Political Sunday Night Dinners

By Seth Arluck, New Hampton Lumber Co., Inc.

It’s Sunday, the night before the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers’ Association’s (NLBMDA) 2019 Legislative Conference in Washington D.C.; once again I’m having dinner with Jenna Hamilton, NLBMDA’s former lobbyist, and Walter Foxworth, of Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber in Dallas. Walter and I have been attending LegCon for almost 30 years; Jenna was our lobbyist almost 20 years ago. After catching up on what all our amazing (of course) children are up to, we plunge into this year’s issues and Jenna’s inside-the-Beltway insights.

What’s so amazing, is that many of the current issues were the same ones that we advocated for when we first came to Washington in 1991 and after. Access to timber, estate tax reform, association health plans, tort reform, Canadian softwood quotas and tariffs, and regulatory reform have all cycled through our legislative agenda.

In 1990, habitat preservation of the allegedly endangered spotted owl caused curtailment of logging on public and private lands in the Pacific Northwest. NRLA formed a Timber & Environmental Concerns Committee to educate members about forestry issues. Thus began my participation in grassroots advocacy for the retail lumber industry that has lasted for 29 years.

Attending NLBMDA’s Legislative Conference in D.C. has been an annual ritual for me ever since. I still look forward to being with my fellow dealers, both from NRLA and the rest of the nation. At the same time that I started going to D.C., I rekindled my interest in politics. In 1991, I wanted to work on a presidential campaign. Being a Democrat in New York State, I was supposed to be waiting for Governor Mario Cuomo to join the Presidential Primary; I picked the “Blue Dog” moderate governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton instead. I wound up running Clinton’s primary and general election campaigns in Orange County, N.Y., as a result. When he won, I became an instant political genius.

I was realizing that my party was not looking too favorably on our issues: access to timber, estate tax repeal, tort and regulatory reform, and association health plans. I was very disappointed in 1993 when Al Gore convinced President Clinton to shut down timber harvest in federal forests. Involvement in LegCons was a major education for me; I saw that opposition to retailer issues was from trial lawyers, greens, and unions. While serving on the City of Middletown Council, I decided to change my party affiliation to one that was on “our side.”

The City of Middletown had accepted a proposal for a solid waste to ethanol plant. I became friendly with the company’s CEO. I mentioned my D.C. trips. He told me that his congressman, Spencer Bachus (AL-6), was his best friend and that I should introduce myself to him. Congressman Bachus became the Chair of the Financial Services Committee, and I called on him for the rest of his time in Congress.

In 1994, a new congresswoman, Sue Kelly, was elected in the district adjacent to mine. Since her husband was a builder, I thought I should introduce her to the Mid-Hudson Lumber Dealers Association. I was the first person online when she opened her new district office. I had a great relationship with Sue for 12 years; she was in our corner the entire time. She also became my representative after the 2002 re-districting.

I learned early on to develop relationships with congressional staff. I could go around schedulers and get appointments very quickly. I also would follow staffers as they went to new jobs. Spencer Bachus’ legislative director became Bruce Poloquin’s (ME); need I say more?

As a longtime member of the Legislative Advocacy Committee, I have tried to be an institutional memory. In 29 years, there has been lots of member turnover. We are on the fourth set of lobbyists since I came on, and the timber supply and Canadian Softwood issues were not new to me. I have been the Lumber Dealers PAC (LUDPAC) Northeast Trustee for many years and try to support those members of Congress who support us.

It has been a real adventure for me; a rainy Sunday tour of the West Wing with fellow dealers, a meeting in the Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Office Building, the Ambassador’s glass-walled office on the roof of the Canadian Embassy, Swearing-In Day receptions for Susan Collins, Elizabeth Dole, Jeff Flake, and the topper, a visit to the congresswomen’s lounge in the House side of the Capitol.

The best part of these past decades is time spent with lumber dealers from every corner of the United States. I probably represent one of the smallest companies at LegCon, but I think my fellow advocates accept my voice on the Hill as equal to theirs. I am honored to have been befriended by dealers big and small. I miss the presence of Joe Burgoyne and Kevin Kelly. Mike Fritz and Bill Brunner made sure that we were up to snuff on timber issues, and Dave Hancock was the ultimate inspiration to us all. I enjoy bringing newbies to their first meetings; by the third one they are old hands.

I plan to keep attending as long as I can and having that Sunday night dinner with Jenna and Walter. Thanks to NRLA, Mid-Hudson, and the NLBMDA for the opportunity.