He was gesturing wildly and pacing with nervous excitement as he told his captivated audience that to make a dent in the state's legislative process one must proceed with emotion rather than political savvy. Frank Pignanelli BA'81 JD'84, a state legislator from 1986 to 1996, shared his insight with a group of volunteer Alumni Advocates at a recent training session. "The Utah Legislature is not a logical body," exclaimed Pignanelli, "it is, and always has been, a body working solely from emotion." Working within that framework, Pignanelli described why, in his opinion, organized and vocal grassroots advocacy is important, and most often, successful.
Under the leadership of its Executive Director, John Ashton, the University of Utah Alumni Association added legislative advocacy to its project agenda in 1993. This was the first year of the Legislative Relations Committee (LRC) and the volunteer advocate program established as Utes for Higher Education. The committee has gone through a few transformations, but it and the ever-growing volunteer advocate program, now called Alumni Advocates, is alive and well.
In recent years, the system of higher education has met formidable challenges in Utah's yearly legislative process; few have been as drastic than those presented in the 1997 session. The intestinal fortitude of participating U leaders, students, faculty, staff, as well as the active Alumni Advocates was put to the test. Legislators proposed a $4.2 million base budget cut to Utah higher education, $4 million of which was targeted directly at Utah's research universities: the University of Utah and Utah State.
To further complicate matters, the University administration was, at that time, in a state of flux. Former president Arthur K. Smith had accepted a position at the University of Houston and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jerilyn McIntyre had stepped in as Acting President. This led to another change, a crucial one to the Alumni Association advocacy efforts. Interim President McIntyre embraced a more inclusive philosophy of advocacy. McIntyre promotes the idea of, "the University reaching out to decision-makers with many people, many voices." She supports outreach efforts by various constituents of the University, even when it means talking one-on-one with legislators.
This year, the Association expects to encounter similar challenges on the hill, but with a volunteer base of more than 80 individuals, the Alumni Advocates are prepared to make a difference. According to chair of the Legislative Relations Committee and member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors, Steve Gunn BA'69 JD'72, "We hope to provide the University with more support than ever before. Our committee members have been diligent in recruiting volunteers and in organizing a system of communication with our advocates in various legislative districts. We will be sending out a monthly newsletter to keep our advocates informed and also alerting them via fax or e-mail of priorities and crucial situations as they arise."
But how does the Association know what legislation is good or bad for the U? Different from other grassroots organizations, which usually form coalitions around a specific issue, University advocates must be more flexible. The guide for most of the lobbying action during the session is a list of legislative priorities recommended by the U's Director of Government Relations, Ray Haeckel, and selected by Ashton, Gunn, and other members of the LRC for their importance to Utah alumni, students, faculty, and staff. Advocates and staff must be ready to switch gears and provide support and information on issues that advance from committee to the House and Senate(much as the proposed budget cuts did in '97. In her address to advocates last October, McIntyre affirmed the possibility of such a scenario, "When the orderly process [of the Legislature] goes chaotic, that is when alumni advocates become important," she said. "Sometimes issues cannot be anticipated and then we can use all the help we can get."
McIntyre joined Pignanelli and Haeckel in a legislative relations training session for Alumni Advocates. Pignanelli is a member of the Alumni Board of Directors, and a partner in the government relations firm of Foxley, Pignanelli, Lyons, and Jones.
As the training session began to wind down, advocates seemed a little overwhelmed with information about capital facilities, non-personnel budgets, and the issues surrounding enrollment-based funding. What they needed was a little grassroots gusto. That's where Pignanelli stepped in, wowing the audience with tales of successful grassroots efforts by conservative groups, public education, and even grade-school children who opposed a longer school year.
"Grassroots [advocacy] is absolutely necessary in getting anything done in politics," Pignanelli said. "No politician wants to get nasty letters or calls from their constituents(they can't stand to know that there may be one single body out there that doesn't like them or what they're doing. And four or five calls from constituents can represent a landslide," He added.
He illustrated the point by describing the advocacy efforts of public education and why the U needs to work more on a grassroots level. "Public education has been tremendously successful at the legislature," said Pignanelli, "but they have many more teachers, the UEA, and the PTA working for its well-being . . . these are built in support groups that the University of Utah doesn't have.
"Support groups have to be created, and having alumni advocates is a good place to start. If [alumni] care, then we must do the outreach, we are the PTA of the University of Utah."
Even skeptical advocates departed feeling optimistic, motivated, and believing they could make a difference. Look out Legislature, here they come.
Micquelle Corry BA'87
Copyright 1998 by The University of Utah Alumni Association