Longtime lobbyist Alice O’Connor: ‘Roll your sleeves up’
Alice O’Connor warns about snowflakes — but not the winter kind.
Instead, the longtime Wisconsin contract lobbyist, means protected people adverse to hard work.
“We are raising too many people to be special snowflakes, as I call them. Just roll your sleeves up, get a callus or two, and do what you need to do,” O’Connor said.
Raised in a large Irish Catholic family of seven children, she seems to have little patience for indolence.
“Stop waiting, whining or procrastinating that someone else will do for you what you should do for yourself,” O’Connor said. “We are all imperfect, but give me someone who is at least, hands down, trying over someone who is talking about trying or wishing they could try.”
O’Connor, who founded Wisconsin Women in Government in the late 1980s, switched from a job as government relations director at DeWitt Ross & Stevens law firm back to her own lobbying shop, Constituency Services Inc., in 2013.
Q. You’ve been in the communications business for more than 30 years, as I count it. What are the two or three of your favorite causes or clients you’ve advocated for?
A. I am passionate about Special Olympics Wisconsin and all the good they do for so many, leveraging thousands of volunteers each year for 10,000 athletes and more than 530 events statewide. It took three sessions to pass an income tax check-off for Special Olympics. Those dollars are a lot of bake sales they don’t have to have. Our intellectually and physically disabled population is well over 100,000, and, all — age 8 to, I think their oldest athlete is 82 — experience joy and the powerful value of sports.
I have also represented the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association for many years and seen the dedication of men and women in uniform and their leaders. This is a challenging time for law enforcement, and they are not always treated with respect. Sometimes the policies that are enacted create even more burdens for law enforcement without corresponding resources.
Q. You’re a registered lobbyist. Just what does a lobbyist for hire do these days?
A. A good lobbyist is talking to people in both parties, talking to agency staff, talking to staff in legislative offices.
A good lobbyist does their homework, does a ton of writing and talking to help clients boil complicated information into one page. Lengthy reports don’t get read. You have to respect a lawmaker’s time. They have many demands upon them. They need credible, succinct, pertinent information. It is also always important to let a lawmaker know if there is opposition, who and why.
As a lobbyist our jobs are to persuade. We are judged by the votes we count and the successes we achieve.
Talk radio is the unregistered lobbyist that sometimes has too much influence on lawmakers who would love to change a law but lack the courage because their political career depends on being on the good side of someone with a microphone. Some talk radio people are tabloid sensationalistic at best. There is no interest in facts or balanced reporting. That is bothersome to me. Equally as bothersome is how easy it is to assassinate character. Anyone can vomit on the Internet.
Q. Tell me how the lobbyist business has changed since you started working as one.
A. I still remember getting my first fax machine and wondering if women felt that way about the invention of the washer and dryer. It sped things up from snail mail or overnight or delivery services. Then the first cellphone, the size of a small piece of luggage, made talking to clients in “real time” while you were still at the Capitol possible. Before cellphones, there was a bank of phones in the Capitol ground floor rotunda that lobbyists and reporters would fight to use. I think there were four of them.
There was a lot more congeniality. That has been talked about much. I saw politicians of different persuasions fight like heck on the floor, but you would see them having beer at the Inn on the Park later that day. There were also very few lobbyists. It was a good ol’ boys club for sure. When I started lobbying in the late ’80s, it was a really big deal that there were four women lobbyists. Now, there are over a thousand people registered at the state Ethics Commission, and there are many female lobbyists.
Q. You’ve switched from being an independent lobbyist to being attached to a law firm, then back to independence again. Why?
A. Law firms are for lawyers. I am not a lawyer, even though I read statutes and people sometimes think I am a lawyer. You don’t have to be a lawyer to lobby. It made no sense to attach myself to overhead that did not financially benefit me. I have a wonderful collaborative relationship with another lobbying firm that I can tap to add value to the needs of my clients when we need extra shoe leather. Law firms have a different function. But I sure met a lot of really great people. In my own firm, my outside speaking and coaching business is also a lot easier to promote, too. That was a bit more difficult inside a law firm structure.
Q. State government and politics has certainly changed since you started working. What’s the good part of those changes? The bad part?
A. The good part of changes is that the Internet has flattened the world and made policies even more available to public scrutiny, quicker. Transparency is a buzz word everyone likes to use. Not everything is transparent yet, but there are so many special interest groups on any particular issue, they can easily point out when something is not quite adding up. Real numbers always add up. Fake numbers do not. It takes people willing to question and be persistent in this noisy climate to get to the bottom of things.
The bad part is the speed that things happen means you don’t always have the necessary time to vet what is said or numbers that are used. Or to see how a proposed change in the law might actually impact one of your clients.
Q. What do you do for fun?
A. When I am not working, it is fun to talk about anything but politics. As a family, we’ve always had an active lifestyle, so a great way to burn frustration or a worn-out brain is some downhill or cross-country skiing, paddleboarding, kayaking. Anything on water. Or in nature. Anywhere. Cooking a meal from scratch, which requires focus so I don’t burn it. Mix that with good friends, good wine and good music and lots of great ingredients. A mean game of ping pong always makes for a good laugh.