Political connections matter during a crisis

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Businesses have learned many lessons through the coronavirus crisis. One of them, Ashley Furniture Industries CEO Todd Wanek said in a recent Home Furnishings Association webinar, is “that you’ve got to be politically connected.”

When states issued orders requiring most businesses to close, they made exceptions for retailers selling “essential” items, which included medical supplies, appliances and groceries. That left most furniture stores out. But many of the large chains, such as Costco and Walmart, “were allowed to open and sell furniture,” Wanek said, “and we weren’t politically connected enough in many communities that we could say, our company also sells, your company – retail stores – also sell mattresses. We sell lift chairs. We sell outdoor furniture. We sell adjustable beds, home office furniture. Why aren’t we considered essential?”

[Tell leaders you can reopen your store safely]

That was not a problem for Casey Evans, co-owner of HFA member Pedigo Furniture in Livingston, Texas. When Evans saw the two big-box stores in her town selling home furnishings products, in addition to items designated as essential, she called Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy. Following a “civil conversation” in which Evans pointed out the inequity, Murphy agreed that Pedigo should be allowed to open, too.

In Texas, a county judge is an elected administrative officer.

Evans could present a sound argument that there would be considerably fewer customers in her store than in the big boxes. But it was also helpful that Evans and Murphy already had a strong relationship.

Corresponding with the county leader

“If we had not been corresponding with our county judge, we might not be in as good shape now,” Evans said last month.

Furniture stores in Texas and many other states now are open again as governors are lifting or easing stay-at-home orders, but Wanek warned that the same “essential business” problem can return if the virus resurges later this year.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a voice in that whole process as an industry, and you’ve got to make sure you’ve got a voice in your states,” he said. “I think that we all saw that we’re not well represented in many cases, and we’ve got to get tighter in with our politicians and help influence what happens in the states to make sure that our organizations can stay open, because we need to be open for business.

“That may be just for appointments, it may be with a small number of customers that come in your store,” Wanek said. “But if something would happen again economically, and the virus goes and maybe it’s a different virus, not just this one. We’ve got to make sure that we can be there and try to influence policy.”

“What we have been kind of preaching for the last number of weeks here is, don’t just think about it as Capitol Hill,” said HFA Executive Vice President Mark Schumacher, who hosted the webinar. “A lot of these open-and-close decisions and restrictive decisions are local and county and state, so you have a great point. And when you say politically connected, this does not matter which party, you’re just saying, be involved and know whom you’re talking to.”

“Absolutely,” Wanek said.

Steps for building political relationships

This point was stressed in an article published in the Winter 2020 issue of HFA Insights magazine. If included suggestions for building relationships with local elected officials before their help is needed:

Who are they?

You are represented by someone at every level of government. Your city or county website can help you learn who those representatives are and how to contact them.

[Find elected officials]

Make contact

Attend a town or county council meeting just to introduce yourself to your representative or representatives. Give them your card and say a word or two about your business. Follow up with a call or email and a reminder of your introduction.

Follow them on social media

If your representatives have an official Facebook page, Twitter account or other social media channel, “like” and follow them. That will help you track their activities and comment, respectfully, when you have something to say.

Invite them to visit

Once you’ve become acquainted with a representative, invite him or her to your store for a tour. Explain what you do. Introduce your employees. Mention some of your contributions to the community. Ask the representative to keep you informed about any issues that might affect your business. Respect his or her time by keeping the visit short. Follow up with a thank-you note.

Host an event

If you’d like to form a stronger bond, offer to host an event for your representative at your store. Present it as a discussion of a specific, timely issue – a proposed tax increase, a street project, an economic development plan. Invite fellow business owners and other citizens who are interested in the subject. Serve refreshments and make sure it’s a friendly gathering intended to share information, not to interrogate or criticize. Moderate the conversation, stick to the topic and follow a strict schedule.

Or, if it’s campaign season, the event could serve as a fund-raiser. Invite friends and business associates to consider a small donation to the representative/candidate – if the representative has earned your support. (If not, start courting his or her opponents.)

Organize an advisory group

Many politicians want to maintain a dialogue with constituents in the business community. Your representatives might like the idea of having a small group of business advisers they can meet with occasionally to discuss common concerns. Volunteer to organize it!

When there’s a problem

Now that you have positive relationships with your representatives, you can explain your concerns when issues come up at the state or local level that could have a detrimental impact on your business. You should expect your calls to be answered and to get a fair hearing.

Join a business organization

A Chamber of Commerce or trade association such as a retail federation has the capacity to research issues, monitor legislative and regulatory activity and mobilize collective action in ways that a lone business owner can’t.

Join HFA’s Government Relations Action Team

As a retail member of the association, you can join its Government Relations Action Team and help set the association’s legislative and regulatory agenda. HFA can also advocate for issues important to you and your business. Contact Doug Clark at 336-870-8025 or dclark@myhfa.org.

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