The Virginia state capitol, with Richmond City Hall, Old City Hall and the under-construction General Assembly building in the background. (Getty Images)

Amid pandemic and protests, a VCU class on lobbying explores ‘how power gets used and brokered’

“When you protest, you have a series of demands. When you write your rep … it’s a chance to give them resources and to lobby your point.”

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This summer, Virginia Commonwealth University student Erika Misseri had a statement to make about police funding in Richmond that she expressed by attending protests. But the rising junior political science major also communicated her concerns directly to her City Council member.

In a letter to Andreas Addison, who represents the First District on the council, Misseri encouraged Addison to consider measures to reallocate funds marked for the Richmond Police Department and instead use them to fund social services, affordable housing development, and economic and minority business development.

“I must ask you and the rest of the City Council to consider and support measures beyond reform of the Richmond Police Department,” Misseri wrote to Addison.

It wasn’t the first time Misseri had written to an elected official, but this time her efforts resulted in a face-to-face meeting with Addison.

The correspondence and resulting meeting were the result of an assignment in a class Misseri took this summer called “Practical Politics: Lobbying,” taught by Andrea Simonelli, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Lobbying is not a government action, it’s an outside government action toward government,” said Simonelli, who brings hands-on experience to the class. She lobbied for the inclusion of human rights protections during negotiations to update the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2012 and 2013. 

“So when we think of teaching government and American politics, [lobbying is] sort of a nebulous cloud of how power gets used and how power gets brokered because it has to do with money and understanding procedure and knowing how to push the right buttons,” Simonelli said.

During the class, Simonelli usually assigns students to write to their congressional representatives, but this year local issues rose to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic and protests after the death of George Floyd, so many lobbied their local representatives and mayors. Students focused on timely topics like violence in the city, police militarization, stopping barriers to adoptions for LGBT adults and concerns about COVID-19 in border detention centers.

If students get anything beyond a form letter in return, Simonelli gives extra credit. Misseri is the first to get a face-to-face meeting with an elected official.

“When you protest, you have a series of demands. When you write your rep, it's not only a chance for you to voice your concerns, it's a chance to give them resources and to lobby your point, which is how the class made it effective for me, and gave me the tools to be effective,” Misseri said. “So there are different types of activism, but both completely necessary.”

When you protest, you have a series of demands. When you write your rep, it's not only a chance for you to voice your concerns, it's a chance to give them resources and to lobby your point.

Simonelli, who worked as a political fundraiser for over a decade before shifting to academia, teaches students about regulations, different ways that regulations are skirted and cases where regulations have been repealed. Class assignments include writing a white paper, learning how to be persuasive and doing research. Simonelli said these assignments help students understand the many political outcomes, such as how certain companies are able to get contracts. She walks students through the progression of bills in Congress, and this year honed in on timely topics including how lobbying connects to police budgets and the lobbying power of police unions.

“The way that the students are engaging with [lobbying] is so relevant to this moment around them, trying to see the world that keeps coming at them so quickly and through these power channels,” Simonelli said.

She held Zoom discussions with students to parse current events.

“[Our] weekly discussion went from what would be a normal class time of about an hour and 15 minutes to just over three hours, by the [students’] choice,” Simonelli said. “It’s a good moment to be learning about [lobbying], even more so when all these issues came to the forefront. It was kind of like a giant explosion. It’s unlike a normal year in politics where you might see a few bills moving here and there. These really big ones moving now have a lot of money attached, with the COVID-19 bills too. The companies attached to [the COVID-19 bills], we are looking and seeing their lobbying activities have gone up.” 

Student Sophia Cocke focused her letter to her state delegate on a loophole in the Virginia code that allows for what she calls “legalized discrimination against people in the adoption and foster care system” that prevents some placements based on belief differences among some agencies and potential foster families.

“If an organization is receiving government funding, grants or contracts, they are operating as an arm, and as an extension of, our state government even if they are a separate entity,” Cocke said. “I personally believe that if they are receiving taxpayer money, they should be held to the same standards of nondiscrimination as the government that issues that funding.” Her concern is that children in the foster care system who end up not being placed more frequently end up involved in the justice system or left in a cycle of poverty.

The political science department has shared the letters written by Misseri, Cocke and student Angelica Tsvetkov on its resources web page as a template for anyone wishing to communicate concerns to decision-makers.

“If you have an actual concrete idea that you can give [elected officials] that [idea could be adopted] in lieu of someone else who has something maybe more nefarious in their pocket,” Simonelli said. “If you do that with your neighbor and your friends all piling on, that is power.” 

Simonelli also impressed upon the students that lobbying can be a long process, with invigorating wins and frustrating losses.

“It can take years to make substantial change; sometimes through emotion, more likely through elections,” she said. “But you keep at it because your opposition is.”