The winners of NPN’s Legislative Leader Awards are exceptional individuals. However, we are an industry filled with exceptional individuals who have the potential to match their contributions. And even if the goals are more modest, every contribution counts towards setting a better business environment for petroleum marketers and retailers.
However, involvement costs both time – away from family and business – and money. So why do it? Why make that sacrifice? “It affects your bottom line,” said NPN Legislative Leader Award winner Sean Cota, the president of Vermont-based Cota & Cota, Inc. a third generation family business marketing heating oil and motor fuels. “If you are engaged you will know what the future is going to be for your industry and for your business, so knowing the future to some degree gives you the ability to plan around. And you can even create that future by being engaged. If you don't, the people with the money and power will create that future and that future may not include you.”
For NPN Legislative Leader Award winner Bill Douglass, CEO of Douglass Distributing, it was a natural follow on to his previous career at Exxon. “I've been involved because first, it's easy for me and I was trained professionally. And second, I thought I could make a greater contribution. We all benefit from this country and its economic system but it's not automatic. You have to be very vigilant or you could be regulated or legislated out of business.”
And at the association level your contributions are critical. “It's a question of how much you believe,” said Shane Sweet, New England Fuel Institute CEO. “A guy like Sean Cota believed that he was going to make a difference, and he did. Sean's been doing this for 25 years and I know when I was running the Vermont Association he would jump in the car at a moment’s notice and drive the two hours to Montpelier just to sit in the back of the room and back me up and give me the support when I was testifying.”
Marketer or Retailer vs. Lobbyist
The industry associations typically have a strong legislative focus and highly competent lobbyists working their magic at both the state and federal levels. Can’t they handle the burden? Why do they need your support?
“Guys like Bill (Douglass) are absolutely critical,” said John Eichberger, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores. “I would say since I've been here we've had five or six people would've been our go to's with Congress. People we can always count on whenever someone says, ‘We want to look at this bill,’ and ‘We want to have a hearing and would like you guys to have a witness.’ We always try to bring a real person to testify because it is much more effective for Congress here from people that run businesses instead of lobbyist. They hear from us all the time.
“And when you testify you want somebody to say: ‘When I was doing this in my store, this is the result of what you're thinking about.’ When I'm testifying, they are thinking, ‘Am I being spun here?’ If it's a retailer they say, ‘I need to pay attention to this.’ He's not talking Washingtonese, he's talking about business and as a member of Congress that's not something I know about so I need to hear from him.”
And, your effort carries far more impact. “You go from Bellows Falls, Vt., and you get on a plane to go to Washington, D.C. to visit your representatives and you're at their office eight o'clock in the morning,” said Sweet. “That means you were out of bed at three o'clock and on a plane at four o’clock and they know you're not coming down and staying at the Ritz Carlton. They know that you are away from your business because you think it is more important to be in front of lawmakers – and that makes an impression.”
Writing a Check
In today’s cynical times, many assume that Washington is all about the dollars and that there is little opportunity to breakthrough that barrier. Unfortunately, on the cash battlefield the industry can be well outgunned by the credit associations and Wall Street and a range of other opponents. And yet, the industry has enjoyed some significant recent victories against those well-funded interests. Money is important and writing those checks – hopefully large ones – to the Associations’ Political Action Committees is critical. Money helps make sure candidates favorable to business interests get into office and stay in office. But a past financial support will not influence a vote that goes dramatically against the party leadership position or the demographics of their legislator’s voting base.
“Money helps establish relationships and money help select certain politicians of a particular mindset so you may have a more open audience than you would with another type of candidate, but the person-to-person touches absolutely the bottom line,” said Eichberger. “And more and more so it's not a lobbyist in Washington but the constituents back home. We won the swipe fee battle not particularly because of anything we did here in Washington, though that was a big part of it, but I would go in and talk to a senator and he would say, ‘John, every time I'm home, I can't walk into a convenience store without the owner of that store coming up to me and talking about credit card fees. Everywhere I go they talk about credit card fees.’ And I would say, ‘Senator, there's only one way to make them shut up.’”
Money also helps make sure you get access to politicians – face time – who are typically very busy. “People have watched too much TV if they think that just because they've donated to somebody that they are automatically going to agree with them on all of the issues,” said 2010 NACS Chairman Jay Ricker, president of Indiana-based Ricker Oil Company. “That is not going to happen. You have to make your case and access gives you the opportunity to make your case.”
However, in some cases money can be the driver. NPN Legislative Leader Award winner Mike Newman, executive vice president of New York-based NOCO Energy Corp., who is fighting for the collection of cigarette sales taxes on Native American reservations in New York has seen the power of a flush political war chest at work. “The resistance you have with the governor and tax department is a little bit about PR and a lot about money,” he said. “The unfortunate part about the reservation sales is that they have amassed a huge amount of money that sits in the hands of the few that are influencing elections. They came out in western New York and said they're going to spend up to $1 million supporting candidates that oppose the collection of these taxes. One of our local county legislators was given near $30,000 to propose a resolution in the County Legislature to instruct the governor not to collect taxes. A local paper just did a big story about it. And our whole PAC for the state is about $70,000.”
So be sure to participate personally and write that check. One additional point, giving money to both candidates running for office will not work as both candidates are likely to catch on to that ploy.
What to Expect
The thought of meeting with a state or national political figure can be intimidating to many people. However, those concerns are typically overblown. “Even at the highest levels I have found them to be balanced,” said Douglass. “They don't have to agree with you but they will give you an intelligent hearing and ask intelligent questions. The legislators themselves are really understanding and kind. If a person takes their time, and is not a million-dollar a year paid lobbyist, and shows up to participate in the hearing or comes to their office they usually give them a measure of the respect that is not intimidating at all. The legislators are nicer than those you deal with in the average business because they're dealing with people all the time and they are compromisers. Once you do it you find out it's really painless, and in fact it can be enjoyable. And I've never been insulted or accosted and of course you don't attack the people on the other side.”
The legislator may be accommodating but the saying “trust but verify” comes to mind. “Have I always gotten a fair shake in all my dealings—absolutely not,” said Newman. “I've been very disappointed many times. But the people who give you a fair shake are the ones you support – the ones who live up to their word or at least attempt to.”
How to Network with Your Legislators
There are a variety of opportunities to get an opinion across to legislators. However, the less painful the approach the less effective it likely will be. In general, sending in a form letter or e-mail is a step in the right direction, but the least persuasive. A phone call into the office on the issue or a handwritten letter is more effective. A visit to the local district office or a fundraiser is more effective than a call. A visit to the legislator in the statehouse or Washington is a step above that (and most state and national associations arrange formal industry visits during the year). Hosting or sponsoring a fundraiser can really get some attention. And, the more personal a relationship becomes over time, the more impact a call or personal e-mail can carry.
“You really need access to politicians and access in many cases comes through fundraisers and such,” said Ricker. “And that's probably a good way to get started so you're not intimidated – a fundraiser at a local level, somebody who's running for mayor or Commissioner or the state legislature. They'll have a golf outing or a reception at somebody's house and you need to show up. Or you could be a cosponsor, which means you just give a little bit more money, or even host the event and we’ve hosted them over the years for a variety of people. What I do before the session starts – before things get so crazy – is I sit down and talk to them about the issues that I think are going to come up that are really of concern to us. And I asked them if they think they can support our positions or if they have advice and then I asked them, ‘What can I do for you?’ You never buy votes. What you do is you gain access to talk to those people and in many cases you may already know them.”
The process does not have to be expensive. That is even more the case at the state level. “If you don't have money but you have time, utilize the time,” said Cota. “Make the contacts. Show up at the events. Even if the events cost a little bit of pocket money—you will need to spend some money. But it doesn't require lots of money. There are a number of $25 minimum contribution events where you show up. Unless you are one of the sponsors of the event they are not going to know that, they'll just know that you are one of the supporters. In fact, if you were there and you brought a small amount of money to the table that is worth more than (not being there) and bringing a large amount of money to the campaign.”
Also, a meeting is typically more effective with the legislator from your district. That is not to say that legislators from other districts, or other states for that matter, will not set a meeting or have a quick discussion but time constraints place limits on such opportunities.
Prepare for the Discussion
The face time is precious, and sometimes expensive, so it pays to be prepared before the meeting. The legislators typically cannot devote a lot of time so do not be offended if you only get 10 minutes. The same applies for getting a meeting with a staffer instead of the congressman or senator. In most cases the staffer can be just as useful where specific policy issues are concerned.
“You need to be prepared on two or three issues you want to discuss and if possible you need to get the chief of staff on board and educated before the meeting so that everyone is prepared for the discussion,” said Newman.
It is also critically important to be completely honest and even to present the “cons” of the issue. This helps build trust so that you become a resource for the legislator when similar issues arise and a business perspective is needed. “What I do, and I think everyone should do this when they talk to them, is give them the pros and cons,” said Douglass. “’Senator, let me tell you what's in it for this constituency and then tell you what it does to me and my group. And if you can make this adjustment, here is what this adjustment will impact.’”
It is also important to avoid threats or come across as attempting to buy legislative support. “You can say, ‘I can tell you I don't support you and here's why. In this case it's costing me and my fellow retailers this much money and that is our problem,’” said Douglass. “You don't say the second part that is, ‘I'm not going to contribute to your campaign,’ which is a threat and doesn't work.”
Similarly, as in many areas, it’s important to stick to what you know. “When you're sitting in a room with legislators, the legislators know more about legislation than you do,” said Eichberger. “You know more about your business so always, always talk about your business. If they ask you and intricate question about policy say, ‘I'm not a legislator; I'm not a lobbyist but I can tell you on this issue how it impacts my business.’ That is what Congress is missing and that is what Congress needs. They need to hear how things happen in the real world. And always be truthful – never try to spin them.”
All politics may or may not be local. Similarly, all issues are not the same. Nor is it likely to find a candidate that will support a personal legislative agenda 100 percent of the time. So, political support has to be a balance of needs and desires from the business aspects to the personal and social. And in some cases, the traditional political stereotypes either backfire or are impractical.
“We've spent years supporting Republican candidates and the Native Americans came in with a fistful of money and convinced all of them that you need to tell the governor not to collect the cigarette taxes,” said Newman. “It was very disturbing and very disappointing but also very typical.”
Even with a candidate that is typically ideologically opposed to your outlook the dialogue matters. “No one likes to tell a constituent no, whether that constituent is from the same party or not,” said Cota. “So if you make a connection with someone you don't necessarily agree with and you show up at their event and say, ‘Listen, I'm concerned about this…’ and you do it in a polite way there will be an emotional cost to them if they say no. And if that pulls the political argument a little bit in your direction that is worth the effort.”
And in some cases, where there is really no alternative, politically surprising results may arise. “I bought a market from BP in Indianapolis in an area where I had not had any stores and the congressman there was relatively new,” said Ricker. “Politically, his views on social issues were considerably different from the ones we encounter in other markets. However, my own congressman said you really need to get into different parties and you need to know this guy – he's a really good guy. We obviously don't agree on all issues, but he is concerned about what's going on in Indiana. I made a cold call to him and said here's who I am, here's what I'm doing and I would like to hold a fundraiser for you. Traditionally, the people I’d been inviting supported the other party and they said, ‘Are you out your mind?’ And I said he's going to be the congressman for this district for many years to come. You really need to get to know him and he doesn't know many business people and he needs to get to know you. A lot of people who thought they wouldn't agree with anything he was going to say walked away from that meeting impressed. And he was very helpful as time went on.”
Associations offer a range of legislative support to their members. Some of it is handled by the lobbyists, but these organizations typically also offer a range of resources to help their members get involved with association activities or to participate independently on issues at a grassroots level. Working together can lead to great things.
“Synergies with the associations are important and the state and national associations really do work pretty closely together,” said Cota. “This is one of the secrets to politics. If you have multiple points of view that all come together on a particular topic that has more influence than a single entity coming together on the topic. Because we have multiple relationships of the various organizations and to the extent that we can spend the time and effort heard IN the same direction that herd of cats makes more impact than just one loan strong entity.”
Associations also simply the “herding cats” aspects of government relations. “NYACS does a great job helping make sure we’re all on the same message where these issues are concerned and they do a great job in encouraging us to get down to Albany to make the effort. That is very powerful,” said Newman.
NACS offers a website NACSonline.com/grassroots and anybody who wants to get involved can register and send a letter to Congress. He or she can also track how a member of Congress voted on issues the industry cares about. NACS has also established a new grassroots manager. In addition it promotes approximately 16 “Hanks Industry Update” luncheons during the year where association President and CEO Hank Armour goes out and meets with retailers across the country to discuss what NACS is doing and how to get involved.
NACS, PMAA and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America also host annual legislative meetings in Washington where industry members can make contact with their legislators or staff in an organized and guided process.
PMAA leverages its structure to support the industry legislatively. It generally works to address national issues for its state members, but it can supply some support for state issues as required. “PMAA is lucky in that being a federation of 47 state associations nearly all of the folks that serve on our board are veterans of statehouse battles,” said Gilligan. “They've been the Government Affairs Committee Chairman at the state level, they been chairman at the state level, they've testified in their state legislatures, so most of them are already politically engaged before they arrive at PMAA. When I go down our list of board members, every single one of them really enjoy a political fight. They enjoy the challenge of trying to move the ball forward.”
Contact your state and national associations to see how you can be of help. You will be greeted with open arms and given an opportunity to participate.
Don’t Pass the Buck
It’s important to conclude this article in the way it began, with a reminder of the power and importance of the individual in the legislative process. “One person can change a member of Congress 100 percent,” said Eichberger. “It doesn't take much. If you're nervous, you want to do something, call one of your associations and ask how you can get involved. Tell them what you're comfortable doing and they will find a way for you to get involved in a way that is comfortable.”
Don’t let others set your future for you. “If you don't get involved you just abdicated and if you're comfortable with letting other people determine how your business interests are going to be dealt with then you pay an economic price for your absence. We're all busy, but there is a point,” said Douglass.
Your assistance brings real impact. “I wish we had more marketers that were in a position to do what Sean is doing,” said Sweet. “If we had 20 Seans out there doing this—first of all it would be a sight to see—you can't have too much horsepower. Is Peter Welch from Vermont going to listen to me because I know him and we connect pretty regularly? Yeah, they all do, but I'm a paid industry guy and he's really going to listen to Sean Cota because Sean has a bunch of people on his payroll. Sean is the real deal. He can remember Sean Cota looking across the table at him and saying, ‘Hey Peter, I'm getting it kicked out of me here because what is happening on Wall Street and I really need your help if I'm going to keep employing your constituents.’ That is the type of thing that an elected individual will remember.”
Without your help it will grind to a halt. “Participation tends to be cyclical and everybody has a limit and even (guys like) Sean Cota, at some point, will likely decide to slow down,” said Sweet. “And when that happens, you need someone –hopefully more than one— who is willing to step up and take over. We don't have enough guys like Sean and that's the God's honest truth. Sean recognizes sometimes that if he doesn't go that day nobody will be there. As an association person it's something I learned a long time ago that you can never, never, never take that type of contribution for granted.”
And, your efforts will be appreciated. “When you have someone like Bill and you say, ‘Hey, I have a congressman that wants to hold a hearing on this issue; are you available?’ He calls back and says, ‘I’ve rearranged my schedule and I'll be there.’ He testified one day on his anniversary – that is a type of dedication you appreciate. You need people that are willing to share their experience and that are articulate and are able to handle questioning from members of Congress. Without having people like Bill and the others we've relied on in the past 10 years to testify to Congress and meet with legislators, we would've never accomplished what we've accomplished today.”