by Mike Sharkey
Even during a week when the national terror alert reached the “high” level and those attending the Chamber of Commerce’s annual lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. traipsed around the nation’s capital in the shadow of rocket launchers and Apache helicopters, those who went came away with a unanimous impression: the trip was worth it.
“It was a good trip and we met with a lot of folks and all of our congressional delegates,” said Kirk Wendland, executive director of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. “Sen. [Bob] Graham [who is recovering from heart surgery] was not in town, but we had breakfast with Sen. Bill Nelson.”
Wendland was on his second D.C. trip and formed, appropriately, part of the economic development issues team. As is the case for most, Wendland says the trip isn’t really about lobbying on behalf of specific issues or projects regardless of the topic. Rather, the trip is as much about taking numbers to Washington and showing this area’s representatives and senators support.
“In all honesty, they appreciate us coming up and telling them about our issues,” said Wendland. “They took the time to meet with us and it was time well-spent.”
With a focus on economic development, Wendland says it would be easy to head to D.C. with an agenda filled with specific projects and grants. But that may prove to be a waste of time. Wendland believes the immediate objective is to stay focused on the long-range goals for this area.
“It’s good for us to stay connected to the folks that represent us; not only them, but also their staff members,” he said. “They know the local issues. We don’t have to remind them every year.”
Jim McCollum, the current Chamber chair, organized the trip. Like Wendland, McCollum said this year’s trip was a success.
“I think the major opportunities for these trips are twofold,” said McCollum, who was on his fourth lobbying trip, but first as Chamber chair. “One, it gives our delegation in Washington the opportunity for us to visit en masse. Two, it gives us the ability to network among Jacksonville people. We don’t often get to do that away from home. I think that will be reflected in how well we work together when we all get home. It’s very, very valuable.”
Regardless of people’s backgrounds, McCollum said there’s simply no way to prepare for the atmosphere and pace of Washington, D.C.
“Even if you tell them how fast the pace will be, how tired they’ll be and how sore their feet will be, they don’t appreciate it until they go through it,” said McCollum, adding the capital is currently unlike he’s ever seen it. “It’s sobering to see rocket launchers by our national monuments and attack helicopters in the sky. The Department of Justice has a 10- to 12-foot fence around it with barbed wire at the top.”
Despite the current international tension, the trip was still an opportunity for some to do business. Shannon Hewitt, a political consultant with Fiorentino and Associates, was on the international issues team.
“We had a fantastic group on this trip,” said Hewitt. “I personally enjoyed talking with various ambassadors about international trade agreements in Jacksonville and the positive impact that will have [on the area]. The congressional legislation and their staff were very welcoming.”
School Board member Martha Barrett may be the veteran of the annual lobbying trips. She’s been going since 1985 and has only missed two or three. As a member of the educational issues team, Barrett spent most of her time lobbying on behalf of Duval County and Florida public schools.
“I thought it was excellent. I’ve been on most all of them and they just keep getting better and better,” said Barrett. “What’s most impressive is how much our elected officials appreciate us going up there. They know we do it on our time and spend our own money.”
Barrett agreed with McCollum’s assessment about the networking opportunities, especially the ability to compare notes with those you don’t run into, even in Jacksonville, very often.
“That’s it exactly,” said Barrett. “I met people I didn’t know before. You find yourself sitting in an airport or at dinner or lunch talking with someone and realize you have the same agenda.”