When Karen Fountain, AAF, of Flowers ‘n’ Ferns stepped into the office of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) on the morning of Tuesday, March 12, she was ready for a challenge. Earlier this year, Kaine joined with 30 senators to introduce a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024 —an increase that Fountain said will devastate her small retail flower shop in Burke, Virginia. “I showed him real numbers from our store — our costs, our profits — and walked him through how this kind of change would affect all of us,” Fountain said. “I didn’t change his mind, and I wasn’t expecting to do that in one meeting, but he thanked me for bringing actual numbers to our meeting and for such a good conversation. The most important thing to me is that I got to go in there and make the case in person for my business.”
This week, more than 90 retail florists, wholesalers, suppliers and growers came together during the Society of American Florists’ 39th annual Congressional Action Days to meet lawmakers and key congressional staff, discuss important issues, learn from subject matter experts, reaffirm connections and forge new relationships. In a time of deep partisanship, SAF members from 28 states, including 16 first-time attendees, used civility, personal stories and data from their individual businesses to lobby Democrats and Republicans for common sense solutions in the immigration system and to advocate for research funding and a critical federal crop report. Like Fountain, they also expressed their opposition to the effort to raise the federal minimum wage to $15.
“Lobbying can be a force for good,” said Cheryl Denham, AzMF, of Arizona Family Florist in Phoenix, an SAF volunteer leader and longtime CAD participant who introduced many of the expert speakers for the two-day event.
“One person can make a difference,” she added. “This is our democratic tradition — and it works.”
Before heading to Capitol Hill Tuesday morning with their state delegations, CAD attendees heard from journalists and Washington insiders about the current landscape in Washington and how future events, including the 2020 presidential election, could change the terrain.
Reid Wilson, the national correspondent for The Hill newspaper, highlighted the country’s current divisions using data and humor: political scientists track Americans’ political leanings based on the alcohol they drink, the restaurants they choose, and the TV shows they prefer.
Wilson noted demographic shifts in the country are also playing out in the two political parties — including historic gains among female candidates in the 2018 midterm elections and at state-level offices — with the Democrats drawing in more women, minorities and college-educated Americans while Republicans attract more white, male voters far from urban centers and hit hardest by the last recession.
“This hyper-partisanship is only increasing and it’s having a deep effect on our culture,” he said. “Over the last two decades we’ve undergone a really big undermining of trust in all of their institutions. We as a society have lower trust levels in our big institutions. That has played a big role in [our polarization].”
Shawn McBurney, SAF’s senior director of government relations, took to the podium to outline SAF’s position on immigration reform and to outline its opposition to the minimum wage increase.
On immigration — a contentious and complex issue — SAF members told lawmakers they oppose stand-alone, mandatory E-Verify legislation and instead support reform efforts that include enforcing immigration laws at the border, improving verification of employment authorization and creating an acceptable guest-worker program.
“We have to keep on reminding Congress to act on immigration reform,” McBurney said. “It’s in our economy’s best interest to find a solution.”
Mike Mooney of Dramm & Echter, a grower with farms in Baja, Mexico, and San Diego, California, joined McBurney on stage to share his personal reflections on the issue —including poignant experiences at the retail-, wholesale- and grower-level working alongside friends whose immigration status wasn’t always clear — and how disruptive and unfair the current system is to workers and employers in need of a stable, reliable labor force.
“These are my friends and our friends,” Mooney said. “They are vital to our industry. This is a big issue and we all have these same stories to share. We’re all knitted together by the same problem.”
Skip Paal, AAF, of Rutland Beard Floral Group, headquartered in Baltimore, discussed how rising state wage requirements in Maryland have already adversely affected his business — and why a federal effort could make things worse.
“Increasing the minimum wage to $15 is not sustainable,” Paal said, noting that he had to consolidate eight positions and reconfigure his designers’ compensation package to accommodate increased costs imposed in Maryland. “This is one of our most important issues — it affects every segment.”
Building on successes following last year’s Congressional Action Days, when Congress agreed to allocate more funding to the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative and generate a new Floriculture Crops Summary after several years’ lapse in publication, Terril Nell, Ph.D., AAF, research coordinator for the American Floral Endowment, and Dr. Marvin Miller of Ball Horticultural Company, helped attendees understand the important roles these research-based efforts play in the future success of the industry.
“Research is all about your business, it doesn’t matter the segment,” Nell said, noting that FNRI has played a central role in creating new technology and best practices in pest and disease management. “Money toward research makes it happen.”
Miller noted that, when it comes to benchmarking pricing information and creating data-based trends information, no other survey compares to the Floriculture Crops Summary. “This report historically has given us our year-to-year comparisons,” he said. “No matter what you’re involved with in the industry, it’s important information for your business, customers or suppliers.”
SAF members also heard Tuesday morning from subject matter experts Joe Bischoff, Ph.D., Alice Gomez, and John Sandell, all of Cornerstone Government Affairs in Washington, D.C., who discussed updates in U.S. trade policies, including the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement set to replace NAFTA; trade disputes between the U.S. and China; the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) as it relates to roses imported from Ecuador; and future infrastructure funding. In addition, A.B. Stoddard, an associate editor and columnist with RealClearPolitics, provided in-depth political commentary on the 2020 presidential election to SAF members who attended the annual reception and dinner for SAFPAC, the industry’ s political action committee.
Taking to Capitol Hill
Before the state groups heading to the Capitol on Tuesday, Cornerstone’s Hunt Shipman, a former USDA deputy under secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, reminded SAF members to make their pitches to lawmakers and staff personal.
“Find a w ay to make a connection with each office,” he said. “This is not a partisan exercise. This is about staying engaged and making sure you and your business are top of mind with these lawmakers.”
The message resonated with first-time attendee Robin Van der Schaaf of Flamingo Holland in Vista, California, who spent the day with other members of the California delegation, many of whom have been participating in CAD for a number of years. An aide in the office of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) was delighted to spot the group and particularly Mooney; one of her aunts is Dramm & Echter customer. She remembered the group from years past.
“It was nice to meet with people who had some familiarity with our industry, and they seemed to understand the complexities of E-Verify,” Van der Schaaf said.
Jeanne Boes of the San Francisco Flower Mart, another first-timer, was surprised by how much time her group received in many of the offices. “They weren’t rushing us out,” she said. “They were taking notes, asking questions.”
Matt Altman of Altman Plants/Floragem, headquartered in Vista, California, said he was surprised, too, “by how accessible” Congress felt. “SAF did a good job demystifying the process and simplifying the issues,” added Altman, who was also at CAD this year for the first time.
While most of the meetings on the Hill involved congressional staff, a number of CAD participants met directly with their members of Congress, including Liza Atwood of Fifty Flowers in Boise, who discussed industry issues with Sen. Jim Risch (R), following up a productive discussion they had last year. “This year it was like coming home,” Atwood said with a laugh. “We walked into the office and were greeted so warmly.”
Kate Delaney, AAF, of Matlack Florist in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said the “biggest pushback” her group received concerned the minimum wage — but even on that issue, personal connections paid off. Rep Madeleine Dean (D-Pennsylvania) worked years ago in a flower shop now owned by SAF president-elect Chris Drummond, AAF, PFCI, of Plaza Flowers in Philadelphia, who was also on the Hill Tuesday. “She started to talk about her memories working as a young teenager, wrapping the flowers, sweeping the floors, and then we could remind her how important those entry-level jobs are,” and how minimum wage increases could force small business owners to cut such positions, Delaney explained.
Father-son team Brian Wheat, AAF, PFCI, and Tanner Wheat of Lafayette Florist, Gift Shop & Garden Center in Lafayette, also shared similar stories: They realized one congressional aide grew up behind their greenhouse. Tim Galea of Noton’s Flowers & Gifts in Ypsilanti, Michigan, was delighted when a staff member recognized his business card: “Norton’s Flowers?” she exclaimed. “I know Norton’s!”
For Jodi McShan, AAF, of McShan Florist in Dallas, Texas, Tuesday was a productive and interesting. “It was enlightening to talk with the aides and to hear what they’re working on,” she said. “It was a good day — with lots of walking.”
In fact, when the hard-charging Illinois group, which visited 20 congressional offices, tallied the ground they covered, they realized they’d traveled more than 5 miles around the Capitol. Another stat: Among the nine members, they calculated that they employ more than 1,400 people in Illinois — a figure they shared with lawmakers and staff members throughout the day.
“Our approach [as a state group] is that we see everyone,” said Miller, of Ball Horticultural. “Every senator, every representative, no matter of their political affiliation. If they don’t represent us directly, well, they still have the floral industry in their district.”
“What we’re doing here is so important,” added Miller, a longtime participant and key driver behind the push for research funds. “My dream for CAD is have someone here from every state. My ultimate dream is to have someone from every district.”
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You can find more pictures from the day on SAF’s Facebook page — and be sure to search #safcad on Instagram. Look for additional coverage and more photos of SAF members on the Hill in upcoming member publications.
Mary Westbrook is the editor in chief of Floral Management.