Pedal goes Political

Over the past three years, I’ve almost become used to the extent that bike shop owners are hit up to be part of many different things. There are industry conferences, trade shows of all stripe, this, that and the other. Until recently, I’ve been too busy and Pedal has been too lean-staffed for me to consider many forays into the wild.

A few weeks ago I submitted a scholarship application to attend the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC, provided by the NBDA. The Summit is presented by The League (which is how the League of American Bicyclists was known throughout this summit) and consists of two main parts, learning more about cycling advocacy in various discussions and then actually advocating by lobbying your state’s elected federal officials with other interested parties from your state. I was awarded the scholarship largely, I think, on the strength of my answer to “What else should we know about you?” — I look really good in a suit. A photo submission was not required.

Why go? Bicycling has been good to me physically, mentally and financially, though my wife might argue the last point. I would like bicycling to continue its upward trajectory in the  consciousnesses of both my community and my country. Though important work on behalf of bicycling exists here at home, I thought that it might make good long-term sense to broaden my experience in the wide world of advocacy. So I bought a plane ticket, made hotel reservations, attended two preparatory webinars and transported myself to our nation’s capital.

I’m not sure why this surprised me, but the percentage of bike shop folk was rather small. Most folks were “advocates,” and there are all kinds of advocates. I met a lady from Tulsa who runs a place not terribly dissimilar to our own Open Roads. I met a lady from Minnesota who arranges multi-day supported bike rides with a built-in evening lecture series. I met the database czar of People for Bikes. I met bona-fide lobbyists. Within the Michigan delegation there were two shop owners and eight advocates who were there to talk about bicycling in general and perhaps a personal cycling-related project in particular.

Monday was a day of travel. Monday was also the day that a good amount of snow fell on Washington D.C., a city not completely prepared to deal with such an event. Compared to many, mine was not a grueling journey, but it did present opportunities for resourceful thinking and problem solving.

Tuesday was a day of learning in big meetings with famous politicians and advocates and in smaller break-out sessions. Snippets…

  • It’s not enough to get the mayor’s support. You must also have support from a “champion in the weeds,” a person in government who can do the mayor’s heavy lifting.
  • It’s crucial to gather metrics for your advocacy projects, especially if government funding is part of the financing picture.
  • I tend to think of cycling as an important component of our community to attract talented young people which will make companies want to locate here which will fuel the area’s economic engine. That said, society’s dispossessed probably need safe bicycle transportation more than a guy like me who owns a car.
  • If we are going to be successful in our advocacy, we must stand together and not apart. I believe it was Oregon Representative Blumenthal who said that “One Less Car” is not an effective slogan. We need to be pro-bike, not anti-anything.
  • Pittsburgh’s Mayor Peduto spoke about the need to build partnerships in advocacy and that a welcoming and open stance is much more effective than one of confrontation or pugnaciousness.
  • Good work is never wasted.

Wednesday began early; our first meeting was with Senator Debbie Stabenow at 8:00. We talked with some of her staff folk for a bit, then the senator appeared and spoke with us for what seemed like a very long time for such a very busy person. What can I say about Ms. Stabenow? Impressive.

On the way to our meeting with Senator Levin, we passed him walking the opposite direction with a bunch of well-dressed people to ostensibly attend a more important meeting. We met with his assistant Alison, a beautiful no-nonsense lady who (to me) looks like she does not take any shit and is probably quite a bit smarter than you (and by you I mean me). Alison was a gracious host and incredibly informed and exactly what you might expect a federal staff person to be like based on all the TV and cinema you’ve seen.

In the afternoon a quartet of us met with our own Fred Upton (“I go by Fred”) and his assistant, Nick. This was my favorite time of the day, not just because I like Fred but because I got to sit down with Nick, a Paw Paw native and K College graduate, and go over the three League asks in some detail and in my own circuitous way.

The three asks were: Safe Streets, The Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act and New Opportunities. Want more detail? They’re House Resolutions 2468, 3494 and 3978, respectively.

While I very, very much enjoyed participating in our federal government, I don’t think I’m a good lobbyist. Two or three of the folks in our contingent had their sound bites polished and assertively (aggressively?) controlled the conversation. I just can’t do that. What would Mom say if I didn’t take time to mind my manners before digging into business?

Many times were we reminded that our dress on Wednesday needed to bridge the line between fashion and comfort as we’d be doing a LOT of walking and standing around. Did I heed this advice? No. I wrote that I looked good in a suit, so I brought out the Johnston-Murphy wingtips that have occupied space in my closet since I was a cubicle denizen and shined those suckers to a mirror finish. And those traitorous shoes absolutely destroyed me. I have a blister the size of neptune to attest to the fact that advocacy is hard work.