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January 14, 2020

The Fresh Produce Industry’s New Chief Advocate

Dave Puglia is a political veteran and public policy expert and now the leader of one of the most influential trade associations in agriculture

The blaring ring from the phone pierces through the hotel room, nearly knocking the headset off of its base. A second ring sends vibrations that echo off the walls, nearly knocking Dave Puglia, press secretary to Dan Lungren, out of bed. It’s 4 a.m. on November 6, 1990.

Puglia, who is now functioning off of two hours of sleep over the past 48 hours, drowsily picks up the headset, “Hello?”

“Get the candidate out of bed, gather the rest of the team and get to his suite as fast as possible. I think we are going to win.”

It was veteran GOP political consultant Ken Khachigian with news that immediately jolted Puglia awake. For the past year, Puglia had put in 16 hour days, 7 days a week, dedicating his every waking moment to help Dan Lungren win the open seat for Attorney General of California. Watching the votes roll in on election night rightfully devastated the Lungren team, as their opponent, San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith, pulled ahead, built a lead and seemingly secured the victory. One by one, the candidate and his team retreated to their rooms in the hotel. However, that disappointment quickly turned into excitement.

Khachigian had been up calling county registrar offices inquiring about the number of absentee votes still to be processed. After crunching the numbers, he projected that Lungren would eke out a win, when all the votes were counted. This was the incredible moment when Puglia and his team realized that thousands of hours of hard work might actually pay off. When the announcement that Lungren had won by three-tenths of a percentage point was officially made several weeks later, Puglia knew that he had won one for the good guys.

If you have never met Dave Puglia, his political acumen and unrelenting passion for influencing public policy will impress you. Whether it’s helping a dedicated political leader win and succeed in elected office or fighting for agricultural water, his intelligent and confident style serves as the foundation for getting the job done. Politics runs in his blood, and he is a walking encyclopedia of names, dates and facts. If you ask him a question related to California or U.S. politics, he will likely know the answer and immediately go into great detail about the historical context.

Because of his natural drive to understand the nuances of public policy, some may refer to Puglia as a policy wonk. But he also understands the relational side of policymaking, the relationships that must be developed and nurtured to effect real change. He also understands his role as an advocate for Western Growers (WG) members and is unapologetic in his defense of the industry.

“You don’t really change public policy in a bold way when you’re not bold. And as a consultant I had found that many trade associations aren’t bold,” said Puglia, speaking about his initial apprehension to join WG in 2005 as vice president of state government affairs.

“However, I learned very quickly from my conversations with Tom [Nassif] and Jasper [Hempel] that this was nothing like the trade associations I had encountered as a consultant. Tom made clear to me that bold action is not only possible here but expected,” Puglia continued.

After meeting the board of directors, a group he boasts is comprised of owners and CEOs that are risk-takers with incredible fortitude, Puglia learned quickly that his decision to take the job was the right one.

The idea of challenging the status quo now drives his vision for the association come February 1, 2020, when he formally assumes the role of WG’s President and CEO.

“Ronald Reagan said, ‘Status quo is Latin for the mess we’re in.’ I will be guided by the premise that one of the greatest dangers in this business is the status quo,” he said. “Tom Nassif certainly came to this role with an appetite for challenging the status quo, and there is no question that Western Growers and the industry at large are better for it. So I have the benefit of leading a very healthy, vibrant and effective organization. We won’t maintain that strength by being comfortable. We have to come to work every day with a drive to do better. Our members embody an amazing degree of entrepreneurialism and sophistication, and we should share those characteristics by always challenging ourselves to do better.”

Puglia notes how the hyper-speed at which information flows is dramatically changing the nature of public policy engagement and advocacy, and this can provide an opportunity for WG to be on the leading edge of that trend. WG has made strides in effectively using social media as a communications platform for public policy and shaping positive consumer opinions and judgments about agriculture and farming. In the future, he plans to expand WG’s reach and influence by using paid and earned media as well as further tap into the digital space to achieve legislative goals that benefit the fresh produce industry.

Where will he start? California.

“There’s a saying in politics: ‘As California goes, so goes the nation,’” Puglia notes.

Though California is the largest ag production state in the country, it is also the most populous. Most legislators represent dense urban districts and are separated from farming. Many are either willingly or unconsciously influenced by ideological mythology about farms and farm practices. Farmers, especially in the Western United States, are continuously hit with a litany of regulations—many of them at the local and state level—that are making it increasingly difficult to accomplish their noble goal of feeding the world. Examples of these restrictive policies include the elimination of vital crop protection tools (before alternatives are developed), rules that limit access to water and laws that result in exorbitant labor costs and ultimately hurt the earnings potential of farmworkers. The erosion of support for farmers among policymakers across the country is evident, and it’s a macro-level challenge Puglia plans to take head-on.

“Year after year, we become more separated and shunned by lawmakers. That is a dangerous existence,” said Puglia. “Western Growers has the obligation and capability to lead the way in cracking the code—not only in California but also in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Washington, D.C.”

From a young age, Puglia was bred to lean into the world of politics and public policy. His father, who was an appellate court justice appointed by Ronald Reagan during his tenure as Governor of California, encouraged heated discussions at the dinner table about politics; his mother, an immigrant from postwar Germany, was equally engaged in the verbal sparring. Puglia and his three siblings were continuously pulled into debates about one policy topic or another, but it wasn’t until college when his strong sense of civic participation kicked in.

At Sacramento State University, Puglia felt the pull of public affairs and politics as he abandoned his initial course of study in criminal justice and declared government-journalism as his major. A journalism professor who had worked in the state Capitol as a reporter connected Puglia with a friend working on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, and that set in motion a series of formative experiences over the next 17 years. In addition to serving in roles such as press secretary and senior adviser in the California Attorney General’s Office, he helped build the Sacramento branch of APCO Worldwide (a global public affairs consulting firm), working for clients in several industry sectors. However, some of his most powerful memories and “teachable moments” stemmed from his involvement in various statewide political campaigns.

“I remember being introduced as ‘the oldest 33-year-old in America’ while serving as campaign director for Dan Lungren’s run for governor in 1998. That’s when I knew I had really been through the wringer and that my experience working all these campaigns had aged me far beyond my youth,” said Puglia.

In fact, those were some of the most trying times in Puglia’s career. He was tapped to run Lungren’s gubernatorial campaign in late 1997, a major shift from the team’s initial plan that he serve as communications director. He had been intimately involved in three statewide campaigns prior, but spearheading a gubernatorial campaign in the most populated state in the country was a whole new ballgame. Puglia took on the challenge of running a $45 million campaign and a staff of 60, while also handling political reporters and editors – all the while managing the candidate.

Though the campaign resulted in a loss, Puglia counts it among his most valuable professional experiences. “In any political campaign, you go from crisis to crisis while trying to stay on a longer strategic plan,” says Puglia. “You can learn an incredible amount about this business, about other people, and about yourself, if you can be objective in victory and even more so in defeat.”

Puglia joined WG as Arnold Schwarzenegger was in his second year as Governor. In 2007, Schwarzenegger began shaping a multi-facetted legislative package around water policy, and Puglia saw an opportunity for WG to be involved in the development of the legislation. At the time, WG had not been heavily involved in water policy for nearly 25 years. The failure of the Peripheral Canal Act in 1982 had severely divided the ag industry, and WG had largely withdrawn from the field.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Puglia said. “Farmers need water, and water policy is going to be made with or without us. That was the moment where I felt very strongly that there was no point being an advocate for this industry without advocating on water policy so I jumped in with Governor Schwarzenegger’s team, knowing that I needed to get smart on water policy really fast.”

Puglia, who now had a seat at the table to shape elements of the Schwarzenegger water package, started educating himself by engaging with water experts throughout the state, water agencies and WG board members who had historical knowledge on water project operations and allocations. He worked closely with the governor and his team to help put forth an $11 billion water bond, which was approved by the Legislature along with five other bills in 2009. It marked the first time since the State Water Project’s initial bond was passed in 1959 that the Legislature approved significant bond funding for surface water projects.

Just over 10 years later, and 15 years since joining WG, Puglia now has his hands at the helm. As he begins to chart his course, and by extension the future of the industry, he is reminded of the lessons he learned many years ago in his youth. “My father’s integrity, patience and determination are characteristics that I always admired. Not only do I try to instill those traits in my sons, but I try to live by those values every single day,” Puglia states with conviction.

Family is central to Puglia’s life; he is quick to share the latest updates about his twin sons, Ben and Nick, who are attending college. An expert lifelong skier, Puglia relishes every opportunity to ski the mountains of Utah and Colorado with them. Home in Orange County, he and wife Lezlie enjoy friendly pickle ball matches with friends and highly competitive tennis matches with each other (Lezlie has racked up an impressive match win streak, according to Dave, though he won’t say how many).

There is little doubt—among the board of directors who unanimously selected Puglia to succeed Nassif, among the WG staff who have admired his professionalism from day one, among his colleagues in the industry and partners in allied industries, among his extensive local and national political network—that these qualities, imparted by his father, have laid the foundation for what will be an incredible tenure as WG’s “chief advocate.”

The threats facing the fresh produce industry will only accelerate in the coming decades, and taken together will challenge the continued competitiveness and profitability of WG member companies. Our success as an industry will be measured by our collective ability to pass our family farming operations on to the next generation. In part, this will require the enduring strength of trade associations like WG to act as a common voice, and the vision of extraordinary leaders like Dave Puglia to guide the industry forward, a task that he is both prepared for and passionate about.