After only a few hours on Capitol Hill, it's obvious that lobbyist Laura Pemberton knows pretty much everybody. During the OIA Capitol Summit in Washington, D.C., held April 17-19, more than 20 people shout and wave to Pemberton as she leads her team of manufacturers, retailers, and one SNEWS® reporter down the hallways and sidewalks of D.C.
Outside the Capitol, at a security checkpoint, the guards in black shades and body armor can't help but grin when Pemberton greets them with her quick smile and Mississippi drawl. Heck, the coat-check lady near the Senate gallery hugs the petite blond just like her momma would.
Politics is all about relationships, and Pemberton -- a former policy advisor for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. -- should help bring some more love to the outdoor industry. She's a member of Meece Enterprises, a lobbying firm that OIA hired about a year ago to step up its game. The firm's owner, Mike Meece, is from Texas and served as deputy director of the White House public liaison office for President Bush. He and Pemberton know how to work both sides of the aisle, and they represent a couple of big bats in OIA's lobbying lineup.
In addition to hiring Meece, OIA has made some other good moves during the past few years. It hired Amy Roberts and Alex Boian, who by all accounts form a strong government affairs team, and started working with Ron Sorini of Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg on trade and tariff issues. And in 2006, the association published "The Active Outdoor Recreation Economy," a report with solid statistics on the industry's economic power. This year, the effective lobbying personnel and new research combined with the changeover in Congress to make the Capitol Summit a big success.
As the event drew to a close, SNEWS® spoke with several attendees who were downright giddy, declaring that meetings on the Hill went so well that they thought this was a watershed year. OIA President Frank Hugelmeyer said, "I've heard from attendees that this was a tenfold leap for the industry. This was a defining Summit, because major policy makers, people in the administration and influential senators were actually saying our talking points back to us."
While it's too early to predict the outcomes of actual legislation and budget requests, there was immediate evidence that the outdoor industry has gained in stature. The traditional Summit reception was held Wednesday evening at the Capitol in the Mike Mansfield Room, a distinguished place paneled in black walnut that's used for Senate social activities. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne stood beneath a portrait of George Washington and spoke passionately about nature's effect on the health of children, while no less than half a dozen senators stood listening. People packed a nearby hallway, and additional members of Congress wandered in and out as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., received awards from OIA. The room was not only packed with influential folks, but Secretary Kempthorne stayed for an hour -- and nobody in Washington, D.C., stays anywhere for an hour.
Of course, the reception's success was due to savvy planning. The Mansfield Room lies near the Senate chamber where members were involved in late voting that evening. OIA's Roberts helped arrange to get the room, realizing the significance of its location -- and it's this type of knowledge and attention to detail that can make a real difference.
While the reception was a big hit, the actual lobbying meetings have come a long way as well. SNEWS® noticed that there were significantly fewer meetings with glassy-eyed, disinterested staffers (though one young staffer met with us in a noisy hallway and kept glancing at an elevator like he wanted to run toward it and escape). Also, attendees reported fewer contentious meetings and less push-back on issues.
This year, outdoor industry members focused their lobbying efforts on four issues: increased funding ($125 million) for the Land & Water Conservation Fund; support for a proposed $258 million increase in funds for the National Park Service; a request for $69 million in funds for BLM lands; plus reductions in trade barriers for outdoor products.
While pressing these issues, lobbying teams highlighted OIA's Recreation Economy report, which not only included national statistics but also numbers broken down by state -- another little detail that we can attest proved important in meetings. "The ability to provide our economic impact was the bat we'd needed for several years to get people to understand how important we are," Hugelmeyer told SNEWS®.
Hugelmeyer said he was really surprised at how well his meeting went with Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican who has not always been a fan of the outdoor recreation lobby. "He said that economies of the West have evolved and shifted to recreation," said Hugelmeyer. "Traditionally, they have looked at funding in the Interior budget coming from the extractive industry, and it's now coming from recreation. And Congress is beginning to see that all the issues we are raising -- all of the Interior budget -- needs to be lifted up."
SNEWS® View: As the tenor continues to shift in Washington, D.C., OIA appears well positioned to move its agenda forward. It has the right tools; it has the right people. Of course, the outdoor industry is not yet a widely recognized face on Capitol Hill and it won't get that many waves, shouts and hugs. But it's quickly making more friends, the kind of friends whose own connections define relationships and bridge-building among the legislative elite. And all of that bodes well for our industry and future legislative efforts to ensure sufficient funding for recreation projects and land and water preservation, all of which means we have a future to look forward to.