Mike Canine admits that before the CERTS Act, he didn’t pay much attention to what was going on Capitol Hill.
These days, not only can Canine name nearly all the 100 U.S. senators and most of the 435 U.S. representatives, he also knows what bus companies operate in their districts.
Canine is part of the “Gang of 11,” a group of bus operators and vendors who came together to support industry lobbying efforts. Their organized grassroots campaign helped sign up hundreds of congressional co-sponsors of the Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act.
“We all gained so much out of this experience,” said Canine, a second-generation operator with Minneapolis-based Lorenz Bus. He and the other members of the Gang put in full-time hours for more than six months on the effort.
Trisha Fridrich, part of the group and co-owner of The L&W Team, feels like their efforts were rewarded.
CERTS Act funding
“The industry as a whole went from a couple of million dollars in funding for Homeland Security grants to $2 billion in stimulus funding. That’s an insane feat and it’s really thanks to a lot of people who said, ‘I’m going to make a difference,’” Fridrich said of CERTS Act funding.
Including Canine and Fridrich, the group — which worked with hundreds of operators and vendors across the country — is actually made up of 12 leaders:
- Jeff Greteman, Windstar Lines
- Kyle DeVivo, DATTCO & The Bus Network
- Adam Hall, Bridgestone Americas
- Clint Guth, Chelax Industries
- Eric Elliott, Distinctive Systems
- Greg Gallup, Royal Coach Tours
- John Meier, Badger Bus
- Luke Busskohl, Arrow Stage Lines
- Pattie Cowley, GNJMA & PBA
- Terry Fischer, Transportation Charter Services (TCS)
“We tapped our network of friends and colleagues to get on the phone with senators and representatives to really educate our congressional leaders on how buses move America and why it’s really critical that this industry is not allowed to fail,” said Fridrich, whose specialty is time-saving tech. She is credited with keeping everyone on track by setting up hundreds of Zoom calls and email blasts.
Daily Zoom meetings
From mid-August through mid-December, the Gang had daily 30-minute Zoom meetings to cover what they had accomplished and what was next. They sent more than 10,000 emails that resulted in more than 750 meetings with congressional leaders in all 50 states. In one week alone, they had more than 75 meetings.
The Gang began with a handful of people in June before expanding in August, when they realized they weren’t doing enough fast enough.
They learned a lot about how things get done in Washington, D.C., during their campaign. The key was having constituents in each representative’s district on the phone to tell their personal story in support of the CERTS Act. The ad-hoc group also benefited from the expertise provided by the lobbyists working for the United Motorcoach Association, American Bus Association and Coach USA.
“This grassroots effort made all the difference,” said Ken Presley, UMA’s vice president of legislative, regulatory affairs and industry relations. “We work hard to inform and support industry champions in Congress. When they advance legislative efforts to help the industry, we then need the industry to nudge their Representative and Senators to support the legislation.
It takes everyone
Fridrich calls the experience an example of what you can accomplish when the industry as a whole puts time and energy toward a shared cause. She hopes the success spurs continued collaboration to rebuild the industry devastated by the pandemic.
“I hope that we can continue to work together to make this a regular occurrence. We get a lot of accolades, but everyone who wrote emails to Senators and Representatives, you all played your part. It takes everyone,” Fridrich said.
With President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for another stimulus package, there will likely be an opportunity for the industry to put a second bill on the table.
Praising the industry teamwork, UMA CEO Larry Killingsworth said the industry has built a base that should make future efforts easier.
“There’s a base built from which we can spring at a higher level, having gotten 60% of Congress to support us this last time. The awareness has gone up 10 times over prior years,” Killingsworth said.
It began with two
The group began with Canine and Greteman, who connected in June. The two scrounged together money to hire their own lobbyist so they could have a hand in the messaging.
The pair began reaching out to their senators in Minnesota and Iowa. They claimed a big victory when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, agreed to add his name as a co-sponsor of the CERTS Act.
By the end of July, Canine and Greteman had engaged with 70% of the Senate, but they knew they would need help to reach the country’s 435 congressional representatives and teamed up with efforts by Fridrich and DeVivo.
The Gang set up the calls and found bus companies in each market to join. The operator shared their story to tie-in to the local community and then one of the Gang shared the national talking points, spoke about the specifics of CERTS legislation and the economic factors of the industry and the bill.
“Part of our strength was that we weren’t politically inclined,” said Canine. “We were just bringing a local constituent who could share their story.”
Convinced by operator’s story
In one case, a Republican representative who said she didn’t want to sign onto the spending bill, changed her mind after hearing one operator’s tearful story of trying to keep his buses from being repossessed. He had to take a second job so he could keep his family-owned business from closing.
“He basically said, ‘Look, my business is dying, and you’re doing nothing.’ And she said, ‘This doesn’t align with what I support, but I support you and I support your business, so I’m going to sign onto this bill. I represent you, and I’m here to take care of your interests,’” said Canine. “He was crying as he was telling a story about how he’s sleeping at his bus company because the repo men are climbing over the fences in the middle of the night.
“Essentially, we were helping bus company owners get their voices heard,” Canine said. “Congress needed to hear from us to understand how important the private motorcoach industry is to the transportation sector. Every operator has to continue to talk to their reps so that they continue to value us.”
To get involved with the lobbying efforts of the Gang of 11, let them know here.