LEGISLATIVE AND TECHNICAL AFFAIRS
By West Virginia Delegate Gary Howell
It’s Not Who You Know; It’s Who Knows You
A Guide to Building Relationships With Lawmakers
Members of the State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus gather each year at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas. The caucus, comprised of more than 770 legislators in all 50 states, is serving to further raise the automotive hobby’s profile in the state capitols.
There is an old saying in racing, “It’s not who you know; it’s who knows you.” It’s what opens the door for you to a new sponsor for your car, to get that experimental part a company is developing, and many other befits. Frankly, it makes it easier for you to be successful in the racing and performance industry.
As a SEMA member and a member of the West Virginia Legislature, I quickly realized that the racing industry and politics are very similar. From getting sponsors for cars or legislation to familiarizing yourself with track rules or the state code, there are a lot of similarities.
One of the reasons I ran for a state legislative office was that, as a small-business owner, I saw the obstacles to business growth my state put in the way. I wanted to make a change, so I ran for a seat in the legislature. Once elected, one of the first outside organizations I joined was the SEMA-supported State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus, because I knew of the good work its members were doing to protect the automotive aftermarket industry.
SEMA Chairman Doug Evans and Rep. Doug LaMalfa (right) discuss cars and politics during the SEMA Washington Rally.
That brings me back to “who knows you?” Do your legislators know you? Few legislators are actually in the automotive aftermarket industry like I am, so they don’t have the knowledge of how legislation may affect our industry. That is where that relationship between a legislator and a member of the industry comes in. If a constituent pushes for legislation to ban aftermarket wheels, for example, your legislator will have you as a contact to ask your opinion. That helps protect our industry. Those relationships help even more when you want to introduce pro-industry legislation.
Delegate Gary Howell at the West Virginia state capitol in Charleston.
Recently, a group in West Virginia that sought to pursue legislation to allow for the closing of roads for special racing events approached West Virginia State Senator Mark Maynard. Senator Maynard, like me, is in the industry and is a former Top Fuel Funny Car crew member. He immediately saw the downstream tourism benefit of this type of event and introduced the legislation, which subsequently passed and became law. It is unlikely that a lawmaker with no ties to the industry would have immediately seen the benefit.
Each legislator comes from a different walk of life. Some don’t own cars. Those who do may see them as nothing more than transportation. Introducing yourself to your legislators gives you the opportunity to educate them on the economic impact of the automotive aftermarket industry.
I often suggest to SEMA members that, once they make contact with their legislators, they should invite them to some type of event. It can be a car show, an autocross, a dragstrip, whatever, but the important thing is that you discuss the business growth that results from nurturing these activities.
This is important, because nearly every politician wants the maximum economic impact to his or her district, yet most have no idea how large the aftermarket auto industry really is. This is your chance to tell them.
As owner of SEMA-member Howell Automotive, Delegate Howell joined the State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus upon his election to the West Virginia House of Delegates.
West Virginia Delegates Gary Howell (left) and Eric Householder (right) drove most of the 2014 Hot Rod Power Tour in Howell’s ’99 Jeep Cherokee.
I often take my fellow legislators to events for the very same reason. It serves two purposes. First, it gets them to have a better understanding of the industry, but second, it allows them to meet people. Every legislator has to run for re-election, and that involves meeting people. Automotive events are a great way for legislators to meet voters.
While most legislation affecting our industry happens on the state level, with everything from equipment requirements and emissions laws to road-usage fees and the titling and registration of hobby cars, we still are subject to laws written in the U.S. Congress. Many of those in Congress started in state legislatures before moving to Capitol Hill. In fact, all of West Virginia’s U.S. Senators and Congressmen were once state legislators, and most are now members of the SEMA-supported Congressional Automotive Performance and Motorsports Caucus, the federal equivalent of the state-level caucus.
When it came time, the relationships built in the state were critical in convincing congressional lawmakers on how laws and regulations implemented in Washington can have a dramatic impact on local businesses’ ability to thrive. A case in point is the recently introduced RPM Act, which confirms that modifying street vehicles into race cars used solely on the track—and the businesses that support the practice—is legal.
Contact your local legislators. Let them know how important the automotive aftermarket is to their district and to you personally. If you do those simple things, you’ll become one of those who people know.