“May I Help You?”

One technique for building relationships is to find ways to help the “big dog” you want to influence. Joel Ulland, who represents the Minnesota Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society before the Minnesota state legislature, built a relationship with an unlikely person of power long before he needed the relationship.

Ulland is a member of several coalitions for Minnesotans with disabilities. In the spring of 2005, Minnesota was reeling through three years of budget cuts. Ulland knew this meant tough times for people with disabilities.

“The state was facing a deficit for the third straight year, and the Republican governor refused to raise taxes. The question became not if the state would make cuts in state programs, but where the cuts would be made and when they would take effect,” Ulland says. “As someone who advocates for healthcare programs for people with disabilities, I knew we had a target on our backs.”

Ulland’s team prepared the facts and figures to influence decision makers, but they still needed a champion. Many members of the Democratic Party were supportive, and Senator Becky Lourey, a senate leader, agreed to be the chief senate sponsor.

Ulland took a different approach in the Minnesota House. He started to build a relationship with Representative Tim Wilkin, an ultraconservative Republican who didn’t have a reputation for increasing taxes, spending, or even healthcare advocacy.

“I thought that with his controversial reputation, his sponsorship of the bill would gain attention. That’s exactly what happened,” Ulland says.

Ulland and his team began building the relationship with Wilkin in 2003. In 2005, they asked Wilkin to be the chief sponsor of legislation that would prevent cuts in disability funding and reform the county case-management system for people with disabilities.

If you are keeping track, he committed to two years of preparation, two years of trying to help Wilkin. Then he took the next step toward relationship building: finding commonality and offering help.

Ulland had done his homework. He regularly watched the TV show that featured the Minnesota state legislature in action, complete with committee hearings, floor debates, and roll-call votes – the “car-chase scene” of the democratic system. This task wasn’t without suffering. “My colleagues thought I was a dork to keep watching, but it helped me get to know the players better,” Ulland recalls.

In particular, he watched Wilkin. “I listened to his public comments on how he felt government money should be used for healthcare. And I thought, ‘We can work with this guy.’” Ulland perceived they had common ground – that is, a desire for the disabled to be given the means to get to work, to have access to workplace assistance, and to help themselves.

While glued to the screen, Ulland learned that Wilkin had been given more responsibility for the state budget negotiations. He saw an opening to make Wilkin’s life easier by helping him decipher the nuances of the various programs. Ulland gave him both sides of all disability issues. In fact, Ulland was so unbiased in his advice that the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee asked a colleague, “Is Joel a Republican or Democrat? I can’t tell.”

In addition, Ulland learned from others exactly what not to do to build this relationship. “Representative Wilkin knew that we were willing to work with him and not call him wild-and-crazy names in the media. Groups who lambasted legislators in the midst of budget negotiations got cut; they got treated worse. By contrast, we weren’t ‘pains in the butt’ to deal with. Being nice allowed us to be a part of the conversation, to be at the table.”

When it was time to make the request, Ulland and his team prepared themselves for a brush-off. “But he was quite engaged and read through each of our position papers. He really read them. Then he was upfront with what he could and couldn’t support in our proposal. He did take a lot of hits because he’s frugal by nature, but he saw this as an opportunity to challenge his Democrat colleagues.”

Ultimately, Ulland says, Wilkin agreed to sponsor the bill and “was constantly in touch with us over the 15 to 20 changes to the bill to make sure that we had what we needed.”

Ulland’s long-term strategy paid off. And he still finds himself inexplicably drawn to the TV broadcasts of the Minnesota state legislature in action.