By Tim O'Connor
For Blake Adami, it’s an interesting time to be in government relations. “With this current administration, the old rules that have governed D.C. in the past no longer apply,” says the vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
The new administration’s disruption of the norms has encouraged lobbyists like the 33-year-old Adami to find innovative ways of spreading their message. The old methods of sending letters up to Capitol Hill or creating an advocacy campaign are no longer as effective in a world where every lawmaker and congressional staffer has a Twitter and Facebook account. “There’s more access to people than ever before,” Adami notes. “There are different ways of getting ahold of folks. With the click of a button, I can figure out who is handling a certain issue on a committee at any time.”
Despite his age, Adami has the experience of a political veteran. After graduating from Texas A&M in 2007, the NAW staffer spent a decade on Capitol Hill as a legislative director and deputy chief of staff, a period that taught him the ins-and-outs of Washington and how to best communicate a message to those in power. He’s been putting those skills to use for the NAW for the past several months.
“This past June, NAW’s vice president of government relations retired after 34 years with us,” says Jade West, senior vice president-government relations. “It’s a challenge for an organization to lose that much experience and institutional knowledge, but also provided us with an opportunity to bring two new, younger advocates onto our team.” Those advocates she refers to are Adami and Associate Vice President Seth Waugh. “Having two young lobbyists has been very good for NAW. They bring a welcome perspective on how to negotiate the Hill, a new set of allies and colleagues for us to work with, fresh eyes, and new ideas on how to best present our industry with policymakers.”
Still, despite the shift toward doing business in an online setting, Adami says there is still great value in a one-on-one meeting. A message over Facebook can introduce a congressman to a topic, but the pitch is still best made in person, the millennial lobbyist says. “Building personal connections and coalitions is still the most effective way. No amount of technology can replace a face-to-face meeting or a personal relationship.”
Many of those face-to-face meetings have been on behalf of the 30,000 distributors and member associations Adami represents, including the Foodservice Equipment Distributor Association. NAW members from a diverse group of industries such as foodservice and energy have helped him understand the background of the industry and supplied first-hand accounts of the issues they face every day. From those stories, Adami determines what legislation to prioritize in the upcoming session. Often times, he’s pushing to reduce government regulations, eliminate taxes on employer-provided health insurance, or level the playing field through an effective tax rate. “It’s the same issue we hear from everybody,” he says. “They want to run their business and they want the government to get out of the way.”
Many of those issues are the same ones Adami advocated for in his previous life on Capitol Hill, which is why the NAW agenda felt like such a good fit for his talents. He joined the association in May to serve as its vice president of government relations. Since then, his work has touched on many issues that impact the daily operations of FEDA members. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Quill Corp. v. North Dakota and give states broad authority to collect sales taxes from online retailers, he began engaging on market fairness issues and how businesses will comply with the new rules.
To help ease the burden of the nationwide truck driver shortage, Adami has championed bills like the one introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) that would allow 18-year-olds to drive commercial trucks across state lines. Current law prohibits truck drivers under 21 from leaving their state. Adami believes the change could be packaged into a future transportation bill.
On the e-commerce front, NAW has created a coalition to fight against Amazon’s attempt to monopolize the way federal agencies purchase goods and equipment through web portals. Adami says he is listening to members and taking their ideas to Congress to show representatives what they can do to help distributors stay ahead—while emphasizing that distribution is a $5.7-trillion industry that employs more than 5 million people. At the same time, he praised those members who are providing value that large online-only retailers can’t match. “Our smarter distributors are realizing this and focusing their services on things Amazon can’t do,” he says. “Distributors can still offer in-depth knowledge and services.”
With the make-up of the House and Senate changing in the wake of the recent election, many of the people Adami has worked with during the past year will be leaving Washington D.C. As such, his next priority is building relationships with the incoming Congress. “We definitely meet with both ideologies,” he says. “A lot of the issues we work on are bipartisan issues. It’s just that in this political climate people are drawing lines in the sand.”