ICFM Magazine, August-September 2004
In politics, money talks, right? If you can't afford to write big checks at election time, you can forget about getting legislators to take your calls and listen to your views, right? Not at all, says cemeterian and political activist Paul Elvig. Your time, wisely invested, can reap big political dividends.
(Editor's note: This article is excerpted from Paul Elvig's talk during the Legal & Legislative program at the ICFA 2004 Convention & Exposition in Nashville.)
The chad has been left hanging. I know it's a play on words, but look at what's been happening in our profession: the Dodd bill, the attacks on preneed, the attacks on our profession. And we haven't seen anything yet. We are moving into a decade of activism where we are going to see some things that are going to rock you in your shoes.
Let me give you a possible press conference of the future, staffing some senator or other legislator saying, "The time has come for a bill in this country that will require every cemetery in America to advise the families of veterans, those veterans who have given so much, that they have the right to go to a national cemetery at no cost. It's only fair that we ask the cemeteries of America to be up front with those families and inform them of their options." I can hear that press conference.
What about care funds? ''There are hundreds of millions of dollars in care funds at America's cemeteries, and those funds are a national trust. What right do cemeteries have to control these funds? They are a national trust, and we need to have national oversight of endowment care funds." We'll be hearing some variation of this press conference in the next decade.
How about price controls, something our Canadian friends know about? "In this time of inflation, I am proud to introduce a bill that is going to protect our elderly. After being devastated by medical expenses, by the time they arrive at the funeral home or the cemetery they are broke. We have got to control those prices. What right does that funeral director, that cemeterian, have to make a profit off of the dead? Why should they make a profit on your grief?"
Death, Taxes and Politics
As sure as death and taxes, these kinds of battles are coming, and I can hear what's going to come after those press conferences, too. I can hear ICFA Legal & Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Irwin Shipper pleading with funeral directors and cemeterians to contact their congressmen and congresswomen.
You do know who your congressional representative is, don't you? If you think, "Oh, yeah, I wrote him a $100 check at the Lincoln Day/Jefferson Day dinner," that's not enough. Do you know who he—or she—is? Do you know his wife's name (or her husband's name)? Do you know what their interests are? When you walk up to them, can they call you by your first name? Can you pick up the phone and call your congressional representative and talk to him or her? How about your state legislator? Oh, you might think you can, but can you?
Do you know your legislator? I dare say you don't, but I'm going to tell you how to remedy the situation.
There are several ways to get to know someone running for political office. If you have run for office, as I have, you know that a candidate has some awesome fears. If you think making cold calls for preneed sales is scary, try looking a stranger in the face and saying, "I want your vote." That's scary.
This presents you several ways to get to know that candidate very well, either through the political organization or directly. The direct way is probably the better one right now, since we're in an election season.
Maybe there's somebody running for office you kind of know, through church or a civic organization, or someone you'd like to support because of what they stand for. Call and ask how you can help with the campaign. The candidate might say, "Sure, could you put up a sign in your yard?" But you want to do more than that.
• Volunteer to go door-to-door with the candidate. Anyone involved with political campaigns will tell you successful legislative campaigns involve the candidate getting out and ringing doorbells, and that scares the hell out of them. When I was a party chairman at the county level. I would teach them how to go door-to-door and then push them out of the car to do it.
You only have to go door-to-door with a candidate once or twice, putting in two or three hours, to start to build a relationship that candidate is going to remember. You'll be hearing the dogs barking after you've rung the bell, standing there together as the half-dressed guy with the beer belly answers the door. you'll find yourself listening to people's stories.
• Offer to go sign-waving with the candidate. Candidates find this mortifying, especially if they have to go out and do it alone. But if you go out to that intersection with them and help them navigate the traffic and wave to people with them, you'll start to bond with that person like you never bonded with anyone before. If you really want to go for it, pick a rainy day to help out. Standing in the rain with a candidate, waving signs, is the best way you'll ever find to bond with someone in politics.
Someday, something's going to come up in Congress and you'll be able to say, "You know what, I know Congresswoman so and so, I stood out in the rain with her one time, waving signs, and some of the drivers were flipping her off, and I kept telling her not to let it bother her, and she talked to me about what it felt like to be flipped off in a rain storm." And you'll call her, and the first thing she'll think about is that afternoon in the rain and how you supported her.
• Volunteer to critique the candidate. I did this once for some candidates even though I thought it would annoy them, but just sitting in the back doing a Toastmasters' style critique turned out to be a gold mine. At one meeting where I watched the candidate interacting with voters, she made a beeline for me afterward-she couldn't wait to find out how she did. I talked about the color of the clothes she was wearing, the nervousness and fidgeting I saw as she talked to people and about the content of her presentation, and finished by promising not to repeat any of it to anyone else. It was a great way to develop a political friendship. An interesting possible side effect of doing a critique is that in the future, the candidate may ask you to represent her (or him) when there's a scheduling conflict.
In each of these examples, you're spending time with the candidate, you're learning about his or her family, background, dreams and fears. And while you're doing it, you never talk about your business; you talk about their business, about running for office. Of course, they'll know you're a funeral director or a cemeterian, but while you're out there waving signs is not the time to say, "But the way, we've got this bill coming up in the legislature...." No, no no!
After you've helped out with bell-ringing, or sign-waving or critiquing, you ask the candidate if she's going to have a victory party. Of course she's going to have a victory party, and you'll be there! And maybe the cameras will get a shot of the new state representative greeting you.
The Organizational Route
I know some people are turned off by political parties, and if you're one of them, I'm not going to suggest you get immersed in something you hate. But if you enjoy people and politics, don't be afraid to become active and volunteer for leadership in the political party of your choice. I've survived it twice, and I made a lot of friends and made them quickly.
Volunteer to be a district chair, to chair the arrangements for a county convention, to drive a congressional candidate from point A to point B. Volunteer in a political organization and before long you'll find yourself being introduced to a lot of people who will be candidates and lawmakers in the future. You'll get to know the movers and shakers.
My boss, Dave Daly, CEO of Evergreen-Washelli, sees the value in community involvement, and here's a specific example of the benefit of getting involved in politics. Some time ago, there was a bill sponsored by the governor's office and supported by the licensing agency, but opposed by cemeterians and funeral directors, moving through the legislature.
One of the committee chairs was someone I had gone "doorbelling" with, so I called him. After the "Hi, Paul, how's everything at the graveyard, ha, ha, ha"—you know we always have to be prepared to laugh at that "funeral humor"—I brought up the bill. He said he thought the industry was for it, but I told him no, we were against it, and that was the end of it; it never came to a vote.
If you've got a personal relationship with a congressman whose committee is going to hold hearings you're concerned about, you can call and find out who's on the witness list, and if the list is top-heavy with anti-business people suggest it be broadened.
This behind-the-scenes access is something you can't have unless you've been out there ringing those doorbells or waving those signs or otherwise getting to know that legislator personally.
If you've gone about getting to know legislators personally by volunteering in a political organization, it can give you broader access than if you've just helped one candidate. I've had funeral and cemetery professionals question this route, saying won't chairing a political party—which is what I've done—be bad for business?
The answer is "no." First of all, you don't have to jump up and down and yell, "I'm Republican Party chairman!" or "I'm Democratic Party chairman!" You can stay below the radar. Or, if you live in a community that's, say, 70 percent Democratic, maybe you want to let people know you're Democratic Party chair. Use your head.
I remember that when I was Republican Party chair in my 30s, the man who owned the funeral home and cemetery I worked for was worried I'd drive away the Democrats. But when the Democratic chairman died, his family called me to make the arrangements. People who find that strange don't realize that activists of every party have "been there" together and also bonded.
And again, being involved at the organizational level means you'll be meeting a lot of the candidates of the future.
For a while, we had a member of Congress I knew very well—in fact, I knew the entire family so well I can say I once slept on the couch in their front room. If there was something in Congress possibly affecting the funeral and cemetery profession, I could just pick up the phone and call. Since that representative is not running for reelection this year, what happens now? Have I lost my direct contact in Congress?
Well, the people in the race to fill the seat are all people I've met through being politically active, so I'm going to know the next congressman/woman. Not as well as I know the incumbent, but the door is at least open because of my political activism.
If you are politically active, you are going to know the people who, down the road, will be making decisions affecting your business.