She's Not Afraid to get her Hands Dirty

Features - Business Management

As an active member of the green industry and now in Congress, Kathy Dahlkemper speaks her mind.

April 24, 2009
Pat Jones

As an industry often accused of preaching to the choir – complaining to each other that the politicians in Washington just don’t understand us – many have bemoaned the fact that we never seem to have a voice in national politics.

Now we do … but it’s not necessarily the voice you’d expect.

Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper, a Democrat from Erie, Pa., who happens to be a co-owner of a successful design/build firm, was elected in November 2008 and is now serving her first term in the House of Representatives on behalf of the 3rd district of Pennsylvania.

In short, she’s definitely not the stereotypical male Republican that most of us would have expected to break the barrier and become the spokesperson for our business on Capitol Hill.

Dahlkemper was a professional dietician for two decades before she and her husband, Dan, decided to return to Erie to take over the family business. For 11 years, she and Dan worked hand-in-hand to build Dahlkemper Landscape Architects & Contractors from a small family business into a thriving organization. Today, the business employs four architects and a seasonal crew of 35. While Dan, the architect, concentrated on his design work, Kathy ran the operation and gained a first-hand knowledge of the struggles facing green industry companies nationwide.

Just a few years ago, she was nowhere near being a career politician … she was simply a concerned citizen who didn’t like the way things were going, but had no inkling that she might someday serve in Congress.

But she had the chops for the job. She’d wanted to help the struggling Erie community become a little more green, so she spearheaded the development of the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park (LEAF) and served as a director of the thriving non-profit for 10 years. And, through her daily work managing the business and her volunteer service for LEAF, she became a master at bringing people together in public-private partnerships to benefit the community. Finally, she really understood small business because she’d been running one for more than a decade. In short, even though she didn’t realize it as it was happening, she became a skilled politician.

The light bulb went off over her head during dinner one night when a spirited political discussion with friends turned into a decision to run against longtime incumbent Rep. Phil English. Between her fresh approach, an Obama-driven Democratic Party tidal wave and her primary opponent’s decision to renege on his promise not to run for another term, she was swept into office and took the oath this past January.

Now, Kathy Dahlkemper roams the halls of power and serves on the Committee on Agriculture, the Committee on Science and Technology, and the Committee on Small Business (and her designer husband, Dan, serves as the first-ever male president of the Congressional Spouses Club’s freshman class). We got in touch with her to talk about her reasons for running, how she’ll represent the green industry inside the Beltway and what her husband and five grown children think about having “Mom” serving the nation.

What drove you to get into the political arena?
I’d never been in office before and hadn’t even been involved in the (Democratic) party, but I’d always been in touch with issues. I was concerned with the direction of the country and the future of my children. I have five kids and their future just wasn’t as bright as I’d hoped for. Someone asked me to run and I told them they were absolutely crazy. I loved the (landscaping) business and the non-profit work I was doing. Life was good, so why would I get into politics?

But, I eventually decided to go for it. It really is a public service. It’s a way to give back to my country, just like LEAF was a way to give back to my community.

My first issue was the war, but what became more of a driving force was the economic situation. The 3rd district was suffering. A lot of bright, talented kids left to go to college and couldn’t come back because there were no jobs. I thought we could do better here. I figured I could be a great salesperson for the region.

How did your background in the green industry contribute?
It contributed a couple of ways. First, I’d learned that hard work pays off. That’s rule No. 1 in the market. You’re fighting Mother Nature, employee issues and uncertainty. You have to work hard. In my part of the country, you also have to make a living in eight months. You have to put in a lot of time and realize that there’s not a job you won’t do. That paid off in the campaign and I think it will in Congress. Thanks to my background, I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty.

Second, it’s all about relationships. Our (landscaping) business did very little advertising … it was all word of mouth. We learned that if you treat your customers right and do a good job, they’ll come back and tell others. That happens in politics too. You have to reach out to your constituents and let them know who you are and develop trust.
Finally, and this is much more current, is the environmental side of things. The green industry has been a leader in this at the commercial level. We’ve been good stewards and driven change from year to year. I want to take that and use that background in Congress to focus on green energy, improving streams and lakes and other conservation issues.

You’re not the typical politically conservative owner in our industry. How does that factor into your leadership style?
Our industry depends on being good stewards. Most of the country doesn’t have enough water. How can we, in our industry, be better conservers of water?  If anybody needs to conserve water, we do. Yesterday, I added an amendment in a bill that requires businesses to look at both (water) conservation and energy as they do financial sustainability analyses. Most people don’t realize that irrigation systems are much more efficient ways to use water. We need to be leaders in getting that message out.

We as a country are very much in love with our yards. We’re using more native plants and being a lot smarter with water and other inputs … a lot of this philosophy comes from my husband, by the way.

We still have to have the science to prove we have the lowest impact. People outside the industry haven’t seen the way we’ve changed in terms of quantity and application techniques. We really didn’t have the science in the past. Now we do. We need to tell that story.

What do you miss most about working every day in our market?
Mostly I miss the people. We have a great group at the company that’s like family. I miss the joking and knowing about their lives. I miss the relationships, the people we brought from other areas and other aspects of the day-to-day operation. I try to stop in (when I’m in Erie) but it’s hard. Mostly, I miss being outside! D.C. is a maze of tunnels! I seem to always be inside or underground.

Now that you’re in office, what advice do you have for landscapers and other small businesspeople about having their voices heard inside the Beltway?
Every group of professionals – it doesn’t matter if you’re involved or not – they all have organizations. Be a member because there’s strength in numbers. And know the issues. You need to be able to make your case. Finally, if someone comes to my office from my district, I’m really going to try to see them. Even though you, as a member of an association, have people working for you, there’s something special about having a constituent along. You should make time to be there personally.

What lessons did you learn in the green industry that you hope to pass along in Congress?
I’d tell them that it’s a lot of very good small businesses that often started out with a lawn mower in the back of a truck. We are an industry that’s evolving and can be on the forefront of what’s really happening environmentally and otherwise in this country. But, bottom line, we’re the essence of small business.

When you get time off – if ever – what do you do for fun?
I did get to go skiing a couple of times this winter. I just like to be outdoors, going hiking or bike riding and also visiting with my kids and my two grandchildren. I have another (grandchild) coming this spring. This job takes a lot of time, but you have to occasionally take a day for yourself.

Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
Any way that you can get involved you should do so. You don’t have to run for office, but get involved. It’s all important. I’m a true believer that it takes a lot of people to make change happen. And it’s not just going to happen in D.C. or a state capitol. I’m really excited to be a part of changing government and helping the green industry. I hope people reading this will feel the same and accept the same challenge.

The author is a contributing editor and columnist for Lawn & Landscape magazine. He can be reached at