Ever since he became a strong advocate for the election of George W. Bush, before the Texas governor ever declared his intentions to seek national office, Hammonds felt that Bush had the right stuff for the food retail industry.
Now Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute here, is excited by the opportunities the new Republican administration will bring to food retailers beginning this year with issues ranging from the estate tax and ergonomics to free trade.
Hammonds discussed the political outlook shortly before the FMI's Midwinter Executive Conference being held this week in Boca Raton, Fla. (See story on Page 16 for more about the event.)
Hammonds' early advocacy and fund raising made him one of 240 "pioneers" named by the Bush team, each of whom received a special commemorative cufflink. FMI doesn't officially endorse candidates.
So what was it that led Hammonds to take the unusual step of lending such early personal support to a candidate? Hammonds visited Bush in Austin, Texas, early in 2000 before the governor's presidential exploratory committee was formed. The FMI chief executive sat through a lunch meeting at the governor's mansion at which Bush laid out his political philosophy and agenda and Hammonds realized it aligned well with the outlook of the retail food industry.
"Bush had run a business and philosophically understood the role of business in our economy," Hammonds said. "He wouldhave a sympathetic ear to the business community as opposed to the Democrats, who raised money from trial attorneys and labor unions."
Hammonds also said he believed that Bush had the political skills to engineer a victory. "It struck me at the time that Bush had a chance to do for Republicans what Clinton did for Democrats: move the party more toward the middle," Hammonds said. "As it turns out, that's exactly what Bush did during the campaign."
Bush's experience in dealing with a split state legislature also boded well for what he would likely face as president, Hammonds surmised. "It impressed me early on that Bush worked very well with the Democratic House in Texas, so I thought he'd take that experience to Washington. That's compatible with FMI's approach, which is that we'll need both Republican and Democratic support to get things done."
Hammonds' efforts during the campaign included relaying the Bush message and helping with the fund-raising efforts. "A lot of our members gave $1,000 donations and several companies held events for Bush in their states," Hammonds said.
Having a Republican administration in office is preferable to a Democratic one for food retailers, Hammonds stressed. "Clinton pushed a lot of regulations through that couldn't get through Congress on their own," Hammonds said.
He pointed to rules on ergonomics and a law that could penalize government contractors who are the subject of complaints, such as those brought by labor unions. "This would affect our wholesalers who supply military contractors," he said.
Hammonds said a Gore presidency would have given far too much influence to organized labor. "Gore would have been beholden to labor unions, which wouldn't have been good for an industry that is as labor intensive as ours."
The early role played by the retail food industry won't be lost on the Bush camp, Hammonds said. "This campaign views Washington as a community that never gets in early but instead jumps on the bandwagon. It was important to them in Austin to see some people getting in early."
What is the outlook for the political agenda of food distributors? There's optimism about the prospects of repealing the estate tax, Hammonds said, observing that the struggle is no longer a partisan one. The food industry has helped broadcast the issue's importance through efforts such as the Americans Against Unfair Family Taxation, which Hammonds co-chairs. "We raised money for advertisements in the home districts of key Democrats. That helped move the issue, and Democrats began to say they understand. Putting the face of grocers on the issue was helpful."
The legislation made its way through the Congress, which was unable to muster enough votes to override President Clinton's veto.
"But we changed the nature of the debate," Hammonds said. "Democrats are now talking about the need for estate tax reform. And I'm pleased to see that Bush continues to talk about the estate tax issue."
Another front-burner issue for food distributors will be the Clinton administration's ergonomics rule, Hammonds noted. "I hope Bush will help us to encourage Congress to repeal the ergonomics rule. The agency can't choose to not enforce it. We are part of a court challenge to the rule, but the easiest and quickest route is to get Congress to repeal it."
Food retailers and wholesalers will also be closely tracking free trade issues with the new administration. Food distributors tend to discourage the protectionist tendencies in order to make available the widest range of products.
"The Gore administration would have owed the labor unions a lot and those unions are opposed to opening up trade," Hammonds said. "We are encouraged with a Republican in the White House because Republicans are friendly to free trade and understand that trade creates jobs.
"The supermarket industry considers it essential to get products like produce year-round. But there are lots of opportunities for some groups to spark trade wars and nontariff trade barriers. You have producer groups calling for that all the time."
With the Republicans controlling the presidency and the Congress, there is the strong possibility that opposition groups will attempt to push their agendas in statehouses as opposed to at the federal level, Hammonds said.
"There are lots of groups that were strong supporters of Gore that will look to the state and local governments," Hammonds predicted. "The industry will need to work more effectively with state associations to counter this," he said. (For more on state-level issues, see column on Page 2.)