Vince Phillips recently retired as a lobbyist for a number of Pennsylvania ag organizations.

Just as the green dome of Pennsylvania’s Capitol is a fixture of the Harrisburg skyline, Vince Phillips has been a fixture under that dome for years as one of the state’s top agriculture lobbyists.

Phillips retired at the end of 2020, capping a 31-year career in which he helped advance rural broadband for the Pennsylvania State Grange and pushed for legislative changes that were sometimes small but nonetheless valuable to farmers.

Phillips, a mustachioed resident of Mechanicsburg, believes that his often-maligned profession is a key part of civic engagement.

“In order to really make a difference, you have to advocate something to the people who have the power to change things,” he said.

Phillips wasn’t always a denizen of Harrisburg, or even of Pennsylvania. He grew up in South Bend, Indiana, which was then known for the University of Notre Dame, a huge industrial sector and some hard-fought city politics.

Phillips picked up an interest in government, and especially in economic development. Early in his career, he served on Ronald Reagan’s presidential transition team, looking at the Appalachian Regional Commission and other agencies that aim to revitalize rural areas.

He was soon appointed to the Office of Rural Development Policy at USDA. “Our mandate from the White House was to come up with a rural development strategy that did not involve spending any federal money,” Phillips said.

As difficult as that task might sound, Phillips and his colleagues produced a veritable tome, with recommendations focusing on nongovernmental resources. The report is still a point of pride for Phillips, and he’s thought about updating it as a retirement project.

From the rural development office, Phillips went to work for the USDA press secretary, preparing briefings about locations that Ag Secretary John Block was to visit. If Block was going to Des Moines, the books would list, for example, the projects that the Farmers Home Administration had funded in that part of Iowa.

In 1986, Block left USDA to lead the National-American Wholesale Grocers Association. He hired Phillips to manage his press relations after he realized that media attention would not be automatic, as it was when he was a Cabinet secretary.

At the grocers association, Phillips implemented a strategy that would serve him well in Harrisburg — tailoring messages to the interests of particular groups. He played up value-added products to entice the food press. The organization’s truck safety projects appealed to transportation media.

Phillips finally came to Pennsylvania in 1989, recruited to be the lobbyist for a life insurance agents group.

“If you want somebody who knows a lot about insurance, then I’m not your person. If you want someone who can communicate your message, then I can help you,” he told them.

Phillips went on to lobby for property-casualty and health insurance agents. But he was still interested in rural economic development, and particularly farming, which he saw as a cornerstone of the rural economy.


In April 2014, Vince Phillips, right, presents pens used by Gov. Tom Corbett in an ag bill signing ceremony. Receiving the pens is Brian Snyder, president of the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations. Phillips recently retired as executive director and lobbyist for the group.

So he picked up clients in the ag industry as well. At various times, he worked for a horticulture group, Christmas tree growers, soybean farmers, crop insurance agents, the Pennsylvania State Grange and the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations, among others.

The Life of a Lobbyist

Phillips doesn’t fit the hostile stereotype of the industry lobbyist as a statehouse mercenary.

He speaks confidently but without bravado, wears sweater vests instead of swanky suits — and has never lobbied for a group whose objectives he deplored. In his view, a lobbyist’s greatest resource is credibility.

“I walked away from very lucrative opportunities simply because if I can’t speak sincerely to a legislator about an issue, and it comes from the heart, then I’m lying,” he said.

One myth about political influence, Phillips said, is that a lobbying group’s campaign contribution is basically a bribe.

In reality, a contribution tells the legislator that the donor is supportive, and it may get that group’s phone call answered more quickly than it otherwise would be. But it’s a far cry from buying votes.

“Money can’t buy you love,” Phillips said.

That’s lucky for agriculture, which is far from the wealthiest lobbying interest in Harrisburg.

But if lobbying is surrounded by misconceptions, there’s one part of the job that is just as one might expect.

Lobbyists spend much of their time meeting people, lots of people, especially lawmakers and their Capitol staff.

But before Phillips could initiate those meetings, he had to do his homework — muster his facts, learn something about the lawmaker, figure out which issues matter to that person.

Some issues are obvious nonstarters — try attacking natural gas drilling with a legislator whose district depends heavily on the industry — but Phillips said he found common ground can be found in surprising places.

Urban and suburban lawmakers have supported broadband expansion, the top priority of the Pennsylvania State Grange. Poor internet is most commonly associated with rural areas, but Phillips said there are even corners of Philadelphia that lack service.

“I would try to target the subject to the legislator’s interest area so that genuinely we’d have something we could talk about,” he said.

Though many lawmakers are unfamiliar with the particulars of agriculture, Phillips said he never met one who was unwilling to talk about farming.

In addition to lobbying for or against specific bills, Phillips looked to build rapport with lawmakers. One strategy was to get members of the organizations he represented to attend events that legislators held in their districts.

His signature tool of the trade, though, was emailing grant opportunities to lawmakers whose districts he thought might benefit from them.

“When it was time to talk to them about a policy issue, they would know who I was, and they would know that I was a good guy,” Phillips said.

Staying on the Sunny Side

For a business built on face-to-face interaction, lobbying has been difficult during the pandemic.

The state Capitol has been closed at times over the past year, leaving Phillips contacting lawmakers by phone, email and video call.

Gone is the one-minute chat on the way to the elevator, along with Phillips’ meticulously planned days on the hill for members of the groups he served.

Phillips has handled the ups and downs of lobbying with a notably cheerful attitude. He attributes that partly to his personality, partly to a refusal to get bogged down by adversity.

In November, Republicans made a last-minute change to an important agritourism bill, blowing up the Democratic support that Phillips had painstakingly cultivated.

He was upset, of course, but at the same time he could take solace in a broadband bill he had championed, which passed unanimously in both chambers and was signed by the governor.

“There are so many things to lobby on that if I find myself frustrated because of something, I can lobby on something else,” Phillips said.

Many of the successes that Phillips cherishes have been small but meaningful, like funding to reinvigorate Christmas tree research.

Last year Phillips recruited enough Democratic support for a septic system bill that Gov. Tom Wolf signed the legislation even though he personally opposed it.

Asked about his successes, Phillips also volunteered to discuss his failures.

He was disappointed, for one thing, that he made limited headway in urging lawmakers to oppose the Delaware River Basin Commission’s restrictions on fracking.

Many lawmakers saw the issue as simply liking versus not liking fracking, but Phillips argued that the bigger issue was the commission trampling on Pennsylvania’s authority to regulate the natural gas industry.

Looking Ahead

In the two-year legislative session that began this week, Phillips said broadband — the Grange’s top issue — should continue to lead the ag agenda in Harrisburg.

“Until there’s a secure funding source for broadband expansion, we will not get to universal broadband,” Phillips said.

The Grange has proposed that funding source be a nominal monthly fee on cellphones, similar to the 911 fee paid on landlines.

Phillips also hopes to see some dairy and agritourism bills from last session get across the finish line.

As he settles into retirement, Phillips plans to take care of some final projects for clients. He will continue to publish his two newsletters on agriculture and insurance matters.

Phillips is also looking to do some writing. In addition to updating the Reagan-era economic development book, he’s developing a book with one of his three daughters in which she, as a grandmother, explains to her skeptical grandchildren what the year 2020 was like.

Phillips and his wife, Claudia, also hope to travel, though they aren’t keen on flying during the pandemic.

As a parting word, Phillips turned to a subject one might expect from someone who had spent his career conversing with others and hoping to contribute to a brighter tomorrow.

“I believe,” he said, “that the strength of Pennsylvania agriculture is and will always be its people.”


Lancaster Farming