Wouldn't you think that a famous former Governor of Michigan, now in Washington as head of a major trade association, would love to give out money to politicians to influence them in favor of his members' agenda? Well, being a creative Republican worked pretty well for John Engler when he served in Lansing's top job from 1991 to 2003. Now he's at it again in his third year leading the National Association of Manufacturers-by using the fact that NAM doesn't make political donations as a selling point with lawmakers. It's part of his battle plan to gain primacy among the city's top associations. Bisnow swung by NAM headquarters to hear more about the unconventional tactics.
Engler is facing a big test of his strategy as NAM squares off against the U.S Chamber of Commerce over who will be the voice Congress listens to in the effort to develop a national infrastructure policy, which has become suddenly imperative in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. It is now one of Engler's top priorities.
To get Congress's ear, Engler plans to remind House and Senate members that while other associations are out to defeat those who vote against them-and spend bushels of dough to do just that-NAM's policy is to give no money in favor of any politician or spend anything to beat them. NAM has no political action group and Engler plans to keep it that way. "It's nice walking into someone's office knowing that you did not spend money to defeat them," he says. Instead, Engler says he offers them the "great" opportunity to get on the annual list published by NAM that rates House and Senate members' support for manufacturing issues. Engler says, "I would like to see everyone get on it" and vows to he will make it easy for them to achieve that mark.
Engler, who will be 59 on October 12, has put himself in a starring role at NAM. When he was hired, the Christian Science Monitor opined that he was inheriting a trade association that had none of the glamour of some other groups in town. To create sizzle, Engler cast himself in weekly podcasts and started penning messages for a newly spiffed up website. He's proudest of the website's "Cool Stuff Being Made" section. With more than 100 videos of the manufacturing process, it's the Internet's largest library of videos showing how things get produced.
NAM's bid for leadership on the infrastructure issue was atop the agenda for its board meeting in D.C. at the end of September, with about 160 of the board's 240 members attending. (The full board meets twice a year, once in D.C. in September and in a new location in March.).
Engler's tidy corner office overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue and the Washington Monument. Among the items he's acquired in his storied career are a Phoenix-like glass sculpture and a gavel from the Pennsylvania legislature that Engler suggests channels the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin. With sources of inspiration all around him like this, where does Engler find it most? From the smallest thing in the office-"Sparty"-a tiny statue of Michigan State University's Spartan mascot. (Did we mention that Engler is a graduate of Michigan State and a huge fan thereof?)
Engler recently returned from taking his triplet daughters to New York City for an early birthday present (they could not wait until the actual November date) where they caught the Broadway show "Legally Blonde." But while clear on his direction for NAM's agenda, the governor says he's yet to master his navigation problems in Washington, particularly his quest to find a traffic-free route into downtown after squiring his daughters to three separate schools in the morning. He asked for help and Bisnow provided some secret pathways.