More than 90 Society of American Florists members representing all industry segments, three countries, 25 states and the District of Columbia, traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with lawmakers and key congressional staff. While there, the group advocated powerfully for issues that are critical to the success of retail florists, wholesalers, growers and suppliers — and the overall health of the floral industry.
“I come to Congressional Action Days because I believe that we as good citizens need to make a difference,” said Michael Pugh, AAF, of Pugh’s Flowers in Memphis, Tennessee. “The only way our elected representatives know what we’re thinking is if we come here and make our voices heard.”
This year’s event featured a direct address from a California congressman with personal ties to the floral industry, a spirited and bipartisan talk about high-profile issues from D.C. insiders, an address from a veteran network journalist — and a nearly three-hour White House briefing created especially for SAF, featuring remarks from and Q&A sessions with seven top administration officials.
For many SAF members, the chance to be on the Hill with their industry peers, speaking to lawmakers, has become a highlight of their calendar.
“Over the years, I’ve found it very important to be here, and I would encourage everyone to come,” said Karen Fountain, AAF, of Flowers ‘n’ Ferns in Burke, Virginia, who was on Capitol Hill attending CAD for her 27th year this week.
Art VanWingerden of Metrolina Greenhouses Inc. said he knows firsthand how long it can take to change laws — but he also understands on a deeply personal level the potential pay-off. VanWingerden spent about five years fighting to improve outdated zoning laws that were adversely affecting his growing operation in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The effort was contentious, expensive and time-consuming — but he ultimately prevailed and helped write the new law.
“That’s the kind of the thing that motivates me to come to Congressional Action Days — the ability to progress,” he said. “As an industry and as business owners, we can’t wait for things to change. If we do that, we’ll just be acted upon.”
For other attendees, this year’s event represented a new opportunity to learn and engage.
Hannah Crittenden, who graduates with a degree in supply chain management this spring from Michigan State University, attended this year as one of 23 first-timers alongside her father, Rod Crittenden, head of the Michigan Floral Association.
“I’ve always been interested in politics, and especially now that I can vote,” she explained. “I wanted to come to CAD because I want to be involved, and I’ve learned a lot here: Talking to lawmakers and staff isn’t just something for the ‘elites.’ Anyone can pick up a call, or walk in an office, and comment on an issue. That’s exciting.”
Highlights from CAD 2018 include:
Bipartisan Talks. On Monday, Mike Smith and Jim Richards of Cornerstone Government Affairs in Washington, D.C., kicked off CAD with a candid, bipartisan discussion on the state of politics today — and the challenge of moving key issues forward in a midterm election year. Richards argued that positive reception to the recent tax reform could influence midterm elections more than some pundits are predicting. “[That law] is really selling well and it has the potential to change how people plan to vote.” Smith, for his part, argued Democrats are well positioned to out-perform Republicans. “There’s a fever in Washington right now and the best way to cure a fever is to have an election,” he said, before also acknowledging that predicting any outcome is hard. “Technology is changing elections in a way that we can’t quite keep up with.”
Expert Takes. Before heading to Capitol Hill, attendees were briefed on the year’s issues: key fixes to the country’s immigration system and funding for the Floriculture & Nursery Research Initiative and Floriculture Crops Report.
- D.C.-based attorney and immigration expert Laura Foote Reiff acknowledged that immigration is a major issue — and one that isn’t likely to be resolved soon. Still, she encouraged SAF members to share their stories. “Congress hasn’t done what they need to do on immigration reform,” she said. “Generally speaking, we have seen very business-friendly proposals from the Trump administration. But the domestic policy wing of the White House really runs immigration. That’ why it’s important to talk about the country’s business, economic and national security needs, as they relate to immigration.”
- Terril Nell, Ph.D., AAF, research coordinator for the American Floral Endowment and former SAF president, presented an overview of the Floriculture & Nursery Research Initiative (FNRI) — and how that effort has benefited all segments of the industry, along with the general public, bringing some of the top academics and researchers to work on the industry’s biggest challenges, including post-harvest technology and pest and disease management.
- Dr. Marvin Miller, AAF, discussed the history of the Floriculture Crops Report and the importance of asking Congress to fund the effort once again. “Floriculture is the sixth largest farmgate value crop category in the U.S. — a lot of lawmakers don’t realize that,” he said. “This is the benchmark report for our industry. Researchers, producers and marketers need it to plan, and so it affects all of us.”
Lobbyist trainer Stephanie Vance also helped CAD attendees prep and practice in advance of their meetings on Tuesday. “It’s important to understand the different steps and language,” she said. “Education is making sure members of Congress and their staff know what you do. Public relations is making sure they feel positively about what you do. Advocacy is getting them to be engaged and do something specific — and lobbying is what your SAF Government Relations team is here in Washington doing throughout the year.”
White House Briefing. Seven senior-level administration officials briefed SAF members at the White House during a lively session that lasted more than two hours and featured frequent Q&A sessions. CAD members heard directly from White House officials on issues of immigration, drug enforcement, health care, tax reform trade and labor.
“We’ve got to come up with a reliable, safe and legal program for immigration,” said Ray Starling, special assistant to the president for Agriculture, Trade and Food Assistance and previously chief of staff for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). He thanked SAF members for coming to the White House. “I know it takes a lot of effort to leave your businesses and your families to be here, but it’s important. It holds us accountable.”
Jim Carroll, deputy director and acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and previously assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff, detailed his work on the opioid crisis, and how that issue is hurting American families and businesses. He also memorably recounted his own family’s long history in the floral industry, dating back to the early 20th century, when his grandparents and later his parents operated a florist and growing operation in Alexandria, Virginia — the Alexandria Floral Co.
“Growing up, that was the only job I had,” he said. “Emptying buckets, sweeping floors, making deliveries. I’ve done the all-nighters for Easter, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. I know yours is a tough business.”
A Reporter Reflects. During the annual reception and dinner for SAF’s Political Action Committee, SAFPAC, CBS News’ Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett detailed his experience covering the 2016 presidential election. “I have learned more humility,” said Garrett, who covered his first presidential campaign in 1992. “I had built up what I thought was a pretty reliable body of knowledge. Then 2016 happened. I am much more guarded about my certainty now.”
A Congressman Connects. On Tuesday morning, just before heading to Capitol Hill, members heard from Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-California-20) who spoke from his heart — calling out personal relationships with SAF members in the audience — about the “heart and soul” and “strength and success” of the Central Coast of California and its agriculture community. In particular, Panetta reflected on a visit to Kitayama Brothers Inc., and how the company’s history — and the family’s determination to overcome adversity — had stayed with him. “That’s what agriculture is about,” he said. “People who are willing to take risks to succeed. Faced with difficult times, they continue to move forward. That is the American Dream.”
Look for much more coverage of CAD in the April/May issue of Floral Management and next week in EBrief. If you attended CAD and have a follow-up story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.