team is provided.
Upon entering the office, I consciously followed Ron's lead. We were greeted warmly by three young men. After some small-talk about the weather, Ron and I sat to wait around a small four-top table. Scanning the room, the decorations were impressive. Multiple Tennessee artifacts hung off of aged wood planks, and on the far wall hung a painting of Alex Haley, the author of Roots.
Within a couple minutes of entering the entry office, the door to the conference room opened and we were greeted by Robert "Bob" Moran. Bob serves as Deputy Education Policy Director to Senator Alexander. His enthusiasm to meet Ron seemed much more genuine than by those in Corker's office. I thought these two must truly share a friendship. It didn't take long to confirm my suspicions. I later learned of their long-standing friendship. After sitting at the conference table, Ron introduced our points of concern. Bob lit up with interest. His enthusiasm for the topic brought him forward in his seat and his elbows to the table.
Our first points of concern were summarized as "Simplifying and Improving Federal Student Aid." Currently, Senator Alexander has invested plenty of time on this subject as he aspires to rewrite the HEA instead of amending it. Bob reminded us of the FAST Act that focuses on simplifying the FAFSA and wanted us to specifically address these types of concerns. We shied away from expressing a desired specific number of questions; instead, we confirmed our shared concern to simplify the FAFSA.
All of a sudden, Senator Alexander entered the room and shook our hands. He apologized that he was late and that he would have to leave quickly in order to attend an education hearing on K-12 (also known as No Child Left Behind) as Chairperson for the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. As we were warned at the conference, K-12 reform currently claims the spotlight as members work to create bills to submit by the end of March. Once again, Ron's presence was warmly welcomed. The Senator addressed Ron as a friend and thanked him for his on-going work for students and parents. The Senator sat and briefly affirmed our main points and shared our concerns for education reauthorization. Then, as abruptly as he entered, he said farewell and shook our hands before quickly departing.
As Bob, Ron, and I sat back down, we transitioned to our second points, "Promoting College Affordability and Limiting Over-Borrowing." Bob then jumped in with a series of unexpected comments and questions. I struggled to follow one of his questions as he inquired my opinion on a potential policy. I fought to hold back timidity in my voice and strived to speak with confidence. As a safe surrender, I offered to research the issue more, making a note for myself.
While we spoke with Bob, I was overly impressed with his knowledge of the education industry. At one point, I expressed my enthusiasm to have him working with the Senator during this critical time of reauthorization. Spurred by my compliment, he shared a summary of his congressional experience dating back to his days as a staffer for a Congressman from Pennsylvania. He probably saw my eyes light up after that. After some inquiry, we determined that his jurisdiction actually extended to my hometown of Meadville. Absolutely crazy! Growing up in Pennsylvania, I knew most people either passionately follow the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Philadelphia Eagles. Once he confirmed his loyalty to the city of brotherly love, I knew we could become good friends although our favorite teams are rivals. Although minor, our shared roots provided a sincere relationship-building springboard.
At some point as we were wrapping up our final points, I watched Bob display nonverbal cues in hopes of wrapping up the meeting. He began scanning his watch and reassembling his papers. How could we blame him? Our time with him was approaching an hour. Already we had exceeded the 15 minute time expectation. We also successfully covered all main points and most supporting points to prevent falling prey to the small-talk trap. Ron's presence, coupled with years of relationship building, clearly put us ahead of the average lobbyist. Bob led us to the door and thanked us for the visit. We both thanked him for his time and offered to assist in any way if needed. While walking out of the room, we shook hands with Bob and exited to the waiting room filled with more people waiting for their turn to visit.
All in all, Ron and I visited two Senators and three Representatives over two days. At each visit, Ron was warmly greeted, and similar cordial greetings were extended to me. Witnessing the impact of Ron’s relationships confirmed the importance of the relationship-building advice delivered at the conference the day before. His diligent work over the years to cultivate personal relationships with staff and members illustrated how successful visits can become. In hopes to start building my own relationships, I sent personalized emails to all staff members we met each evening.
Many say education reform is considered a bipartisan issue, yet we still addressed opposing concerns with staff at a couple offices. I welcomed their apprehensions. It showed their concern for the topic and provided an opportunity for us to work together on a shared solution. Another aspect to consider is that Republicans currently maintain the majority in the Senate for the first time since 2007. During a subsequent panel discussion at the NCHER conference, Senator Murray’s (D-Wash., Ranking Member on HELP Committee) staff representative expressed that reauthorization could take “multiple years due to the complexity of the issue.” Ron suggested, “Democrats may desire to slow the process in hopes of regaining the majority in the next election.”
Looking back, I felt a new appreciation for the political process as I walked beside Ron down the marble halls towards the exit. Thankfully my industry is education - one of noble pursuits and collective concern. I might not have gained the same enthusiasm after our member visits if we had lobbied for something less bipartisan. Although the political process seems "slow," now I believe that my expectations were not properly calibrated. Progress is happening. These issues involve lots and lots of people. It's hard enough to get eight people in a boardroom to agree on contentious issues; no wonder it's exponentially more difficult within the Capitol building. More work needs to be done, and I’m ready to join others in the cause. We all can make a positive difference. I look forward to my next visit to the Capitol.
Proud TN SASFAA member
TASFAA Executive Committee member
Proud TN SASFAA member
TASFAA Executive Committee member