President Barack Obama is in Israel. Our television screens are re-running Charleston Heston’s “Ten Commandments” and we are cleaning our kitchens for Seders. Soon, even Obama will celebrate Passover with Jewish members of his staff. It’s the perfect time to learn lessons from the original disability activist — Moses — on how to impact public policy.
Moses had clear goals to fight for: freedom. He organized his priorities, mustered his courage and went to the government (in his case, Pharaoh) to demand action. So how can you, without a rod and a burning bush, make a difference on the issues you care about?
1. Understand the value of the ‘first-born’
Pharaoh did not give the Israelites freedom until a plague affected Pharaoh personally. To politicians, losing an election is like losing a first-born. Thus, you need to be able to show an elected official specifically how the issue you support will help them get re-elected (or defeat them, if they oppose it). If your issue and constituency are not popular or powerful enough to cost a politician their job, you need to re-evaluate your plan and build the genuine grassroots support you need to succeed. Fully twenty percent of Americans have a disability and 51 percent of likely voters are either disabled or have a loved one with a disability.
2. Find an ‘Aaron’ to deliver your message
Moses had a disability. He did not speak well, so Aaron spoke for him. This phenomenal example of teamwork is the earliest record of both an accommodation and strategic communications. Today, polls and focus groups enable us to learn what people know about key issues, and what facts will build support from swing voters. Building your base with partisan “feel good” messages that preach to your “amen choir” may be good for fundraising in the short term. However, it will not be enough in battles where you need bipartisan support and meaningful results. You need to focus on facts and messages that resonate with the majority of voters and remember to find the right messenger to deliver what matters most.
3. Get your people to the Promised Land
“Helping kids with disabilities” has a nice ring to it. It’s sweet — but get real and get specific. Washington (just like state capitols) is a town that operates by rules and systems. Define specifically who you want to help, how you want to help them, how much it’s going to cost, how you will measure success and which special interests are going to place a black mark by every congressman who votes for or against your favorite bill. If your goal costs U.S. tax money, be sure that the Congressional Budget Office or a similar state-level body has scored it and that you can identify “offsets.” Call upon organizations and elected officials most allied with your vision for help.
4. Remember the fall of the Second Temple
Many blame the fall of the second Jewish Temple in Israel, thousands of years ago, on infighting among the Jewish people. Today’s leaders in Washington evoke that time. Moses may have been one guy with a speech impediment — but in modern times we have the ability to create our own “miracles” with coalitions. After all, almost no issue succeeds in Washington with only one backer. Broad and bipartisan coalitions can be forged around common interests. Every good issue needs a team.
5. Don’t overlook unlikely heroes
In today’s TV-centric environment, Moses, with his disability, would not be the first choice as a political leader. But again, 51 percent of likely voters either have a disability or a loved one with a disbility, and not everything in Washington happens in a soundbite. Look for good people, regardless of their race, gender or disability, with solid ideas and records. Leaders like Governor Jack Markell, Chairman of the National Governor’s Association and Senator Mark Kirk show the power of being a workhorse over a show horse.
6. Don’t let the complaining get you down
The Israelites were quite a bunch of kvetchers when they came out of Egypt. Politicians today are very much the same way. The blame game and finger pointing among elected officials goes on and on. Moses had tools in the form of water, manna and quail. Today’s citizen activists need training, empowerment and thanks so they know that they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
7. Help people do the right thing
It’s not cynical to say that Washington politicians only do what is in their own interests — it’s the truth. The American system was created to make our leaders beholden to the people. When you are on the side of good, show elected officials that being on your side can only help them. Help your elected friends achieve “the three P’s of every successful politician” — power, prestige and popularity. Help them get on TV, raise money and look like heroes in front of opinion leaders back home. Remember, the majority of likely voters have a loved one with a disability, and elected officials work for the voters.
8. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care
Most Americans can remember at least of few of the Ten Commandments, but most (including myself) would fail at reciting chapter and verse from the Bible. Don’t just flash leaders with a slew of facts and issues. If you really care, make sure it comes across loud and clear in what you say and do. Focus on the big picture. Don’t nickel and dime them with small priorities that clutter up their plates and dilute your clout.
9. It was a woman who rescued Moses from the river
There is a lot of talk about Hispanic voters and other demographic groups coming out of the last election. But women remain the ultimate swing voters. They define the outcomes of most close races. If you can’t explain how your issue will improve the lives women with disabilities or mothers, grandmothers, daughters or spouses of people with disabilities, don’t go public until you can get it right.
10. The plagues didn’t all come at once
One of the biggest mistakes leaders and organizations make is trying to do too much at once. Washington and state capitols are the ultimate towns for proving that you have to walk before you run. In an environment that hates radical change, incrementalism is the surest path to victory. That doesn’t mean you have to move slowly, it means you have to move strategically. Pick your stages and get going.
No matter if you are interested in providing more opportunities for people with disabilities to get a decent job at a fair wage, or curing Alzheimer’s, or reducing the budget deficit (and I believe that America can do all three at the same time) — don’t leave politics to a few pros. It’s our country and we need to stand up and make a positive difference. Take inspiration from Moses. Using proven techniques, we can create our own miracles in our own time.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a winning veteran of many political battles, is the Founder & President of www.LaszloStrategies.com. She has dyslexia and knows what it means to be the proud parent of a child with a disability.