Advocacy Panel to Offer Important Update, Strategies, Tactics

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Panelist Jim Sherin, Retail Council of New York CEO, talks with BTW

The "Power to the Bookseller" session at ABA's Day of Educationwill update booksellers on the state-by-state e-fairness fight and will offer concrete suggestions for articulating the sales tax equity message, including how to reach out to key legislators and how to build a coalition of local indie retailers and other supporters. The panel is scheduled from 12:45 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. on Tuesday, May 25, in Room 1E10 of the Javits Convention Center.

One of the featured panelists is Jim Sherin, president and CEO of the Retail Council of New York. Under Sherin's leadership, the Retail Council was instrumental in getting New York State lawmakers to pass the first state e-fairness law in the country in 2008.

Sherin has worked for the Retail Council since 1984 and became chief operating officer in 2000. Three years later, the Retail Council named him president and chief executive officer. Prior to joining the Retail Council, Sherin was an editor and legislative writer for the New York State Assembly. He also served as director of communications for the New York State Association of Realtors. Sherin serves on the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance’s Taxpayer Advisory Council and was appointed in 2009 by Gov. David Paterson to serve on the New York State Small Business Task Force.

At the "Power to the Bookseller" session, Sherin will provide attendees with insight on the best ways to approach and to lobby legislators. For booksellers looking to make the most of their lobbying efforts, especially in the sales tax fairness arena, this session is a can't-miss.

Bookselling This Week recently talked with Sherin via e-mail about the lessons from the sales tax fairness victory in New York, as well as about key points to remember when lobbying lawmakers.

BTW: What do you think were the keys to success in lobbying New York State to pass its sales tax fairness law in 2008?

Jim Sherin (JS): Mounting a lobbying campaign on any issue in the New York State Legislature can be a daunting challenge. However, once you commit to the challenge, the keys to a successful conclusion are, in my opinion, perseverance, attention to detail, and an honest portrayal of the issue at hand.

Perseverance is needed because it usually takes a long time, sometimes many years, before two Houses of the State Legislature and the Governor can agree to enact a new law or to stop a bill from becoming a law. You may get lucky, as we did in 2008 with the sales tax fairness law, but, more often than not, patience and dedication to the task is necessary to see the project through to the end.

Attention to detail is critical to a successful lobbying campaign. There will be many bumps, potholes, and detours in the road along the way, any one of which can force you off track or into a ditch. Never take anything for granted, and always try to anticipate the next question or next obstacle -- that way you will not be thrown too far off course when (not if) it arises.

Maintaining an honest portrayal of the issue at hand means, quite simply, to always speak the truth about what you are seeking, even if doing so may appear to work against your cause. Never fabricate or stretch the truth when speaking with a legislator or staff, or to the media that may be covering your issue -- it will find a way to come back and undermine your position. When you don't know an answer, say so; don't try to make something up or guess at an answer because you don't want to say you don't know. Your integrity is your best stock in trade and should never be in short supply.

BTW: Do you think legislators really pay attention when small business owners like indie booksellers lobby them on a particular issue? Could you explain the best ways that a small business owner might grab the attention of their legislators? How important is a face-to-face visit?

JS: State legislators genuinely do pay attention when small business owners take the time out of their very busy schedules to lobby them on issues of the day. Small business owners, like independent booksellers -- who run stores and hire workers in their respective districts -- are voters and tax-paying constituents. Nothing gets the attention of an elected official quicker than the voice of an aggrieved constituent. Whether it is a visit to a lawmaker's state or district office, or a letter or e-mail or telephone call setting forth the issue or position -- the impact is felt. But when the voice of a single constituent is echoed by others similarly affected, a minor constituent complaint can be transformed into a major concern and quickly move up the priority list for action.

And don't be afraid to get your customers involved in your cause, either by signing petitions or postcards that will be sent to the lawmakers' office. Your customers are, for the most part, also voters and constituents whose opinion counts. Traditional letters to the editor of your local newspaper remain an effective advocacy tool, and the newer social media vehicles and blogs at your disposal present new and exciting lobbying opportunities to explore.

BTW: Do you have any suggestions for booksellers as to the best way to go about building coalitions of other retailers or businesses in an effort to lobby their state government?

JS: Building coalitions of like-minded businesses or organizations to lobby for or against an issue in a state capital can be effective. It is a good way to bring together an active collection of bodies and voices all reading the same playbook and working toward the same objective. Coalitions, however, need a clear and articulate leader, who can serve as the spokesperson for the group, whether it is to the media or to government officials, when it is impossible or impractical for the coalition to stand together. The coalition leader also needs to serve as a mediator when members of the coalition start to lose focus or interest, or when they think it is in their best interest to negotiate a separate settlement just for their segment.

The Retail Council of New York State, ABA, and Barnes & Noble, Inc. lobbied in favor of sales tax equity in New York in 2008. Some were surprised that a national bookstore chain was on the same side of an issue as independent bookstores, but, in this instance, we all shared the common goal of sales tax fairness on Internet retail transactions. As the saying goes, politics makes for strange bedfellows, but a closer look often reveals that what may look strange on the surface is actually quite logical and effective.

BTW:If you could give booksellers one piece of advice on lobbying their legislators, what would it be?

JS: There really isn't only one correct way to lobby state legislators on an issue or cause one is passionate about. If a businessperson believes strongly that a state law or regulation or policy needs to be changed for the betterment of your business or customers -- or simply because it is the right thing to do for society in general -- you should act on that emotion.

Too many of us don't take the first important steps because we believe such advocacy is a waste of time, or we fear rejection or disappointment. As we have learned in our recent political history, one vote and one voice can indeed make a big difference in Washington, DC; Albany; or any other state capital.

My best advice to any future citizen lobbyist is to trust your instincts and take a stand. I think you will be surprised to find out who is listening and actually agrees with you.