Politicians live in a world of competing interests from thousands of different constituents. Effective activists – from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Gay Marriage advocates – know that to rise to the top and be taken seriously, they must build political relationships and capital, and maintain credibility.  They also know the opposition, including some politicians, will find any excuse they can to dismiss you:

  • “She’s crazy”
  • “He’s a hypocrite”
  • “They’re out of touch/don’t speak for majority”

Here’s how you can protect yourself from being dismissed and make sure you’re taken seriously.


First, Political Capital:

  • It’s the number of times someone can go to the well with someone else. Washington or any other political center of power is based on relationships. Different people have power over different things and they have to bargain with someone else who has more power than them. In order to be successful, one generally needs to give something in exchange, if not immediately, then down the road.
  • Everyone has it and it’s in limited supply – Just as your elected official only has so much capital with the speaker or chairman of a committee, you have political capital as a constituent.
  • It’s transactional
    • Your capital goes up when you help them
    • Your capital goes down when it’s one-sided

Next, the two critical factors in being a successful activist (and a politician, incidentally) are credibility and relationships. Without either, you risk being labeled a “wacktavist” and getting nowhere fast.

Credibility means:

  • Appearance –  Dress like you’re going to a job interview. Politics is serious business and when you dress seriously, you are taken seriously.
  • Being cool, calm, and collected – Yelling, threatening, or otherwise coming across as unhinged will land you in the “wacktavist” file faster than you can call Nurse Ratchet.
  • Having reasonable, thoughtful requests – If every time you call the office, the (different) issue is life or death, you won’t be taken seriously. Similarly, should you have a wish list a mile long, politicos will assume you don’t understand that they have political capital and boom – you lose credibility.
  • Avoiding social media rants or fights – Don’t be a jerk. Just don’t. Anytime you character assassinate either in real life or behind a computer you show you’re unpredictable and politicians will (rightfully) want to steer clear of you. Think about it – if you maligned someone else’s character, what’s to stop you from going after them if they aren’t successful?

Relationships with politicians:

  • Long-lasting – If you think you’ll need this politician again sometime in the next 4-8 years, look at the relationship in 4 year increments. Avoid burning bridges!
  • Mutual respect – Politicians will respect your opinions if you respect where they are coming from; remember, everyone else who is coming to them is equally convinced they are 100% right and their issue should be #1.
  • If you want their support, support them back!
    • Give them props –You’d be surprised how far a thank you call/letter/email/tweet/letter to the editor goes, especially when you show others they did a good job.
    • Bring others to the table – You – and the politician advocating for you – will have far more credibility if it’s more than one person saying “we need a new community center”. Get 20-30 fellow residents to chime in.
    • Donate/Volunteer on their campaign – Just like in philanthropy, donate time, treasure, or talent. While not a necessity, it will increase your political capital.

Bottom line? Be the person your mother raised you to be: kind, courteous, and helpful.

Next time, we’ll focus on the keys to a successful ask.


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Shawn Dahlstrom · January 17, 2017 at 4:51 am

Stephanie, your article applies to a broad spectrum of interests including building support for one’s organization, mine being an art museum.

    Bridgette · January 22, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Great, concise and words to live by.
    Thank you!

      stefaniecoxe · January 22, 2017 at 10:42 am

      Thank you!

5 Steps to Speaking at Public Hearings or Town Meeting - Nexus Werx LLC · January 19, 2018 at 3:05 pm

[…] be combative or overly emotional. Your credibility as a community member depends upon your ability to keep calm and […]

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