Every issue of this magazine includes a column on government affairs, known less formally as lobbying. There is good reason for this; while members of Western Growers look to the association for a variety of business services, at its core Western Growers is here to advocate for its members on public policy issues.
Many, if not most, agriculture associations rely on contract lobbyists to represent their members and many are highly effective advocates for the industry. Western Growers maintains strong partnerships with most. While Western Growers utilizes contract lobbyists for specific needs, we primarily invest in our own employee lobbyists who are solely dedicated to our members’ agenda, day in and day out.
In Washington, D.C., Sacramento and Phoenix, WG’s government affairs professionals work tirelessly in very difficult circumstances to educate and persuade legislators, executive branch leaders and program-level regulatory officials. Backed by subject matter experts in WG’s headquarters, our lobbyists have expertise across a dizzying array of issues, including immigration and labor law, water supply and quality, international trade, food safety, taxation, crop protection, healthcare, transportation and much more.
Government affairs—lobbying—is the most visible and fundamental component of advancing an interest’s public policy agenda. But there are other components. Think of the media communications and social media outreach that can help condition the political environment around an issue and cause legislators and regulators to be more receptive to the advocacy of WG’s government affairs team.
Then there is the matter of political action, which is the shorthand term for the making of campaign contributions and funding independent campaigns to help elect allies of our industry, and, just as importantly, to un-elect those who do us harm.
The Western Growers Political Action Committee (WGPAC) leads this important and sensitive work. Comprised of WG members who review and approve plans for contributions to candidates, the WGPAC Board also carries the heaviest weight in providing the funding needed for those plans to be realized. WGPAC funding is supplemented by events such as the Political Action Committee Luncheon at WG’s Annual Meeting and solicitations for contributions from all WG members at critical times of the year.
Directly contributing to the campaigns of elected officials and challengers is important. Increasingly though, political contests are affected by independent political spending. Whether referred to as “SuperPACs” or “Independent Expenditure Committees” (IECs), these entities can raise and spend unlimited sums, as long as there is no coordination with the candidate or candidates that stand to benefit.
Additionally, SuperPACs/IECs can be funded by corporations that are prohibited by law from contributing directly to federal candidates and candidates seeking statewide and legislative offices in Arizona. (Candidates running for statewide or legislative office in California may accept direct contributions from corporations, subject to limits.)
WG initiated an IEC in partnership with several other association allies in 2012 to target hostile incumbent California Assembly members, and the success of that effort sent a powerful and necessary message in Sacramento.
Data from state and federal agencies reveals a huge increase in independent expenditures in recent election cycles. In some cases, independent spending dwarfs the total raised and spent by the candidates in a contested election.
As we explore greater utilization of this form of political action, it’s important to be realistic about the limits of political spending. Spending a truckload of money on a political race doesn’t guarantee success. A fresh example occurred in California’s June election for Governor. Wealthy advocates for charter schools created an IEC to support former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the crowded race to earn a spot in the top-two runoff this fall. The effort fell far short.
With Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom certain to take the top spot, Villaraigosa found himself competing with Republican John Cox for second place. At $23 million (mostly spent on television ads), the charter schools IEC eclipsed by $3 million the total raised and spent by Gov. Jerry Brown four years ago.
When the dust settled in June, Villaraigosa was a distant third and out of the November runoff.
The lessons inherent in this are several. Among them: Sometimes, no amount of spending can change the fundamentals at play in an election campaign. From the outset, Villaraigosa was trying to force his way as a centrist through the top-two primary where voters of both parties could find a candidate closer to their partisan comfort zones.
Many in agriculture supported Villaraigosa; certainly the result will sting for some time. But none of us should leave the playing field. The need for strong political action by agriculture leaders has never been greater, given the distance (both geographically and politically) between farmers and the large majority of voters in urban areas who influence election outcomes. We need to put our resources into the fight, but we need to do it wisely and with properly calibrated expectations.