Industry Faces New Era in D.C.

Change has come to America, President-elect Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech after last week's historic election, in which Democrats won not only the presidency but gained a true majority in the Senate and strengthened their lead in the House. Food retailers are now anxiously waiting to see what form Obama's agenda of will take. The election results show a clear mandate that Americans

WASHINGTON — “Change has come to America,” President-elect Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech after last week's historic election, in which Democrats won not only the presidency but gained a true majority in the Senate and strengthened their lead in the House.

Food retailers are now anxiously waiting to see what form Obama's agenda of “change” will take.

“The election results show a clear mandate that Americans want a new or better vision for the future,” said Jack Brown, chairman and chief executive officer, Stater Bros. Markets, San Bernardino, Calif. “They gave President-elect Obama a mandate to get us out of where we are. And though I did not vote for him, he is my president today. I wish he had a few more years of seasoning, but he'll get it very quickly.”

Leslie G. Sarasin, who recently took over as president and CEO of Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., told SN last week that the association's approach “will not change dramatically” in the wake of the changes in Washington.

“We are eager to be bipartisan,” she said. “We are eager to represent the interests of our member companies and the retail and wholesale communities at large to the best of our ability, and whichever party is best able to accomplish our goals, that's who we'll be working with.”

Sarasin noted that many issues of concern to the public in general are also of interest to supermarket operators.

“It is in our best interest as a major part of the communities where our customers live and work to make sure that their concerns are voiced to the decision-makers in Washington,” she said. “Whether we're talking about the continued safety of the food supply, the continued accessibility and affordability of prescription drugs or the fees that retailers have to pay to allow their customers to be able to use credit cards — these are things that we'll have to work both sides of the aisle on to make sure we're successful.”

John J. Motley III, FMI's senior vice president of government and public affairs, said he believes the association's retail members are most concerned about the Employee Free Choice Act (card check), which would facilitate union organizing (see related story, Page 1.)

“We have been working on it for four or five months now, we will continue to work on it, and it is the issue that is foremost in the minds of most of our companies,” he said.

Although Democrats gained several Senate seats, as of last week it did not appear they would have the 60 votes needed to prevent a Republican filibuster of such legislation.

Retailers polled by SN said they were concerned about Obama's positions on taxes and labor issues.

“In terms of taxes, he has to clearly understand that when you tax a business, it gets passed on to the customer,” Brown said. “It's not the business owner that pays the tax, or the company, but the public.”

John Catsimatidis, chairman and CEO of New York-based Gristedes, echoed those sentiments: “If our taxes go up, we're going to raise prices. That's what President Obama never told the people.

“He promised the whole country ice cream, so we're going to have to see how much ice cream he can really deliver, and where that ice cream is going to come from.”

Catsimatidis also said he was concerned about tax increases in New York, where the state Senate switched to Democratic control after 43 years of Republican majority rule.

“They were the only ones holding the line on taxation,” he said of the Republican Senate.

Retailers also expressed hope that the new White House and Congress would work quickly to revive the economy.

“The issue I see as paramount is the economy, including the credit crunch and the ability of consumers to have confidence in the economy, because that lack of confidence trickles down to their behavior in the stores,” said Mike Proulx, president and chief operating officer of Bashas', Chandler, Ariz.

He also said he has “some very serious concerns” about the card-check legislation.

Mark Batenic, chairman, president and CEO of IGA USA, Chicago, said he was very concerned about both tax increases for small businesses and card-check legislation.

“We need to continue to support the integrity of the current [labor organizing] process because the card program will create a lot of problems for business — and because a lot of workers may feel intimidated to sign something they don't really understand,” he said.

Tom Wenning, senior vice president and general counsel, National Grocers Association, also based here, pointed out that the current economic crisis could reshape Obama's plans for sweeping reforms in taxation and health care.

“The change in the economy has created a new outlook that will have to be addressed,” he said.

He noted that independent retailers are particularly concerned about the card-check bill, because “they often don't have the resources” to fight the nationally organized unions.