Q&A with NMMA VP of federal and legal affairs Nicole Vasilaros - Trade Only Today

Q&A with NMMA VP of federal and legal affairs Nicole Vasilaros

Ethanol, trade deals, workforce shortages, saltwater fishing access — there isn’t a boating issue you can toss at Nicole Vasilaros that she isn’t well versed on.
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PHOTOS/John Nelson

PHOTOS/John Nelson

Ethanol, trade deals, workforce shortages, saltwater fishing access — there isn’t a boating issue you can toss at Nicole Vasilaros that she isn’t well versed on. Chances are, she’s already had multiple conversations about it with members of Congress as she lobbies on behalf of the industry on Capitol Hill.

As vice president of federal and legal affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Vasilaros oversees the NMMA’s federal government relations department, including advocacy, grassroots and BoatPAC, the industry’s political action committee.

At age 31, her resume can make your head spin. Her federal portfolio includes fuel policy, international trade, maritime transportation and environmental marine access. She also serves as in-house legal counsel for the NMMA’s government relations department.

Vasilaros has been with the NMMA for more than five years, initially as manager for state government relations. In that role she was responsible for monitoring a 50-state legislative agenda and overseeing the federal, state and legal agenda for the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, an NMMA subsidiary.

Before joining the NMMA, Vasilaros was a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla., handling health care, education and judiciary issues. She also has clerked for U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., and was a summer associate with The Cochran Firm in Washington, D.C.

Vasilaros conducts a workshop at May’s American Boating Congess in Washington.

Vasilaros conducts a workshop at May’s American Boating Congess in Washington.

Vasilaros received a law degee from the University of Florida Levin College of Law and was a visiting student at Georgetown University Law Center. She’s a graduate of Emory University. She is a member of the Virginia bar and serves on the International Trade Advisory Council for Consumer Goods.

In advance of the presidential election and in the wake of the largest and most successful American Boating Congress ever, we thought it would be a good time to get her take on politics today and the issues boating faces and discuss how the industry can mobilize to overcome them.

Q: Can you start by giving us a bit of background? You’ve been in the role for how many years now? You have accomplished so much at what seems to be a young age.

A: I came to NMMA five and a half years ago. When I started, I was an attorney fresh off of Capitol Hill, having worked for Congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas in Florida in her legislative office. My first position for NMMA was working in state government relations and assisting with the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.

While I loved the fast pace and hands-on nature of state government relations, when staffing changed within our D.C. office, I was able to shift back over to the federal side and move up from there. I’m nearly 32 years old, but knew for quite some time I wanted to follow this career path — go to law school and work in the fun world of politics. It has been fulfilling to see so much of it come into place.

Q: You seem to be involved in so much. Can you give us some insight into what you do on behalf of the marine industry?

A: I direct the federal government relations team and all of our legislative activity on Capitol Hill and with the administration. When I’m talking to friends or people around the country, I always get asked, “What kind of issues could the boating industry have?” and my automatic reply is: “A lot, but in a good way.” NMMA is a leading voice for the recreational boating industry, and we monitor and advocate for issues that affect our members all the way down to the experience of the end user — the boater. We also believe that boating is an ecosystem and work with stakeholder partners to make sure all aspects are covered. Our government relations team definitely has a full plate. I oversee the work of our BoatPAC and grassroots efforts, focusing on recreational fishing, transportation, trade, fuel policy and the Coast Guard. Definitely keeps me busy, but it’s never a dull moment. I love that I can work on such a wide range of issues.

Q: Speaking of busy, I had no idea you did work with ICOMIA (the International Council of Marine Industry Associations). Can you tell us about that and where you were headed at the beginning of June?

A: I primarily work with ICOMIA on trade policy and ensuring open dialogue with other member organizations on regulatory requirements in the United States. This year marks the 50th anniversary for ICOMIA, and I will be attending their congress meeting in June in Trieste, Italy.

The Obama administration has elevated the importance of trade and engaged on two major trade agreements — the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). With both of these negotiations and through my work on the International Trade Advisory Committee on Consumer Goods, ICOMIA presents the perfect forum for countries to discuss the impact of those trade negotiations and how boating and manufacturing can benefit.

Vasilaros at the ABC podium with Michael Lewan, the NMMA’s senior manager of government relations and Grassroots.

Vasilaros at the ABC podium with Michael Lewan, the NMMA’s senior manager of government relations and Grassroots.

Q: The American Boating Congress in May drew its largest turnout ever. Can you talk how it has grown?

A: ABC was fantastic this year. We had our largest turnout ever with 275 attendees and were able to partner with two other trade associations — the American Sportfishing Association and the Center for Coastal Conservation — for a combined week of meetings and advocacy. The growth of ABC is largely due to the recognition that boating is an ecosystem. If all segments of the industry — from dealers to marinas to state marine trades — can come together, our voice will be much louder and our impact even greater. The addition of co-hosts a few years back has helped bolster attendance and give more groups a role in the planning process. People have found real value in coming to ABC, and we see them returning year over year and bringing new friends and colleagues along. We try to keep things fresh with new policy topics, a new agenda format and an exciting lineup of speakers.

Q: What is the largest deterrent to people getting involved, and how are you working to address that?

A: I’d say time and disillusionment. People think that to get involved in politics you need to be an expert and dedicate a lot of time, but that’s simply not the case. Through Boating United you can literally email your senator or representative in under five minutes — all through your cellphone. We recognize coming to ABC is a commitment of time and money, but the value and exposure is significant. While I love D.C. and the political arena, I know it can be very disillusioning for many. It seems like no one can get along and real change takes a very long time. While Congress itself has a low approval rating, people tend to think highly of their own congressmen and women. Even if you are unhappy with how government is working, the best way for change is to get involved directly. And ABC and Boating United are easy ways to do that.

Q: What are some of the big issues you’re approaching on Capitol Hill, and in general? I know ABC happens once a year, but I also know you spend many hours working on these issues all year.

A: In the coming year there are five top legislative priorities that we’re really focused on. This is, of course, in addition to a number of others, as well as several at a state government level. But as far as a broad look at our portfolio, ethanol remains a top priority. We’re focused on reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard through H.R. 704 and S. 577 and capping corn-based renewable fuels at E10 to ensure marine and other small-engine equipment have a safe and reliable fuel source. We also support better education efforts to prevent misfueling of E15. Consumers lack awareness of the harmful effects of E15 fuel on marine and small-engine equipment. The EPA should use its resources to further educate consumers on proper fuel choice at the pump.

Trade and commerce continue to be important for the boating industry and U.S. manufacturing as a whole.

We are supporting swift ratification of the Trans Pacific Partnership, allowing for robust trade provisions, including regulatory coherence, customs transparency, reduced tariffs and simplified conformity assessment procedures. We also hope to ensure that recreational activities are properly accounted for in GDP spending and that outdoor industry jobs and economic impact are accounted for as part of the gross domestic product. Objective government statistics on outdoor recreation will help lead to greater influence over recreational policy.

Infrastructure is another area of focus for us. We support the reauthorization of the Waterways Resources Development Act in 2016 through S.2848 and HR 5303. WRDA will ensure continued access, small ports dredging, and evaluation of critical waterway projects. Ports, channels, locks, dams and other waterway infrastructure need critical funding to support maritime activities, and recreational uses should not be ignored.

Recreational fishing and the boating industry go hand in hand, and we are continuing our work with our friends in the angling community to support legislation that will fix the Magnuson-Stevens [Fishery Conservation and Management] Act. With nearly half of all boating outings involving some fishing activity, the angling and boating sectors are inextricably linked. Sound fisheries management policies that support recreational fishing are needed to ensure access. MSA is long overdue for reauthorization, and the Senate should take up critical legislation to address recreational fishing policy objectives, as the House did last year.

Maintaining robust public access for boaters, balanced with conservation efforts, is always an issue we work hard. Specifically, we’re working to keep recreational access open at Biscayne National Park and supporting H.R. 2406 and S. 2807. Federal and state agencies should work in tandem to establish fisheries management policies where both governments have jurisdiction. Marine reserves, like at Biscayne National Park, should only be implemented as a last resort and with the support of both levels of government. We’re working to support legislation in the House and Senate to ensure cooperative management of national park fisheries in state waters.

Q: Can you talk about what goes on during an election year and how different election years play out — presidential vs. midterm? Would you explain the nonpartisan approach the NMMA takes?

Vasilaros briefs ABC participants on issues facing boating and what she and her staff are doing to promote industry positions.

Vasilaros briefs ABC participants on issues facing boating and what she and her staff are doing to promote industry positions.

A: Election years are exciting in my line of work. It’s like the Super Bowl of politics. At NMMA we are using the election season to engage with our members and the boating community at large on advocacy. We built a new website, boatpac.org, to connect the industry with “get-out-the-vote” efforts. We’re providing information like where and when to register, important primary and general election dates, and how to engage your employees in exercising their civic duty to vote. We have also been blogging throughout the cycle with race and primary updates.

While the presidential race takes up most of the space, we also focus on the re-election of our boating champions in Congress. Through BoatPAC, our political action committee, we are able to support candidates for federal office who have championed the industry and our legislative priorities. At ABC, we were thrilled to have Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson as our keynote speakers to give that inside view of the campaigns and D.C. politics. And we will continue to engage on the election throughout the year, being at both conventions in July with a “Day on the Water” event and then with more election updates and monitoring through November.

Presidential election years definitely get the most buzz. We don’t endorse any candidates and keep a nonpartisan approach to our outreach and support of federal candidates. Even in a mid-year, elections matter. Individual members of Congress can have a direct impact on seeing our issues to completion, and in tight years the balance of power in either the House or Senate can directly impact our legislative agenda.

Q: What is your take on the upcoming conventions? What is your role there?

A: NMMA will be back at both conventions this year, hosting “Day on the Water” events at the RNC in Cleveland and the DNC in Philadelphia. The great thing about both of these cities is they are on the water. This gives us a prime opportunity to showcase the industry and boating lifestyle. We are planning afternoon reception events similar to what we did in 2012 while offering attendees boat demonstrations along Lake Erie and the Delaware River. Conventions are the second-biggest media opportunity in the world, behind the Olympics. For our industry, it’s a great chance to show attendees the fun of our industry while relaying the important economic message of boating — we are primarily manufacturers in the United States, creating jobs, sustaining businesses and imparting real economic value to the U.S. economy.

As the vice president of federal government relations, I am spearheading our planning for both conventions, doing outreach to members of Congress and industry, coordinating to showcase boats and working with our PR team to ensure the boating message is heard on the ground at both sites.

Q: You mentioned election forecasting: What does that look like? How large an effect do the elections play in determining boating’s future and health?

A: This year, particularly on the presidential end, has really turned the tide on election forecasting. No one could have predicted, nor did most pollsters, the rise of Donald Trump or the enthusiasm of Bernie Sanders supporters. Presidential elections and their outcomes can determine the overall trajectory of the boating industry: Will trade be a priority? Will tax reform finally take place? Will conservation supersede access? But presidential politics only tell one side of the impact story. The balance of Congress and the election and re-election of specific boating champions play a key role in our specific legislative initiatives. Whether it’s reforming the RFS or fixing MSA to better represent the needs of recreational boating, the outcome of those initiatives begins in Congress. And it’s not necessarily a partisan issue. Boating has support from Republicans and Democrats, representatives from coast to coast and everything in between.

Q: You spend a lot of time on the Hill. Anything you can share in the way of interesting or funny stories?

A: The Hill is a fascinating place. Most people are shocked to see the halls of Congress run by staffers in their mid-20s, and I know because not too long ago I was one of them. Age aside, so many staffers on the Hill are policy experts with a real passion and understanding for the legislative process. They want to make government work, and they do so with a lot of effort and little pay. I would say, from an insider’s view of the Hill, it’s like a big college campus with cafeterias, endless hallways to navigate, and countlessly bumping into people you know, from staff to other lobbyists. Spring is cherry blossom and school-trip season, so navigating the Hill can be a bit difficult with all the tourists — it definitely comes in handy to know the side doors and tunnels.

Q: You must be very organized to get so much done. How much time do you spend on the Hill, out of the country and traveling here?

A: I spend the majority of my time in D.C. having meetings on Capitol Hill, attending fundraisers and organizing with our stakeholder partners on collective issues. I do get out of D.C. to attend conferences and board meetings, speak on behalf of NMMA and meet with our member companies. I’m definitely a planner, and being super-organized has paid off. It allows me to maximize my time in the office, but also enjoy some free time and travel along the way.

Q: You were a part of the workforce shortage workshop at ABC. Can you talk about that?

A: For the past few years, I noticed members of our industry saying how they were looking to hire new employees, but were having trouble finding qualified candidates. For an industry so impacted by the recession in ’08 and ’09, it was good to hear companies were hiring again, but it struck me that they needed to find the right people. NMMA and MRAA have a close working relationship on our federal advocacy, and the dealers were facing a similar situation with workforce shortage. We got together and figured ABC was the prime opportunity to bring in workforce experts in D.C. and see what synergy the larger technical and vocational training programs could have for boating. There is definitely a lot of opportunity and an exciting new policy area for NMMA and MRAA to work together on.

Q: What are the biggest challenges the industry is confronting now? In the future?

A: I haven’t met a person yet that has a bad reaction to boating. It’s a fun recreational activity that brings pleasant memories of weekends on the lake or fishing with your family. The challenge for us when engaging with lawmakers is to make sure they not only see boating as fun, but also as an important economic driver, job creator and an industry that supports U.S. manufacturing. Continuing to tell that story and relay that message is critical.

Q: What do you most hope to see changing?

A: Compromise. D.C. has become a super-partisan place. Individual members of Congress may agree on a course of action or policy position, but all too often votes and decisions are made along party lines. Some members are fearful that working with the other side could make them vulnerable to a primary challenge. Compromise should be rewarded, not punished. I hope more elected officials will reach across the aisle and find solutions.

Q: How can people make the largest difference? How can they get started? And how can people who are moderately involved increase their presence and voice?

A: To make a difference in politics it doesn’t take much time, money or expertise. Coming to ABC, using Boating United, inviting members of Congress to your plant or dealership can all make a huge impact on advocacy. When we work together as an industry our individual voices have a far greater impact than what any of us can do by ourselves. If you haven’t gotten started, read Currents — it keeps you up to date on what’s happening on the Hill and in the administration. Sign up for Boating United to learn about policy issues and how Congress can impact the industry. Go to boatpac.org to learn about the 2016 elections and key congressional races. If you already do one of these things, take on another — it doesn’t take much time. We have a great D.C. government relations team. Use us as a resource. Whether something is happening at the local, state or federal level, we are here to help.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.

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