OAN focuses on issues rather than party politics
It’s 2020, and Americans are more polarized than ever. Their political institutions certainly reflect it. That was true even before COVID-19 and other unusual events of this year layered on an added patina of surreality.
OAN Government Relations Committee member Leigh Geschwill described the landscape as “treacherous, like we’ve gone to Afghanistan.”
“We’re at a time where the political divisiveness is nearing an extreme,” she said. “It makes it hard for anyone like us who really wants to focus on an issue to get any attention. It’s not what’s selling votes at the moment, for either side. There’s not a lot of air in the room to make even reasoned cases for things we need.”
“You have this new trend in Congress, where you can’t get anything done, because compromise is a dirty word,” OAN contract lobbyist Elizabeth Remley said.
But although there are challenges, OAN keeps friendly lines of communication open with Republicans as well as Democrats. A focus on issues rather than partisan fortunes helps the association stand apart from the fray. “Our voice is always there and we’re always at the table,” incoming Government Relations Committee Chairman Mark Bigej, an owner of Al’s Garden & Home, said. “We’re able to negotiate and so things are not as bad as they could have been. That tends to go unnoticed. It looks like we have all those failures, but these can be considered wins.”
Staying united as an industry
The success of the OAN advocacy approach comes down to several key principles. The association strives to be united, solution-oriented, strategic, creative and far-reaching.
And being united is at the top of the list.
“You get all these people in the room [at our Government Relations Committee meetings],” OAN President Jim Simnitt said. “They’re all different sizes. They all grow things a little differently. But when we all get on the side of an issue, even though it may not affect me, I’m going to back it because we’re all in this together. It’s a unified voice.”
Geschwill likes the diversity of viewpoints. “It just resonates really well and makes us more effective,” she said. “We have members in all different districts and different walks of life. I think that adds up to a really strong whole, together.” The more feedback from members, the more complete the picture.
“You’ll see something and say, ‘This doesn’t impact us too much,’ and then you’ll get a group of members saying, ‘This impacts us greatly,’” Geschwill said.
Conventional wisdom says the makeup of the OAN membership might be roughly 60 percent Republican, 40 percent Democratic. This was former Executive Director Clayton Hannon’s rule of thumb back in the 1990s. Rod Park, who served as OAN president in that decade, doesn’t believe it has changed. It’s one of the reasons a nonpartisan approach still makes the most sense for OAN, he said. Another is that natural alliances will change from issue to issue.“It’s about trying to make sure you get your issues taken care of,” Park said. “We haven’t fallen into the trap of partisanship in most cases.”
Last fall, the OAN Government Relations Committee invited Oregon House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) and Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland) to participate in the same OAN Government Relations Committee meeting.
Although one is a Republican and the other a Democrat, what resulted was a cordial exchange of ideas.
“It wasn’t a debate,” Simnitt said. “We weren’t trying to put them head to head and make it adversarial, jockeying against each other. It was, let’s talk about both sides of this and get the issues on the table. It was a good discussion.”
Working for solutions
One of the keys to the Oregon nursery industry’s strong reputation among lawmakers and officials is the industry’s interest in finding solutions to problems.
“It’s the relationship that Jeff has with a lot of these people,” Simnitt said. “It’s the relationship that Elizabeth brings. And it’s the relationship that we’ve cultivated throughout the whole government relations (GR) history, like Rod and Leigh, who have been great leaders and have a reputation for not having knee jerk reactions. We’re solution oriented, not just willing to complain about issues, but work on them.”
Nurseries are willing to solve problems in a way that doesn’t hurt them.
“No one knows the business better than us,” Park said. “We know what the problems are. We know what the issues are. What we don’t know, and this is where our communication with our legislators and state regulators comes in, is what they need to accommodate in terms of the state regulation. Give us the goal, but don’t tell us how to do it, and we’ll come up with a solution.”
Finding creative answers
Creativity is also key to the OAN’s approach, and it goes hand-in-hand with problem solving.
One of the biggest examples Park remembers is back in the 1990s, when state officials were trying to solve the issue of runoff pollution from container nurseries.
“We had an [Oregon Department of Environmental Quality] regulator basically say — how do I phrase this? — ‘We don’t care if we put you out of business. You’re not going to pollute,’” Park said. “It certainly caught people’s attention.”
Rather than wait to see what that entailed, OAN and its member growers worked with state officials to create the first voluntary water runoff control program in the U.S. with regulatory backup. This program gave growers the responsibility to contain and treat their runoff, while giving them the freedom to do it in a way that worked best for their property and their business.
“You can do your program, contain your runoff however you work it out,” Park said. “Some capture it, others let it run onto their other fields. It’s not cookie cutter. Some people have flat ground. Some people have rolling ground. Some people have porous ground. Some people have tight ground. But by doing that it allowed the industry to be innovative, especially the amount of water they’re conserving now.”
The conserved, treated water became an important source of irrigation water for many growers.
“We took something that was a disadvantage and made it an advantage,” Park said.
Keeping strategy in mind
In the years since, Oregon’s nursery and greenhouse industry has used creative, solution-oriented approaches to solving sudden oak death, water rights issues, the driver’s card issue and many more.
Often, the OAN builds ad hoc coalitions to solve these problems. To win approval of legislation allowing undocumented people to obtain driver’s licenses legally, the OAN organized a coalition of business groups, faith leaders, unions, advocates for the Latino community, and even some law enforcement agencies.
All saw that allowing drivers to be licensed would result in safer roads and stronger communities, and all drew on their unique ability to swing certain legislators and secure passage.
“We’ll work with people on an issue where we might totally disagree with them on something else,” Bigej said. “I think that’s super important given the political environment that we’re in currently. If we dug our heels in and only sided with the Republicans who probably side with the majority of our members, we would be in a world of hurt. If we weren’t able to talk to the Democrats, then we would be shut out.”
On water supply issues, the OAN brought together the major water user groups — municipalities, agriculture and conservationists — to find common ground on long-term water supply issues. As with the driver’s license coalition, these are groups that normally may not work together.
It’s not just an example of being strategic, but of looking to the long term.
“You can’t just fight the issues that are going up for a vote now,” Bigej said. “You have to work on important issues like water years and years ahead. If you wait until an issue becomes a critical issue for you, you are too late. There’s a long-term strategy that really has to be played out.”
Playing at the national level
The OAN doesn’t stick to just state issues. National issues also get attention. The association works with AmericanHort, the national green industry trade association, to advocate on federal issues. At the same time, OAN also conducts its own outreach to members of federal officials as well as members of Congress. The latter are not limited to Oregon’s delegation, but can also include committee chairs and their staff.
The OAN has built a strong reputation on the federal level, thanks to the consistent building of relationships.
“Our Government Relations arm is definitely seen in a positive light nation-
wide, and we have a lot of respect,” Bigej said. “As Jeff says, we hit above our
Annually, a contingent comprised of Stone, Shropshire, the current president and the current GR chair travels to Washington, D.C. to visit with federal representatives, committee staff, administration staff, industry allies and others. (The 2020 visit was, of course, canceled.)
Bigej remembers traveling to D.C. for the first time. He was surprised to find that lobbying at the federal level was not all that different from doing at the state level, which he had already done.
“It was a great education for me in how the system works,” Bigej said. “We were just a small contingent from Oregon, but we were able to get into a lot of doors that I was surprised we would. A lot of people were able to hear our input and our ideas.”
Sometimes relationships turn out differently than the members expect. Geschwill remembers meeting with U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) in Washington, D.C. during her year as president. She was expecting to encounter a, in her words, “Portland liberal that doesn’t care about farming.”
“She didn’t really seem to know hardly anything about agriculture, even ag in her district, or nurseries,” Geschwill said. “Now, she often talks about ag employers and businesses in her district. She will come and ask us about issues. That’s a good example of building a relationship with someone based on respect.”