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LAS VEGAS -- With an election only weeks away that has the potential to have major ramifications on the convenience store industry, it was fitting that the 2012 NACS Show drew to a close with a general session that featured a debate between Democrat Howard Dean and Republican Rick Santorum.
Dean was governor of Vermont for 12 years; served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009 after a 2004 bid for the Democratic nomination for president; and founded the grassroots political organization Democracy for America.
Santorum served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 1995; in the Senate from 1995 to 2007; and was a frontrunner for this year's Republican presidential nomination.
Political analyst Michelle Bernard, president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy, moderated the debate.
Prior to the debate, outgoing NACS Chairman Tom Robinson passed the torch to new NACS Chairman Dave Carpenter, who discussed the ability of large and small convenience retailers to get involved and make a difference. "Our industry is not one of haves and have nots," Carpenter said. "The best ideas and concepts don’t solely reside within the walls of the biggest retailers."
Carpenter also noted specific examples of areas where the c-store industry and NACS are having an effect, such as fuels and payment technology. "Let’s take on the big issues and own them," he said. (To read more on what Carpenter hopes to accomplish this year as NACS chairman, click here.)
Following Carpenter's opening remarks, Bernard kicked off the discussion with a deceptively simple question: How do the panelists define the American dream?
"[It is] a story of opportunity," said Dean, adding that it is the chance to work hard and get ahead as people make something of themselves. Many convenience store operators have done exactly that, he noted, and more Americans should have the chance to open small businesses.
But Dean said one problem with the current state of the country is the gulf between people at the top and people at the bottom financially speaking, and that some people at the bottom "don't think the American dream is possible anymore."
Santorum agreed on that basic theme of the American Dream, but labeled the problem a cultural one, not economic, pointing to the number of low-income people that come from broken homes.
Both debaters voiced support for the convenience store industry when it comes to the growing issue of childhood obesity and some critics' tendency to blame c-stores for offering processed or unhealthy items while serving as a primary location to purchase food in some neighborhoods. "It's absurd," said Santorum. Rather than being part of the problem, "you're part of the solution."
C-store operators should be proud to provide a valuable service to the areas in which they operate, and for remaining open and surviving in a tough economy, he said, noting that part of that is offering items that people want to buy so they can stay in business.
Dean concurred, reinforcing a point echoed throughout the debate that Democrats and Republicans aren't so different when it comes to their hopes for the country, but diverge in the right way to achieve those dreams.
"It's a matter of individual choice," Dean said. Some regulation is reasonable, he explained, but he'd prefer to see Americans educated on nutrition and healthy eating in school even as store owners explore how to make money from products such as fresh fruit.
The panelists then discussed the points at which they decided they could make a difference by running for higher office, and sparred over the state of the presidential race following last week's debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Santorum labeled Romney's biggest stumbling block as his lack of connection with people who wonder, "Does he care about me? Does he understand me?"
However, in his view, the world has become more volatile and less safe over the last years, and fundamentals of the election should favor Romney. But he acknowledged that Obama is doing a better job running his campaign, and the outcome is still in question.
In response, Dean pointed to several of Obama's achievements, such as bringing soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and touched on the importance of authenticity in politics. On the issue of wealth redistribution, he stated that c-store owners should be less worried about their money flowing toward lower-income citizens and more concerned with it flowing toward the big banks.
"This is a ridiculous way of doing business," he said of the swipe fees that make a large percentage of small-ticket debit card sales.
On the subject of health care, a very relevant topic to all c-store operators following the Supreme Court's upholding of the Affordable Care Act, both men agreed that the mandate for businesses of a certain size to provide health insurance or pay a fee is a tax. But while Santorum supported the competitive model in the private sector, Dean noted that employees with access to health care will ultimately be better workers and less likely to leave seeking insurance at another job.
Ultimately, retailers will have to wait and see how Congress changes after the election to have an idea of whether 'Obamacare' will be repealed.
Throughout the debate, although the speakers acknowledged their very different views on what is the right path for the country to take, both agreed that it is important to help average citizens succeed, and that convenience store operators and other small businesses play an important role in that.
Finally, as time ran short, the panelists gave their answers to one more important topic -- their favorite item to purchase from a convenience store. Dean pointed to York Peppermint Patties as his item of choice. And as for Santorum, "I like chocolate milk," he said.