It was in November 1984 that Chandler Keys, armed with a new bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, hopped on the metro to cover the 20 miles from his family's Maryland farm into Washington, D.C. It was his first day on the job with what was then the National Cattlemen's Association (NCA), the forerunner to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).
Keys was the first hire in NCA's move to muscle up its Washington, D.C., presence following an Arthur Anderson study that indicated NCA needed more boots on the ground in the nation's capital.
Twenty years and one month later, Keys, vice president of NCBA's Center for Government Affairs since 1996, left to assume similar duties for Swift & Co. He left behind a staff that has grown to 20 full-time positions and built a reputation as one of the best units working D.C.'s bureaucratic and legislative meeting rooms, offices and hallways.
Keys was the lone original plank left in a span that bridged a simpler time of doing business in the nation's capital with what is now a sophisticated, high-stakes game.
“When I started with NCA, we didn't have computers, fax machines, voice mail, copiers; none of it,” Keys recalls. “What I've seen over the past 20 years is a virtual explosion of technology as it relates to participation in society and at all levels — political, social, marketing. It's been revolutionary.”
Keys has strayed little from his roots and his native philosophy. He grew up on a Maryland farm located five miles from the end of the D.C. metro. There, his family raised 3,500 acres of crops, Angus cattle and thoroughbred horses.
“Growing up, I was always aware that grain was an important component of the farm, and we had thoroughbred horses, which was a fun and glamorous aspect. But there was always a sense in our family that we were a cattle family first,” Keys says.
Policy and politics were a natural inclination ever since high school, Keys says.
“Political stuff just interested me, and our family was always involved in local politics and political issues. I liked it and I loved ag. My job at NCA gave me the chance to combine both of them,” he says.
Keys' style as a self-assured, hard-charging, ag policy wonk is anything but soft-shoe. Once given the membership's position on an issue, Keys was known for trying to punch through rock and drain seas to realize its implementation. Some folks viewed him as arrogant and insensitive; Keys says he's just short on nuance.
“I'm definitely not milquetoast,” he says. “I don't like playing nuances, and I don't ‘windsock’ to see which way the wind is going. I don't BS people and I stay the course.”
A few skinned egos aside, that honest approach has apparently served NCBA well. A few years back, NCBA's Washington operation was honored as one of the top shops in this mecca of professional advocates that is the nation's capital.
“NCBA has a reputation as straight shooters, maybe even to a fault sometimes,” Keys says. “But, we're not here to make people comfortable; we're here to carry the membership's directions to public policy. It's a big job.”
Prior to leaving his NCBA duties, BEEF had an opportunity to chat with Keys about his past 20 years and coming challenges.
BEEF: Why are you leaving NCBA?
My decision to leave NCBA was heart-wrenching. These are some of the best people in the world — members, volunteers and staff.
I wanted to leave on my terms at the height of my game for NCBA, and only for a good opportunity. The cattle industry is doing well, we got through the BSE crisis, the morale and staff in this office are great, and I have a good opportunity.
BEEF: So what exactly will you be doing?
I'll be the first full-time employee in Washington for Swift & Co. My job as senior vice president of government and industry affairs is to do whatever Swift wants me to do.
For one, Swift wants to be at the table when big discussions in the beef and cattle industry are going on, and they want someone with the stature to carry the company's will and wishes when the time is right.
Swift is looking to do some dynamic things. It's a private company that I imagine wants to eventually go public, and it wants to be a cutting-edge company on source verification and food safety.
BEEF: What's your response to detractors who depict your move to Swift as an affirmation that you worked too close with packers in the past?
That's a bunch of bull crap. Everyone in this town, and I'm very proud of the fact, knows I've represented NCBA and NCBA's policy and aspirations with my whole heart and every ounce of my fortitude for 20 years.
When I've had to cooperate with the packers, I've cooperated and collaborated with them. And when I've had to fight them, I fought them. You can ask any packer rep in town or anyone on Capitol Hill if Chandler Keys ever compromised NCBA's position at any given time of his career for self-advancement; they'll laugh you out of the room.
BEEF: What are the lessons you take with you from 20 years as a beef industry lobbyist?
There's no doubt about it, the reason I've stayed here 20 years is the great people I've worked with and for. There are a lot of honest, hardworking people in this business who believe in the things I believe in, which are freedom, people's right to choose on how to do things, less government, and they believe in the marketplace. Those are some of the key thing I'm taking with me.
It was a great opportunity to really learn about the beef and cattle industry over the past 20 years — to learn about democracy and how it operates and how we interact with it as an industry. But, probably the most important was just the great people I've worked with, both volunteers and staff people of NCBA, people on the hill, people in the agencies.
BEEF: What are your personal highlights during this time?
My first personal highlight was just getting the job. I hope there's one thing people can say about me, and I believe this of myself, is that in the last 20 years I've never skated or slowed up.
But the other one was when I got to run this Washington office and put together and manage this team. There was a lot of personal and professional satisfaction in putting together a team of professionals here that I think do a wonderful job.
BEEF: What are your personal disappointments?
I learned a valuable lesson as a young lobbyist on the dairy buyout. It taught me that if you assume things in this town, you'll get your butt handed to you, and I really learned a valuable lesson from that. No matter if they're your friends or your enemies, no one is going to watch out for you except yourself.
The trick is to stay on top of things, work hard and don't let things creep up on you. I think we've done a dang good job since then of having no surprises. It was a disappointment but we learned a lot from it and the industry got tougher as a result, too.
BEEF: Given the checkoff's stellar record, why is its future so precarious?
Success is sometimes your own worst enemy. We did such a good job with the checkoff. We countered all the anti-beef movements of the 1970s and early '80s, we got beef demand turned around, and now some people want to get rid of it.
We're a lot more prepared now and have the resources and the skill sets we didn't have 20 years ago to counter our opponents. I saw all those skill sets just blossom in the last 20 years, the professionalism, the fortitude, the research, the coordination and collaboration.
With the merger and one voice in the industry on marketing and business climate issues, a lot of people, even if we lost the checkoff, feel confident we would come up with an alternative and that we have the apparatus in place to make it happen.
BEEF: How damaging would it be to lose the checkoff?
If we had lost the checkoff before the merger of the Meat Board and NCA, it would have been devastating. The merger meant we no longer had two organizations to feed, so to speak.
I think a lot of the checkoff's detractors seem to think that if they kill the checkoff, they'll kill NCBA. But, if the checkoff is lost, only the Beef Board goes away. NCBA doesn't.
And, all you have to do is look at the people involved with NCBA, as it relates to the players in the beef and the cattle industry, and you know NCBA will survive. The players are all at the table with NCBA.
BEEF: What does NCBA-PAC's support of President Bush's successful re-election effort in November mean for NCBA?
I think NCBA basically said: “Here's a guy that's out here helping us, his administration is good, he's getting things done and we need to have him for four more years.” It was a gamble, no doubt about it.
In this town, I think it rocked everyone in ag back on their heels a little. Bottom line is you have to look at the political dynamic that you're dealing with. Our political weight is diminishing every year, as the U.S. gets more urban. If you want to stay in the game, you have to make political choices.
When I hear ag organizations say they're not partisan, that they just do policy, I have to smile. Politics and policy are tied together. You won't get your policy if you have the wrong political entities involved.
BEEF: Many folks thought the defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in the recent elections spelled the end of mandatory COOL. But the 108th Congress wasn't able to shut down the effort last November.
We lost COOL years ago because NCBA went back and forth on it a few times. When you do that, it's bound to go sour on you and it's bound to stay sour on you.
Daschle lost, but COOL is more of a regional issue than anything. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, is who stepped up and kept it from going voluntary.
I haven't talked to Daschle of late but I've talked to some of his confidants. They're very upset that after the Minority leader stuck his neck out in a very bold way over the past four years for R-CALF, that the organization wouldn't help him get re-elected. I think Democrats will remember that.
I think populism was dealt a blow by Daschle's defeat.