Yesterday, I participated in the Autism Society’s Day on the Hill, during which advocates from all over the country met with their members of Congress to advocate for better health care and education for people with autism. We had a strong Wisconsin delegation which was able to meet with almost every member of our Congressional delegation to express our concerns about possible changes to the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, and special education. We also asked each of them to join the bi-partisan Congressional Autism Caucus, which has well over 100 members.
Since I have been doing public interest lobbying at both the federal and state level for over 30 years, the less experienced advocates on our team asked me to brief them about each member of Congress prior to each meeting. Before we met with Rep. Glenn Grothman, I told my colleagues that I had known him for many years as although this was just his second term in Congress, he had served in the state legislature for many years prior to that, and during that time, I had met with him many times. I further informed my colleagues that they should expect him to ask an outrageous question.
Sure enough, almost immediately, Rep. Grothman walked into his office where we were already sitting down with his legislative assistant, and recognized me and said:
I have to ask you a question. Do you believe that vaccines cause autism?
While I could not have predicted exactly what outrageous question Rep. Grothman would ask me, I had anticipated that he would ask an outrageous question. I could have demurred and said that this was not what we had come to talk to him about as it was not one of our issues, but my past experience with Rep. Grothman was that he would not give up until he got an answer to his question. So, I replied by saying:
No, I do not believe they cause autism.
Of course that did not satisfy Rep. Grothman, so he persisted by asking:
How do you KNOW they don’t?
So, I replied:
You asked me if I believe they cause autism. I do not BELIEVE they cause autism because science has not demonstrated that they do.
I then proceeded to put him in his place by telling him the story of my brother who died from a pertussis vaccine in 1966. We know this because science proved it and Congress passed a vaccine compensation program for such medical mistakes. I further informed him that fortunately our son was born after scientists developed a dead virus vaccine which is safe so we could give it to him. I closed with informing him that people who do not give their children vaccines are bringing back diseases into our community and they are a public health menace.
By the time I finished, Rep. Grothman recognized that he was not going to win this argument and our meeting was able to continue in the manner that we desired by discussing the issues that we came to talk about. The lesson, of course, is that well prepared advocates will not get thrown off by those in power who choose to pursue an irrelevant agenda. By speaking truth to power, I was able to provide both personal and fact based information to Rep. Grothman and steer the meeting back to what we came to talk about.
While many politicians thrive on intimidating others, it is worth remembering that they are just human beings like every one of us, and treating them as you would treat any other human being helps advocates speak to their legislative representatives as equals, instead of being intimidated by them.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.