More than 70 industry volunteers from 30 U.S. states met with senators, congressional representatives and their legislative staffs on Capitol Hill last week to advocate on behalf of the industry as part of PPAI’s Legislative Education and Action Day (L.E.A.D.) in Washington, D.C.
It was the fifth anniversary of the event, which spanned two days and had volunteers conducting approximately 250 meetings to discuss current legislative issues affecting the industry, including tax protections for independent contractors and the preservation of current standards for tax deductible advertising expenditures. The meetings also served to build ongoing relationships between volunteers and their elected officials and provided opportunities to spread the word about the effectiveness of promotional products.
Volunteers reported that the majority of meetings were positive, with senators, representatives and their staffs showing a familiarity with the issues and engaging in the meetings.
“Generally we received a positive response from the government officials with whom we met. Many of them took a lot of notes and some asked insightful questions to further the discussion,” says Valerie Hayman Sklar, CAS, president of West Bloomfield, Michigan-based distributor Corporate Specialties LLC (UPIC: Maxwell) and a first-time L.E.A.D. attendee.
“When one congressman said that legislators need small businesses to tell them about what won’t work in a bill, it made me think that I could make a difference,” Sklar adds. “Just imagine what could be accomplished with our legislators if each of us takes the time to be part of the process.”
Many L.E.A.D. attendees were quite pleased by the amount of interest legislatures and staffers paid to the industry.
“Every year, there is always one meeting that you are like, ‘Wow, that was awesome.’ This year was no different,” says Jeff Schmitt, MAS, supervisor at Saint Charles, Illinois-based distributor Cedric Spring & Associates (UPIC: CEDR0001) and a three-time L.E.A.D. participant. Schmitt and Marc Simon, chief executive officer of Sterling, Illinois-based distributor HALO Branded Solutions (UPIC: HBS) and former chairman of the PPAI Board of Directors, met with Trevor Reuschel, a legislative assistant for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). “Trevor kept asking engaging questions to better understand our industry and how he could help. He was honest with us when he stated that Senator Durbin supported a bill that could hurt our industry, but also felt that at this time the bill wasn’t going anywhere.”
Political gridlock was a common theme throughout this year’s L.E.A.D., with elected officials assuring many volunteers that the proposed legislation they were in town to discuss was unlikely to become law in the near future. However, many legislators and their staffers warned that the issues pertaining to the promotional products industry—especially standards for tax deductible advertising expenditures—are unlikely to disappear.
“While it’s unlikely we’ll see comprehensive tax reform this year or next … members on both sides of the aisle agreed it was important for us to alert our members now, as it will most likely be revisited in future debates and proposals,” says Mark Jenkins, MAS+, managing director, promotional markets for Pioneer Balloon Company (UPIC: Pioneer) and 2014 PPAI Board chair.
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner (R-OH) also echoed this sentiment when L.E.A.D. volunteer Mitch Rhodus, CAS, of HALO; Paul Bellantone, CAE, PPAI’s president and CEO; Jenkins and Simon met with the speaker in his office. This was the second year in a row that L.E.A.D. participants were granted an audience with Boehner.
Warnings from legislators that volunteers should continue their advocacy underscore the importance of L.E.A.D. to the industry, whose members took their meetings with senators and representatives as opportunities to build rapport and showcase the power of promotional products. All volunteers brought examples of U.S.-made products to their meetings. The items were donated by suppliers Quikey, Prime Line, The Leslie Company, Leed’s, Snugz USA and Drum Line.
President of Allentown, Pennsylvania-based supplier Artistic Toy Manufacturing, Inc. (UPIC: ARTSTOY) Jim Socci, CAS, made attendees at his meetings smile when he brought custom, reversible puppets that changed from donkeys (representing Democrats) to elephants (representing Republicans) as a demonstration of the fickle nature of politics.
“I was surprised by all of the other lobbying efforts taking place at the same time on Capitol Hill,” says Michael Wolaver, owner of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin-based distributor Magellan Promotions, LLC (UPIC: magpro). “This actually helped our cause because many of the groups were using promotional products to help create awareness. These groups effectively used tote bags, sashes, name badges and more to draw attention to themselves. I used this example as an easy way to show the power of promotional products in a number of my meetings.” Wolaver adds that many of his meetings were with offices that had never met with a promotional products professional.
“PPAI’s Legislative Education and Action Day is one important step in building the visibility and credibility of our industry and profession. The 70-plus professionals who participated this year represented the nearly 500,000 jobs and 30,000 companies that make up this $19 billion industry,” Bellantone says. “The event has grown over the past five years, and the healthy balance between new and seasoned attendees is having an impact. The advocacy teams were quickly recognized by the elected officials and their staff and our industry is on the radar.
“When we visited with members of congress, the senators and their staffs, we weren’t suppliers and distributors, member categories or competitors. We were an industry of professionals gathering to tell a story of the power of promotional products and how they build businesses, create jobs and promote programs. During this advocacy trip, PPAI members explained that the same products members of Congress rely upon during the election process make a profound difference in the lives of their constituents on a daily basis. Our industry is filled with professionals who passionately pursue and fulfill programs that bring a return on investment to businesses of all sizes in all industries as well as charities and hospitals, to families and children in need and to their communities across the country,” Bellantone adds.
Also during L.E.A.D., PPAI presented Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) with the Association’s 2014 Legislator of the Year Award. The award recognizes members of Congress who have shown a commitment to small-business interests and success, a willingness to meet with industry professionals and have given their support to issues critical to the promotional products industry.
During L.E.A.D., PPAI organized a virtual fly-in for industry members who were unable to physically take part in the event and helped them advocate on a host of issues by writing letters, emails and social media posts focusing on the importance of pending legislation and issues relevant to the promotional products industry.
L.E.A.D. volunteers also had an eye to the future last week as they met with legislatures, inviting them to participate in upcoming industry events.
“One nice thing with which we came away was the receptiveness of having either an official or staff member attend Expo East next month,” says Mike Schenker, MAS, executive vice president of Augusta, New Jersey-based supplier Bobble Boss (UPIC: Bobble). “There seemed to be genuine interest in this.”
Chris Piper, regional vice president of HALO, is planning to organize a meetup for local distributors in his hometown of Bend, Oregon, so that his representative can hear first-hand from attendees how the issues discussed during L.E.A.D. would affect their businesses if those pieces of legislation were passed.
“My next step, which I have in motion but no commitments at this time, is inviting our representatives to PPW! Week at iClick and also to the NWPMA Showcase held in Portland in May,” Piper says. “These two events would provide them with an opportunity to meet distributor owners, visit with our suppliers and tour a facility.”
See more photos from L.E.A.D. on PPAI’s Facebook page.