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The candyman can

The candyman can
© Greg Nash

It’s not every office that comes fully equipped with a candy vault, piled high with a seemingly endless variety of sweets and treats. 

Chocolates, gums, taffy, caramels and sour candies line the walls of the climate-controlled room within the National Confectioners Association (NCA) — and can be found in bowls all over the office — in quantities and varieties that would give Willy Wonka pause.

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But this is not an ordinary workplace. The Georgetown office serves as the headquarters for Big Candy, which has been going through a sweet makeover since John Downs took the helm last year. He replaced Lawrence Graham, who spent 22 years leading the organization.

Downs, who knows his way around treats after a 28-year stint in the Coca-Cola system, has been working to expand the group’s influence in Washington.

“We’re on this journey to move NCA from a meeting- and event-driven organization into a real mission-driven advocacy organization,” the president and CEO of the group said in an interview with The Hill.

Candy is visible in every inch of the NCA office space, which is also decorated in bright primary colors. The trade group’s mission statement, goals and core values have been varnished onto the walls. The NCA also has a new logo and website.

Last year, the board of
directors developed a strategic plan to help the NCA evolve and become a force within the advocacy world. Downs then put it into action, working to usher in strategic goals and core values for the industry.

In addition to the obvious, “Reflect the fun and enjoyment of confections,” other values are more serious, aiming to “foster collaborative relationships” and “demonstrate proactive, nimble leadership.”

In short: Lobby smarter and lobby harder.

The group is working to develop a stronger political action committee to make contributions and ratchet up its advocacy efforts with lawmakers and the administration. 

“We’re being more proactive, we’re being a lot more aggressive in getting our story and getting our message out,” Downs said, referring to one of the NCA’s goals to explain the role candy plays in a “happy and balanced lifestyle.”

This is manifesting itself most clearly in the confectionery industry’s largest policy brawl: The fight over the federal sugar program.

The NCA has already started discussions on how to be a more forceful advocate for ending the program — even though the debate isn’t likely to come up until around the time of the next farm bill, about four years from now.

Confectioners argue that the price supports are outdated and unnecessarily drive up the cost of sugar, putting a strain on producers. Farmers counter that they are needed to stay in business.

“There’s no doubt about it, for us to kind of get to the finish line on this, we’re going to have to make some strategic bets to double down on certain things,” he said.

But in terms of how this fight will be different than in previous years, Downs says to stay tuned.

“I don’t want to give the other side our playbook,” he said.

Despite working most recently in Atlanta, where Coca-Cola is headquartered and much of his family still lives, and traveling extensively throughout his tenure, Downs has been in the Beltway orbit for about three decades. 

He has forged friendships with a Rolodex of policymakers, including former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE (R-Ohio) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is now making a bid for president. Downs met them both while giving tours of Coke plants to lawmakers years ago (Kasich is a former Republican congressman).

Downs has made an effort to have the organization be more active on Capitol Hill, he said.

In recent months, he has been working to become closer to more lawmakers, including Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDems target small cluster of states in battle for House Overnight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma — Trump officials move to require drug prices in TV ads | 4,000 more people lose Medicaid in Arkansas | New top official for Medicaid Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight MORE, Jr. (D-Pa.), citing the massive economic weight that candy has in that state. 

“You walk in [the congressional office] and they’ve got all the products displayed really nicely,” Downs said. “And I said, ‘Good gracious, between Senator Casey and [Senator Pat] Toomey, they’re taking care of everybody in terms of their needs for treats.’ ”

Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, helms the Senate’s “candy desk.” Pennsylvania is a big candy state; it has the largest footprint in the confectionery industry, with roughly 11,000 jobs. 

A tradition since the mid-1960s, the desk’s occupant, a post that changes with no specific frequency, is required to stock it with sweets, most often from his or her state. 

Pennsylvania is home to companies including The Hershey Company and Just Born Inc., which makes marshmallow Peeps and Mike and Ikes. Toomey has reportedly filled the desk with Hershey bars, Hot Tamales, Twizzlers and 3 Musketeers bars.

“That was one of the things that when I was going through the [process of getting] the job, I was sitting there thinking about it — no other product has a desk on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Candy does,” Downs said.

Lobbying for Big Candy provides an opportunity to play off the warmth and nostalgia of the product.

“We have an abundance of riches, so to speak, in the industry with great stories,” Downs said. 

When he started the job, he said he was surprised by the power of “the strong emotional connection that we all have with favorite memories tied to candy.”

Downs grew up in Maryland and has a sweet spot for Goetze’s Candy, which is based in Baltimore. 

He said he has fond memories of visiting his grandmother, who always kept a bowl of the company’s signature caramel creams — soft caramel surrounding a piece of marshmallow — on hand at all times. 

The NCA search committee, tasked with finding a new leader, sat around a table with a bowl of candy in front of each person. Downs immediately went for the Goetze’s Caramel Creams.

Mitchell Goetze, a former NCA board chairman and member of the search committee, went up to Downs after the meeting. 

“Hey man, after you did that, you were my guy,” Downs remembers Goetze saying.

 

-- This post was updated on Dec. 5.