• Ben Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Russ Carnahan of BuildingAction

We’ve tried to be varied in the special guests who have participated in the Common Sense Colloquy as we have built this series over more than two dozen conversations. Over the past two+ years, we’ve featured two former Energy Secretaries, the head of the largest wildlife conservation organization in the country, financial community gurus, colleagues from the communications industry, senior leaders from academia, labor unions, companies, trade associations and more.

This month we’re fortunate to have as our guest only the second former Member of Congress to be featured here. Russ Carnahan isn’t just any former Member of Congress, however. He’s the son of the late Governor Mel Carnahan and former U.S. Senator Jean Carnahan. He was a distinguished member of the U.S. House for eight years where he Chaired the International Organizations Subcommittee of House Foreign Affairs. He is now Principal at Carnahan Global Consulting where among other things he is advocating for renewable energy, high performance building technology, transportation infrastructure and electrification, and historic preservation. 

We’ve had the pleasure of working with Russ over the past six months as he and his colleague Andrew Goldberg have been finalizing plans for BuildingAction, a new national coalition of organizations focused on increasing the efficiency of the nation’s buildings. BuildingAction launched earlier this year and is now hosting a series of monthly conversations on policy and other considerations necessary to ensuring this vital contributor to the nation’s economy can continue to thrive while also reducing its environmental footprint.

Given the amount of time we’re all spending in our homes as we stay at home to help flatten the curve of the global pandemic, a conversation with a leader who has a vision for what the buildings of the future might mean (including offices, stores and more outside the home) is more timely than ever.


Our big thanks to Russ for sharing his insight with us – and you.


Q: One of your latest projects is the launch of BuildingAction, a new national coalition of advocates for increased energy efficiency in buildings. Why is building energy efficiency so important?


A: When I founded the High-Performance Building Caucus in Congress it was to raise the profile of the building sector in debates about energy and environment because they were often overlooked or undervalued. With 70% of electricity and nearly 40% of emissions buildings must be a substantial part of sustainability solutions. BuildingAction was launched early this year with the mission to create a broader better connected coalition of leading organizations and companies in the Building Sector to be a bipartisan resource for policy makers in Washington and to advance a strategic agenda for sustainable buildings that contributes to the economy, environment and jobs. This could not be more important than in the midst of debates about how to drive the economic recovery.


Q: In your launch of BuildingAction, you’ve been making the connection between pandemic response and recovery and the need for more efficient, more resilient buildings. Can you explain?


A: There is a critical component to pandemic response to support essential employees and infrastructure such as healthcare workers, grocery stores, pharmacies, firefighters, police etc. Existing and developing technologies for keeping front line buildings and their workers safe must be part of the conversation. There have been many articles recently describing the dramatic changes in technology, products and design of buildings after the 1918 Flu epidemic along with the observations that we can expect even more dramatic changes to buildings during and after the current pandemic. We can expect changes to how we enter buildings and conduct business without touching a door handle or a key pad, to air ventilation systems, health screenings and the very design and layout of places where people gather. Beyond the immediate response, when we look at the longer-term economic recovery strategies, buildings can play an enormous role. And not just to build for the sake of building but to build better. We can build better new buildings and improve existing buildings that are resilient, healthy, efficient and sustainable. A national initiative to “Transform America’s Buildings” would be a powerful economic engine to drive us to a more sustainable future.


Q: As a former Member of Congress who is now an advocate, you have a unique perspective on the importance of policy and communications. What lessons have you learned that you can share with others?


A: Remember that elected officials are looking for good ideas, trusted experts and data that provide credibility and coalitions to support them. Being an effective advocate is about building relationships and being a valuable resource for policy makers and their staffs. The best strategic communication involves a Local to National framework. Start with grassroots constituents/organizations/businesses with people who can actually vote for the Member of Congress and connect that to related national organizations. Then you will be more likely to find champions for your issue. Congress has just about every point of view, profession and life experience represented. Not all members can get involved in every issue because there are too many issues and not enough time. In addition to local connections, review committee assignments, caucus memberships and personal bios to find potential members to match and champion your issue.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?


A: The late Speaker Tip O’Neill who famously said “all politics is local”. It’s true. The more you can localize and personalize your communication message the more powerful and effective it will be. Members of Congress are often looking for a “local connection” for a national or international issue. Being able to connect the right people and issues is truly the art of politics.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?


A: Work in a bipartisan way whenever possible. The only thing certain about Washington is that party control of the White House and Congress goes in cycles. Especially in the legislative branch it’s about building coalitions-the bigger and more bipartisan the more powerful. When you have a champion or sponsor for your issue, ask them to identify co-sponsors from the opposite party. Many members have close friendships across the aisle that are helpful in this. One of the more structured ways to do this is for a bill sponsor to only allow co-sponsors if they have a member form the opposite party to join them. This is not only “common sense” it is a practical necessity in the current deeply divided politic landscape we live in today.



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