The idea of lobbying legislators has developed a negative connotation. That is because “We, The People” have become distant and disengaged from the process, leaving the process to describe big-biz types with enough money to sway candidates. However, real, normal people can lobby their legislators on behalf of issues they feel strongly about—it’s not a sacred domain. This weighs heavily on my mind because I just returned from “Film Day” at the NC general assembly in Raleigh.
It is not the first time I’ve gone to Raleigh as a lobbyist: I went several years ago when I served on the Library Advisory Board. A group of us went for Library Day during the annual budget debates. But lobbying for libraries and for film incentives are very different experiences. With the library there wasn’t a specific bill or fear; just a request to not cut the budget. We met only with our direct representatives and senator. All of them were sympathetic to our message. (How hard is it to love libraries?) When gaining support here in Wilmington, it was a win-win to support libraries. It would make way more waves to cut the library budget than to leave it be.
Film, on the other hand, appears to be a different animal all together. “You shouldn’t even have to do that!” a friend responded when I got back. “It should be so obvious!”
I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Let me tell you a little about my day at the general assembly and how I got there:
Shortly after the May 4th rally, I was contacted about joining the group heading to Raleigh on June 4th. On May 20th Rep. Susi Hamilton introduced a bill to eliminate the sunset on the film incentives. To explain: The sunset is the expiration of the current film incentives, which will occur in 2015 if we don’t take action to prevent it. In the meantime, Gov. Pat McCrory proposed a change in the current film incentive program he claims would produce long-term investment through projects like episodic television shows.
On Film Day, we met at the Museum of Natural History across the street from the general assembly. The group to lobby for coal-ash clean up met in another room in the same building. Everyone signed in, got a floor plan for the legislature, “FILM=JOBS” stickers, brochures, and mosied over to Susi Hamilton’s press conference. Flanked by Rep. Iler (R- Brunswick), Reps. Alexander and Moore (both Democrats from Mecklenburg), Rep. Jeter (R-Mecklendburg), Rep. Hanes (D- Forsyth) the mayor of Winston-Salem, and our Mayor Saffo, Hamilton laid out the case for preserving film incentives. Then, the fun began.
I journeyed to Raleigh that morning with Randy Larson who owns local antique shop The Eclectic Etc. (831 S. Kerr Ave). We stuck together and set out to meet with members of the general assembly. Aside from Rick Catlin, our legislative team at the general assembly supports continuing film incentives. So we headed off to talk with other members to try to gauge responses. The NC Production Alliance had bound copies of the Handfield Report—the one that Rick Catlin hates—and included a one-page exploration of naysayer responses to the report complete with rebuttals. It was nicely done. Each of the 170 members of the general assembly received hand-delivered copies.
Our first stop was with Rep. Waddell from Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties. When we were ushered into Rep. Waddell’s office he put a hand out and said he was already on board. We thanked him for his vote, and left the spiral bound book on his desk.
In the house, we visited the offices of Warren (R-Rowan), Wells (R-Catawba), Whitmire (R-Henderson, Polk, Transylvania), Wilkins (D-Granville, Person), and Turner (R-Iredell). It generally goes like this: We locate their office, knock on the door, greet the staff member in the front office, ask politely if the representative is available, and attempt to read the verbal and non-verbal cues. If prepared to wait, we can usually get a chance to plead a case. In some instances, all the waiting in the world will do no good, wherein we then leave our materials with the staff and give a short explanation of the issue’s importance.
In our case, Randy and I both talked about how neither of us work in the film industry but are both very dependent upon it for the survival of our businesses. You see? You could go lobby for an issue that’s meaningful to you; it’s just a matter of people talking to people.
After we finished our rounds, we checked in with our group stationed in one of the lobbies. We reported who we had spoken with and what the responses we had gotten, so follow-up work could be done in the coming days.
Randy really wanted to drop in on Rick Catlin’s office. Unfortunately, we encountered some other Wilmington film lobbyists who explained the hall to his office was blocked by people waiting to do the same.
There are several elements that blended our effectiveness: It was well-organized, professional and fairly polite. It also had a strong turnout across the board from people impacted by the industry. The Screen Gems people turned out, as did some of the higher-ups from Disney/ABC to discuss the long-term planning needs that a TV series has and why this climate of uncertainty is disastrous. As well, technicians, actors and background people came. Other proprietors like us were there, tooo. Current politicians came: Mayor Bill Saffo and County Commissioner Beth Dawson. Political hopefuls—such as Rick Catlin’s opponent, Betsy Jordan—showed their support. From the young and the old, to men and women, all walks of life were represented. Lobbying events like this are about putting a face with the legislation and showing the debate is not about something abstract. It reminds politicians how their decisions impact the people they’re supposed to represent.
As a part of the private sector, I not only benefit from the film industry but help build it, too. When Randy and I visited offices, several of the staffers commented how hard Susi Hamilton is fighting for the cause. I am glad to know she is getting the message out there, and she certainly is a lioness who’s unwilling to back down. But my response, while standing in those small outer offices: “Yes, we are so grateful for Susi, but she is only one vote. We need more than that.”
The ripple effect of film money is just so real for those of us who see it everyday. On the ride home, Randy and I both checked in with our stores. When we hung up, he smiled and said that while we were in Raleigh a film crew dropped by his store and bought an abundance of merchandise.
I hope more of “We, The People” will become active in talking with our legislators. If we want them to listen to us instead of big-money lobbyists, we must take the time to talk with them instead of sulking in the corner because we didn’t get invited to the party.