Retailers Should Build Relationships With Local Lawmakers

Legislators rely on trusted resources to inform their decision-making
Photograph: Shutterstock

LAKEVILLE, Minn. — The most effective way to influence new laws is to meet and get to know lawmakers before they consider proposals that may negatively affect your business. If you can meet local elected officials early and develop respectful, friendly relationships, they may not always support your position, but at least they will be more likely to give you their most valuable commodities: their time and their willingness to listen to your concerns.

The National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) dedicates considerable resources and manpower toward working with our members to monitor legislation at all levels of government. At the federal and state level, we communicate with stakeholders on tobacco issues. Pending legislation can be tracked throughout the legislative process from central databases we monitor on a daily basis. We share information that could affect our retail members and the tools to easily engage in the process.

Perhaps nowhere, however, is our collective effort more important than at the local level. Unlike federal and state actions, proposed local tobacco ordinances are not published in a central database. At the state and federal level, bill introductions are published long before the legislative process begins. Often multiple committee or subcommittee hearings are held in two legislative bodies, each providing another opportunity for retailers to engage. The process is slower than at the local level and opportunities to engage are more frequent.

This is precisely why it is so important for retailers to preemptively engage local elected officials and build meaningful relationships with lawmakers before they need them. Elected officials are not experts on the myriad issues they are required to confront. They generally, like all of us, know a lot about a few different things. On all other issues, they rely upon trusted resources to educate or direct them. The goal as a local business is for you to be identified as an informed, reasonable expert on the issues that affect your business.

Legislators inclined to support your positions benefit from you educating them and providing tools to help them advocate for your side. Other legislators may be neutral or predisposed against your business interests because of misleading media reports and or biased information they receive from their trusted resources. You probably will not change their outlook overnight. But if they recognize your position as reasonable, friendly and respectful, you can create relationships that can make a significant difference.

Get to know your local elected officials. Let them know of your responsible business practices. Give them a store tour and let them know about the jobs you provide, how you educate employees about compliance and what technology tools you use to comply with the law. Your goal is not necessarily to change their minds the first time you meet, but rather to become an expert resource to them—someone they like personally—and someone who can inform their decision-making.

Thomas Briant is the executive director of NATO, a tobacco retailing association based in Lakeville, Minn. Reach him at info@natocentral.org.

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