Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, led an advocacy training session for National Grocers Association members.
When I was invited to last year’s First Fly-In for Fair Competition by the National Grocers Association, I got to be a fly on the wall during meetings in Congress members’ offices, where independent grocers passionately laid out their arguments for why the lawmakers should support the issues most important to the industry. This year, I got to experience a little bit of the preparation that goes into those meetings: an advocacy training session hosted by Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Management Foundation.
Hugging the Porcupine
During the engaging session, Fitch admitted that it could be difficult to engage with lawmakers — he joked that an alternative title for the session could be “How to Hug a Porcupine” — but he also stressed that most representatives and senators are “decent public servants” who “want to make a difference in the world.” The key is for independent grocers to get their attention by relaying the specific impact of a piece of legislation on them and their business in the Congress member’s district: “Only you can tell your story.”
Fitch noted that while in-person visits have the most influence on legislators, remote meetings are here to stay and should be added to the constituent arsenal. In fact, he likened their importance to that of email as an indispensable tool.
He also advised that grocers build respectful relationships with the young staffers who often serve as gatekeepers to their bosses, suggesting such means as sending thank-you notes on nights or weekends, when the continuous stream of emails these employees get isn’t as heavy.
Other tactics that an independent grocer could adopt are inviting a lawmaker to one of its stores, providing flexibility with regard to the date and time and as much advance information about the visit as possible; setting up in-state meetings at the Congress member’s district office three or four weeks ahead of time, when the schedule is being determined; actively taking part in telephone town halls; and penning letters to the editor for a local newspaper, taking care to mention the Congress member’s name.
Ending his presentation with a meaningful quote from Thomas Jefferson — “We do not have a government of the majority; we have a government of the majority who participate” — Fitch made it plain that connecting with Congress members, although not without challenges, was the best way to get important points across and gain support for issues of the utmost significance to independents, such as enforcing the Robinson-Patman Act so as to level the playing field for smaller operators competing with industry giants.
Additionally, attendees heard from Jonathan Kanter, assistant attorney general of the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice, on that all-important subject of competition; James Glueck, of the Torrey Advisory Group, and Barbara Hiden, of the American Beverage Association, on how to navigate lobbying in relation to such potential Farm Bill provisions as SNAP Choice, which would place no restrictions on what program recipients could purchase; and political analyst, commentator and best-selling author Chris Stirewalt, on 2024 presidential politics and what its impact is likely to be in the nation’s capital.
Following these information-packed sessions, I came away with a much greater appreciation for all that goes into making the NGA Fly-In such a success. Educated independent grocers make the best advocates for positive change.