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An interview with Chris Coakley, Vice President of Government Affairs at Saltchuk

Chris Coakley has the distinction of being Saltchuk’s only employee in Washington – Washington D.C., that is. He spends his days on “The Hill,” educating lawmakers and advocating for issues that impact the Saltchuk family of companies.

The following interview are three questions we posed, and three others Chris said he was most often asked. We’ll let the reader decide what questions fall into which category:

What does a lobbyist do?

Being a lobbyist for Saltchuk most closely resembles a marketing job. Saltchuk employees and businesses are the consumers of public policy decisions made by state and federal governments. I market Saltchuk companies’ business practices and values to decision-makers in federal and state governments.  On a good day, with help from Saltchuk employees and friendly lawmakers, I can influence changes to federal or state rules to benefit the people and companies of Saltchuk.

How did you end up in politics?

After working several years for a member of the House of Representatives, I spent seven years with American Waterways Operators, an industry association representing the U.S. tugboat, towboat and barge industry. I’m not a lawyer, but some people assume that I am.

Are you a Republican or a Democrat?

I’m not wedded to either political party because I interact with people from across the political spectrum every day. My experience has been that party affiliation is less important than whether lawmakers are willing to support policies that improve the business climate.

The public policy issues that I work on are mostly bipartisan. If a person shops for food or retail products and drives a car, then there’s a connection to freight transportation and petroleum distribution.  Because of the density of our business operations, I work mostly with Congressional staff people from the entire delegations of Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. These delegations tend to be cooperative on transportation, environmental, and business policy issues.

Ironically, because I live in D.C. and it’s not a state, I can’t even vote for a member of Congress.  I approach Congress and the Administration from the position that any lawmaker who supports Saltchuk corporate values is my lawmaker.

What are the critical policies facing Saltchuk companies today?

Some very important public policy issues overlap across business units and transportation modes.

The biggest issue I’m working on is related to the adoption of natural gas as a transportation fuel for ships and trucks. There are changes happening at every level of government to address how to tax, transport, burn, buy, export, or extract natural gas. At Saltchuk, TOTE is building the world’s first liquid natural gas container ship, and Interstate is putting 20 new, natural gas-powered trucks on the road. It’s an exciting time in our industry, but lawmakers are struggling to keep up with new rules on every aspect of natural gas. I’m working to help politicians and regulators make smart decisions.

Other critical issues include:

  • Many retiring veterans have the skills we need in our businesses, but laws and regulations must be changed to allow military skills to translate into credits toward a merchant mariner document or commercial driver’s license. Aligning military experience with commercial safety credentials is an important policy change for all Saltchuk companies.
  • There are federal rule-makings for hours-of-service underway for trucking, aviation, and maritime. Ensuring that HOS rules are scientifically based, promote safety, and facilitate commerce is common sense and good business.

Do you watch the TV show “House of Cards?”

No, not yet. There’s enough real drama, misbehavior, and human folly to see in politics without watching fiction. The cable television service that covers Congress, C-SPAN, just celebrated 35 years of operation with a montage of political highlights and lowlights. It makes for some good TV: http://www.c-span.org/35years/

How can you stand to work with all those politicians?

My father, a practicing attorney for 40 years, used to say “nobody likes lawyers, but everybody likes their attorney.” Most people feel that way about members of Congress. They like their own Representative or Senator, but they don’t understand how I can work with all those other politicians.

Statistically, most voters tend to re-elect their current member of Congress; in the last election, five out of six members won in landslides of at least 55 percent of the vote.