Special Report (Enterprise) Government -- CAMPAIGN '96
SMALL BUSINESS ROCKS THE VOTE
It's determined to make a difference this November
When Budweiser distributor Mike Hopkins calls on his 500 customers these days, he's selling more than beer. The owner of the 39-employee MHD Inc. in Brenham, Tex., is also pushing the re-election of Republican Senator Phil Gramm, who is running against political neophyte Victor Morales. Hopkins' pitch: Gramm has supported small business on nearly every Senate vote, from regulatory reform to cutting taxes.
In the coming months, Hopkins plans to talk up Gramm with customers, employees, and friends, and he'll prod other small-business owners to do the same. He's sending letters to local "opinion leaders," such as his barber, who knows everyone. And the distributor will travel the state to make speeches before business and community groups. "If Phil Gramm doesn't have the active support of small business," Hopkins explains, "he won't win."
"WINDOW." Small-business execs are normally too busy to find time for political activism. Yet Hopkins represents a growing legion of entrepreneurs nationwide who feel they have enormous stakes in the upcoming congressional elections. Since 1994, the Republican-controlled Congress has pushed small-business issues to the top of the political agenda, including proposals to curb regulations on small business, limit product-liability lawsuits, and cut taxes on equipment purchases. "The real challenge is convincing business men and women that they can make a difference," says Rich Knopke, president of Contractors Supply Co. in Kansas City, Mo. "The window of opportunity won't be open forever."
With so much at stake, groups like the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Beer Wholesalers' Assn. are pulling out all the stops to keep their friends, most of them Republicans, in power. They're venturing into new areas, such as political advertising, that will reach wider audiences than their own membership. They're also raising record amounts of money to donate to campaigns and training their members for political organizing. The National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors predicts its 45,000 members will contribute $2.5 million to individual candidates and the Republican Party this year, up from $1.5 million in 1994. And the NFIB intends to double--to $2.5 million--what it spent in '94 on political action committee contributions and grassroots operations.
Part of these groups' strength lies in sheer numbers: The NFIB alone has 600,000 members, enough in many congressional districts to tilt a close race their way. Most trade associations will use phone banks and other techniques to encourage members to call in to talk shows, write letters to editors, and--most important--vote. In April, the NFIB ran a satellite-television conference with 500 execs in 10 states to show them how to mobilize colleagues. And the wholesalers-distributors will run a voter registration drive to ensure that traveling salespeople mail in absentee ballots.
HIGH REGARD. But NFIB political director Jeff Butzke says giving money and getting members to the polls aren't enough: The group wants to sell the public on its agenda. "Instead of just writing a check, we want to reach out past our membership and carry the message for small business," says Butzke.
In 1994, the NFIB sent out a manual to its 3,000 members in Washington State's 5th district, asking each to urge 10 friends to vote for Republican George R. Nethercutt Jr., who was trying to topple then-House Speaker Thomas S. Foley. Nethercutt won by fewer than 4,000 votes. While Butzke doubts that every NFIB member participated in the drive, he thinks enough did to affect the outcome.
That's the kind of influence small-biz execs can wield, contends Butzke, but too few candidates and political consultants seem willing to take advantage of it. Butzke points to NFIB-sponsored polls showing that the public has high regard for small business and is more likely to believe a political endorsement by a small-business owner than by organized labor or corporate executives. He feels a candidate who speaks out about the problems facing small business, such as regulatory burdens, can have wide appeal. "We think voters can relate to people on Main Street," Butzke says.
One way to get those stories out: political advertising. The beer wholesalers are considering ads for endorsed candidates. The NFIB plans to run radio ads in about 100 races. Instead of giving the maximum $5,000 in a PAC contribution to a candidate, the group will spend the money on ad production and placement. The featured speakers in the ads will be owners of small business. The group already is testing the idea. In April, during the GOP primary for an open House seat in Pennsylvania, a small businessman did the voiceover for a radio commercial for state legislator Joe Pitts, who won the nomination.
In their biggest foray ever into electoral politics, the business groups will target about 100 congressional districts, including several dozen held by GOP House freshmen who won close elections in '94. Many are the same races targeted by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who has vowed to spend $35 million on 75 races. "Sweeney did a lot of our folks an unintended favor by going public," says Dirk Van Dongen, president of the wholesalers-distributors group. "He crystallized the debate and heightened the interest in the elections."
Already, the rhetoric is hot. Small-business politicos warn that "Big Labor" is out to take over small communities. AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal counters by labeling the small-business troops "extremists who are destroying protections that working people have."
If nothing else, the entrance of small business into this year's congressional campaigns guarantees plenty of excitement. The only question is whether local businesspeople will prove as good at courting voters as they are at attracting customers.By Susan B. Garland in WashingtonReturn to top