How to Rock the Virtual Advocacy Meeting in 2022

Two years into the pandemic, and advocates are still primarily connecting with lawmakers in Washington over a telephone line or computer screen.  However, much has been learned over the past two years, and there are plenty of best practices that you can use to make sure your next virtual meeting with a member of Congress is knocked out of the park.

Embrace Videoconferencing

In the pandemic’s first year, conference calls seemed to be the modus operandi for advocates connecting with members of Congress and their staff.  Over the course of 2021, advocates and congressional offices alike increasingly warmed up to the idea of using videoconferencing platforms for meetings – with Zoom being an overwhelming favorite.  Here are some tips and tricks for using Zoom to your advantage.

  • For multiple meetings at the same time, use multiple accounts.  The basic Zoom plan that’s free-of-charge only allows you to schedule one meeting at the same time.  However, scheduling more than one meeting for the same time slot is easy – just use a verified email account to create a new Zoom account. This will allow advocates to run a new meeting that will run concurrent with what’s already on the calendar.  When setting up more than one meeting at the same time, it’s essential to keep in mind two things:  make sure the waiting room is NOT selected, and select the option to allow participants to join at any time.  These two steps will allow participants to meet without the host, which is the person who holds the Zoom account.   
  • Do not schedule meetings with the same Zoom account-back-to-back.  If the ability to allow participants to join early anytime is selected, a participant could join a meeting early only to find that they are inadvertently part of a meeting that’s still running.  Ensuring at least a 30-minute window between meetings on the same Zoom account will prevent any accidental overlap on meeting attendees. 
  • Double-check your links.  Scheduling multiple meetings can be tedious, so make sure all the Zoom links you created are for the intended meeting participates.  This will help avoid cases of participants entering the wrong meeting or starting the meeting at the incorrect time. 

Make Calendar Invitations Your One-Stop-Shop

When your meeting is scheduled, send an invitation via Outlook or another email service to all meeting participants.  This way, both the advocates and congressional offices know who’s attending, which 1) gives the advocates an opportunity to coordinate beforehand and 2) provides a way for advocates and congressional staff to follow-up after the meeting. 

Additionally, be sure to include other information that’s necessary to all participants to have a successful meeting:  This could include:

  • Links to Zoom, WebEx, or other videoconferencing platform.
  • Meeting materials like PowerPoint slides, one-pagers, leave-behinds, and links to relevant external sources.
  • Information about the legislator (connection to organization, past support of the advocacy issue, membership on relevant committee, etc.).

Recruit New Advocates

When setting up virtual meetings, don’t just rely on your normal “crew” that you could count on to meet legislators in-person.  Instead, look for people that may not be able to make travel arrangements to Washington but have plenty to add to the conversation.   With virtual meetings, geography and distance doesn’t pose any limitations, and advocates from anywhere can join your meeting to share a story with a congressional office.

Famous Felines in the White House

President Harry Truman famously said, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”  The 33rd president’s quote especially rings true in the White House, where 33 presidents have owned dogs as pets.  However, plenty of cats have called the White House home, and many have stories as interesting as their canine counterparts.   

Dogs versus cats in the US: By sheer numbers, cats are more popular than dogs in America.  According to a 2020 survey by the American Pet Products Association, there are 88.3 million cat’s owners compared to the 74.4 million owners who have dogs.  By volume, however, fish are the most common pets, clocking in at nearly 152 million.

So, it should not be surprising that a few felines have enjoyed their time in the White House and here are some notable examples of the 11 US presidents who have owned cats.

  • Abraham Lincoln.  When Mary Todd Lincoln was asked if her husband had a hobby, she replied, “cats.”  In addition to the two cats he kept in the White House named Tabby and Dixie, Lincoln was known to bring in strays
  • Theodore Roosevelt.  The 26th president had two six-toed cats named Slippers and Tom Quartz (the latter was named after a character in a Mark Twain book).  Slippers was known for sleeping sprawled out in the middle of hallways, causing guests of a state banquet to walk around her on one occasion.
  • Calvin Coolidge.  “Silent Cal” was an avid cat lover who purportedly saved a litter of kittens from being drowned as a young boy.  While serving as president, Coolidge had at least four cats at the White House – Tiger, Blackie, Timmy, and Smokey.  Coolidge originally brought Tiger (or “Tige” as he was nicknamed) to Washington from his farm in Vermont, and he frequently walked around the White House with Tiger draped around his neck.  After Tiger sneaked out of the White House in March 1924, Coolidge directed the Secret Service to issue a radio broadcast on the missing cat.  A listener eventually spotted Tiger sleeping near the National Mall and brought him back to the White House in a taxicab.
  • Rutherford Hayes, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.  All three presidents brought Siamese cats into the White House.  Hayes’ cat Siam was one of many animals to occupy the Executive Mansion at the time, while Ford gifted a cat named Shan to his daughter for Easter.  Carter’s cat was named Misty Malarky Ying Yang, which inspired the name of a Gabor Szabo song.
  • Bill Clinton.  A stray, bicolor cat reportedly jumped into the arms of Chelsea Clinton as she was leaving her piano teacher’s house 1991.  Chelsea named the cat Socks, and the rest is history.  During his time in the White House, Socks became somewhat of a pop culture figure, having been the subject of a Murphy Brown episode and a virtual “guide” to children visiting the White House website.  Socks enjoyed sitting on the president’s shoulders, and he even had his own carrying case emblazoned with the presidential seal.  After the Clintons left the White House, Socks went to live with a staffer named Betty Currie  in Maryland, where he died in 2009 at the age of 20. 
  • George W. Bush.  George and Laura Bush adopted a black cat in 1991 who they named India after a Texas Rangers baseball player nicknamed “El Indio.”  India, who wasn’t as well known as the Bushes’ Scottish terriers, died in January 2009, just weeks before the Obamas moved into the White House.  The Bushes also had a six-toed cat named Ernie but gave him away to a friend before moving to Washington because of his tendency to claw furniture.

What about the Bidens?  For now, the First Family has two German Shepherds, Major and Champ.  However, the First Lady announced in April 2021 that they plan on adopting a cat from a local shelter but, there have been no updates since then. Therefore, the question remains unanswered on whether the White House will have a feline occupant for the first time since 2009.

The Intriguing History behind Presidential Turkey Pardons

Last Friday, President Joe Biden pardoned two turkeys named Peanut Butter and Jelly from Jasper, Indiana. Turkey pardons at the White House have been happening for as long as many of us can remember, but the tradition didn’t just appear out of the blue. When did the Commander in Chief start liberating turkeys, and what happens after the turkeys are pardoned?

Origins of the Turkey Pardon

The earliest example of a turkey getting its freedom at the White House goes back to Abraham Lincoln. In 1963, the Great Emancipator spared a turkey that his family planned to eat for Christmas at the urging of his son Tad. The turkey remained as Tad’s pet for at least another year.

Over the following decades, turkeys were occasionally donated to the president as gifts. Starting in 1873 during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, a Rhode Island man named Horace Vose gifted a turkey to the White House for Thanksgiving and kept up the tradition for the next 40 years.

By the time Vose died in 1913, the tradition of sending turkeys to the White House had gained visibility, and other organizations took up the opportunity to continue the tradition. In 1921, the American Legion sent a turkey to President Warren G. Harding, and in 1925, First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from the Vermont Girl Scouts. In 1947, the National Turkey Federation took ownership of the tradition when it sent President Harry S. Truman a Thanksgiving turkey.

However, the first turkey to be set free on Thanksgiving was in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy granted a “reprieve” to a turkey sent to the White House. During the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter, turkeys were occasionally spared and sent to live on a farm or petting zoo.

Use of the term “presidential pardon” did not come until 1987, when President Ronald Reagan jokingly used the term in a turkey presentation ceremony. During the ceremony, Reagan quipped that he would pardon the turkey in response to a question from ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson on whether he would pardon Oliver North and John Poindexter, who were at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal. Since Reagan, every US president has maintained the tradition of pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving.

The Turkey Selection Process

The National Turkey Federation has managed the turkey selection process for nearly 75 years. The White House turkeys are raised in the same manner as other turkeys bred for consumption and are typically raised on the farm of whoever currently chairs the National Turkey Federation.  From an initial flock of 40-80 turkeys, a group of 20 is selected based on size and tameness. Handlers then familiarize this group with human contact and music so the turkeys are accustomed to the noises and sounds of a White House ceremony. This group of turkeys are then winnowed down to two finalists who are sent to Washington for the pardoning ceremony. 

What Happens to the Pardoned Turkeys?

All pardoned turkeys go to a pen specifically built for them at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. The pen includes a small coup to protect the turkeys from the elements plus an area where tourists can stop by to view them.

Unfortunately, however, the turkeys don’t stick around Mount Vernon for too long. Since the turkeys are bred for consumption, their high-protein diet increases their weight to the point that it puts undue stress on their organs, meaning the turkeys only live for another year or two at most after their pardon.

Meet Matt Gontarchick, Terp and Multirole Advocate

Matt Gontarchick has worn many hats at Chamber Hill Strategies, whether it’s planning fly-ins, managing business development for PolicyCrush, meeting with congressional staff, covering hearings, writing memos, and supporting the firm’s principals.  Here, Matt tells us about the differences between working from home and working in the office, and how the pandemic may shape advocacy going forward.

What do you think fly-ins are going to look like when the US Capitol Complex is reopened to the public?

It’s anyone’s guess.  A lot of people are pointing towards a hybrid model that incorporates both in-person and virtual meetings, but there are still a lot of questions about how that would work logistically.  There are clear benefits to both – people still have a desire to connect in-person, and virtual meetings offer an opportunity for people to participate in advocacy that otherwise couldn’t due to travel or difficulty getting time off from work.  How you feel about virtual or in-person fly-ins also seems to depend on your role in an organization.  I attended a webinar recently on the future of fly-ins, and one panelist said her organization loved being able to do a virtual fly-in because it saved them $100,000, as flights and hotel rooms in DC aren’t cheap, of course.  On the other hand, the panelist said the participants couldn’t wait to go back to doing an in-person fly-in because they wanted to go back to their usual experience of meeting together and networking in Washington.  There are a lot of competing interests, but no simple solution.  I think going forward, fly-ins will have both an in-person and virtual components, but on separate days.  The in-person component can be more targeted to include advocates who are key constituents or experts on a particular topic, whereas virtual meetings would provide a platform for those who don’t necessarily need to be in Washington to communicate their message.

How has your sales experience helped you?

Relationship management carries over to so many areas.  It’s important to understand what the person you’re meeting with cares about with and how to build a rapport with them.  When I’m meeting with congressional staff, for instance, I always try to understand how the issue fits with their boss’s district or state.  And being able to build rapport with staff as a peer in DC helps.  Sales has also helped beef up my negotiation skills, which are important outside of work, too.  Last summer, my car was involved in a hit-and-run while it was parked, and I needed to replace the rear taillight.  Thanks to the negotiation skills I picked up from working with PolicyCrush, I was able to negotiate down the price of both the taillight and the installation at the dealership. 

How have you adapted to working in a pandemic? 

It’s been difficult, because admittedly, I’m not a fan of working from home.  I think part of the reason for that is I need physical separation between home and work.  I live in a studio apartment, so the physical separation aspect is hard to achieve – waking up everyday right next to your desk, looking at your apartment, and knowing that you’re going to be there for the rest of the day is kind of depressing.  And since I do a lot of writing, I really value having a space where I can focus on my work with minimal distractions, and my cubicle does a great job of that.  Fortunately, as conditions have changed, I’ve been heading into the office more and more, and it feels great to go back to my normal routine of walking to the Metro and going for a run around the National Mall after work.  I need variety, and global pandemics aren’t conducive to that. 

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

“Life rewards action.”  I’m somewhat embarrassed to share this because it’s a Dr. Phil quote, and I have mixed feelings about him.  However, I like it because it’s simple – it says you need to take initiative to make something happen.  I think too many people expect success to fall in their lap or are disappointed if they don’t reach their goals after a few attempts.  For example, some people might give up on searching for their dream job after just a few applications.  If you want something, you have to put in the work. 

What else should we know about you?

I’m a proud University of Maryland alumnus, and I’m pretty involved with my local alumni network.  At least when global pandemics aren’t going on, we plan and host different events like game watches, fundraising events, and speaker series.  I also volunteer as a contributor for a blog that deals with smart growth, housing affordability, and transit issues in the Washington, DC area, and I keep up with it because it helps my writing skills.  Outside of that, I’m an avid runner, and I enjoy exploring cities or just walking around different neighborhoods.  Also, I’m a huge TV nerd, so I’m always keeping up with new shows, reading about “prestige television,” or doing a rewatch of a classic like The Wire.

Meet Michael (Mikey J) Smith, Storyteller and Activist

What drew you to studying journalism?

For as long as I can remember, my goal in life was to be a local TV news anchor.  When watching the evening news, the anchor seemed like the pinnacle of what a put-together person was supposed to be, and from a very young age, I just knew that was what I wanted to do.  I started college at St. John’s University in New York City, but I ended up hating that school, so I transferred to University of Maryland, which has one of the best journalism programs in the country.  As I got more into my major, what kept me going was the ability to meet people and learn their stories.  Journalism is really dependent on your ability to tell stories, and the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, live through their emotions, and give them a platform, is such a beautiful thing. 

How does your journalism degree help you in your current role?

It definitely taught me how to speak with everyone.  I’ve always been a relatively social person, but to speak to someone in a way that makes some one immediately comfortable with you is a skill you have to learn, and journalism definitely taught me how to connect with people in a way that they can trust you with your story.  It teaches you how to speak with people from all different walks of life, even people you have nothing in common with.  Without my training, I don’t know if I would be as effective from a relationship management standpoint that I am.

What’s the most challenging part of starting a new job in a pandemic?

The inability to walk into a room and meet my coworkers.  This was my first step into my career post-graduation, and I was super-excited to have this opportunity to take on work that’s interesting and engaging.  Starting a new job all from home was sort of a let-down because I was looking forward to meeting with my coworkers and learning.  I’ve been able to do this to an extent remotely but being secluded in my home and having to keep my spirits up has been difficult.  I’m a social person – I like to be around people, speak to people, laugh, joke – and that’s hard to do remotely.  

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received?

Be blunt.  Part of my nature is to be very tactful.  What that means is I’m not always going to get to the heart of an issue because I want to make sure I’m not offending anyone or stepping on anyone’s toes.  That’s not always helpful, and sometimes you just need to state what’s going on to get past something, especially in business.  Someone once told me I sugarcoat things way too much, and you need to just tell them what’s going on to make a decision.  That’s helped me a great deal, both in journalism and business, because people know what I’m actually trying to say to them.  And I’m learning more and more every day that it’s not bad to not be tactful. 

What else should we know about you?

During my entire college career, I was active in social issues, and one of the organizations I worked for was Preventing Sexual Assault (PSA).  I was part of the team that was able to bring in Victoria Valentino, a noted survivor and Bill Cosby accuser, to campus to speak about her experiences and offer an ear to people going through such a hard time in their lives. That’s one of my passions – to make sure that issue is never forgotten.  It’s a hugely important issue, especially on college campuses, and there’s so much more work to be done.  It’s definitely one of those projects I’m going to continue working on, because I want to see true change happen before I leave this planet.

Some Members of Congress Have Interesting Names. What Do They Mean?

Just like the people they represent, members of Congress hail from all sorts of backgrounds. With this diversity comes some interesting names.  Here, we take a look at the stories behind some of the more intriguing names among current Representatives and Senators.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Wyden is the son of Peter Wyden and Edith Rosenow, both of whom were Jewish and had fled Nazi Germany to avoid persecution.  The elder Wyden’s surname was originally Weidenreich, and he changed his surname after serving in the US Army in World War II and before embarking on a career in journalism.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)

Manchin’s paternal grandparents were Italian immigrants whose surname was originally Mancini.  The name comes from the Italian adjective mancino, which literally means “left-handed.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

Klobuchar’s paternal great-grandparents hail from Slovenia.  Her surname is derived from Klobučar, which means “hatter” in Slovenian. 

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID)

An ancestor of Crapo is Peter Crapaud, a young Frenchman who was shipwrecked off Cape Cod in 1680.  Crapaud means “toad” in French.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI)

Born Deborah Insley, the Michigan Congresswoman changed her surname to Dingell after her marriage to the late Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) in 1981.  Congressman Dingell’s father was the son of Polish immigrants who anglicized their surname from Dzięglewicz.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD)

The current Majority Leader’s father, Steen Theilgaard Høyer, is a native of Copenhagen, Denmark, and his first name is a variation of his father’s.  In May 2009, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark honored Hoyer by making him a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ)

Pascrell is the grandson of Italian immigrants.  His paternal grandfather anglicized his last name from Pascrelli after arriving in America.

Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-IN)

Mrvan’s surname is Slovak in origin.  Mrvan is far from the only Slovak-American to serve in Congress – his predecessor, former Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-IN) is also of Slovak descent, as is former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA)

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA)

Nunes’s surname is Portuguese and pronounced NEW-ness.  Three of his four grandparents immigrated to California’s San Joaquin Valley from Portugal’s Azores islands.  Nunes is a patronymic surname meaning “son of Nuno.”  Unfortunately, Nunes is frequently mispronounced as the Spanish surname Nuñez (pronounced NOON-yez), even by other government officials

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL)

Yoho is an anglicized version of the Swiss-German surname Joho.  The earliest use of the name can be traced back to 1395, the birth year of Routschmann Joho in Switzerland’s Aargau Canton. 

Meet Melissa Bartlett, Health Policy Veteran

Over the course of her 20-plus years in Washington, Melissa Bartlett has worked on nearly every kind of health policy issue, ranging from Medicare to prescription drugs.  She draws on her experience with insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and two branches of government to help clients achieve their goals and navigate the legislative and regulatory landscape.  We spoke with Melissa about her various roles and some great advice that’s proven helpful in her career.

What are some of the highlights of your career?

After graduating from the University of Kentucky College of Law and doing a fellowship with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, I took a job as legislative counsel with the American Medical Group Association and then later with AHIP (which was then AAHP) in regulatory policy. Both of these positions served as good primers on health care policy and allowed me to really understand the healthcare ecosystem – how health care services are access by patients and how those providing services are ultimately paid for their services and all of the specific policy levers that are at play along the way.  I then moved on to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights, where I focused on implementation of the HIPAA privacy rule and issues pertaining to it. .  In 2004, I left HHS and joined the House Energy and Commerce Committee staff as the Medicare counsel for Republicans, where I remained until 2010.  The committee has enormous health care jurisdiction so while my main focus was on Medicare legislative and regulatory policies, throughout the years I also had the privilege to work on a variety of other health care issues concerning health insurance reforms, mental health parity, privacy, quality incentives and value-based payment reforms, health IT, and the reauthorization of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, to name a few.  After I left the committee, I spent several years working as an in-house lobbyist for two drug companies and large health insurer before joining the Chamber Hill Strategies team. 

How has advocacy changed since you first started your career?  How has advocacy changed over the last 10 years?

You cannot discount the value of innovative technology and being able to effectively communicate with the Hill.  When I started my career, one of the first things I got was a beeper, so if you had to reschedule a meeting, you had to leave a pager number.  That over time evolved into the use of the Blackberry, which was first issued to me when I was first on the Hill.  The way we’ve done business has changed to become so much more instantaneous, whether it’s emailing somebody documents, sending a calendar invitation, or sending a text message.  The nature of the work has changed thanks to technology, and it will continue to evolve. 

Within the last 10 years, I do think there has been a shift in appreciation in advocacy being more than just getting someone a meeting.  In the past, people might have measured success in lobbying in terms of how many members and staff a lobbyist knows.  Now, clients are more focused on wanting a more substantive relationship with their lobbyist in that they want the lobbyist to understand their business, understand risk and opportunities to hit strategic objectives, and to provide advice.  The bar has shifted, and that’s a good thing. 

What are some of the biggest challenges lobbyists and advocates face in 2021?

A return to a post-COVID normalcy, however that is defined, and adjusting to that new normal presents a challenge.  Pre-COVID, we were meeting with people face-to-face in congressional offices, agency meeting rooms, and in the cafeterias in the House and Senate office buildings.  Casual information-gathering as well as the more formalized lobbying has really changed.  While offices and buildings continue to reopen, challenges remain, for instance, whether and when to pursue in-person meetings versus virtual meetings or calls. There are some benefits to the virtual meeting or call in terms of expediency and efficiency.   So, I think navigating that return to normalcy will be the big challenge for 2021.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received?

Take every meeting requested of you, and return every phone call, even if it’s not right away.  No matter how busy you are, this town remembers.  A lot of what we do is relies heavily on reputation and relationships.  It’s critical to maintain a level of respect for your colleagues and to command that respect too.  You may not get an answer right away, but you sure do appreciate when you hear back from someone.  Fostering such respect can go a long way in serving as a trusted resource for colleagues, clients and the Hill.   

What else should we know about you?

I’m a mother of a rising first grader and I’m a co-leader of a daisy troop. I play the piano, which I’ve been doing since second grade, and at one point, I wanted to study the piano in college and play professionally.  I have a dog and a cat, both of whom I rescued.  I like spending time with my family, and I value my roles as a mother, wife, sister, sister-in-law, and daughter.