Capitol gains: The untapped power of the small-business voter...

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Sunday, October 01, 2006
By Oakley Brooks

What if you could get small-business owners to vote as one block? Impossible, you say: There are around 100,000 businesses with 50 or fewer employees in Oregon and getting them on the same page come political season would be like herding cats.

But Oregon statewide candidates should think of this group as an opportunity. Here’s a potential voting block unmatched in its size (about the same as the Mormon Church in Oregon) and breadth (you name the demographic, they’re in this group). Winning them over en masse not only solidifies a new base for a candidate, it also gives candidates entree into the workplace, which opinion pollsters Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall say is one of the last forums for civic engagement in a society turned off by public affairs. An owner who convinces a handful of employees to vote with him or her broadens the base even more.

Going after the small-business owner would salve some of the cynicism among Oregon’s notoriously independent voters, who only see candidates pandering to CEOs with big checkbooks. At the same time, small-business owners, especially in rural areas, often have complained that state economic development strategy puts too much energy toward recruiting big out-of-state employers. Wooing the small-business vote is a play to the little guy and just in time. And it’s a gesture to a group long considered uniquely Oregonian. Oregon is annually among the top 10 in business starts per capita. It’s seen as fertile ground for entrepreneurs — for many new arrivals starting a business is the reason they moved here. “It’s just strange and open enough here,” says a recently arrived technology startup chief from Georgia.

Small-business owners cut across traditional divides in Oregon like few other interests groups. Think of the ideological diversity in this motley crew of proprietors — left, right, Bushies, Blues, Libertarians, pro-choice, pro-life, anti-gay marriage, anti-gun, immigrant hirers, Minutemen, Homesteaders, California carpetbaggers and the irascible don’t-give-a-damns running mail order burl operations somewhere in the Siskiyous. Industries also have their specific policy interests: It’s one reason lobbies with small-business constituents also have had a hard time uniting behind policy in Salem. (The Oregon Small Business Coalition — a loose gathering of restaurant, farm and National Federation of Independent Business representatives — has a staff of one-half a person and is a sort of ghost entity in Salem.)

Some of the very people who might benefit from a small-business political strategy — business groups and business owners — doubt it would ever come together, pointing to the traditional fault lines in politics and policy. Money talks, but the potential for a new voting block doesn’t, says Oregon Business Association president Lynn Lundquist. “Let’s face it, a Loren Parks has far more influence,” Lundquist says of the medical devices tycoon who put $760,000 in the pockets of Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix this spring.  

A random smattering of small-business owners said recently they weren’t sure they could be swayed to join a coalition of their fellow owners. One startup CEO in Eastern Oregon says his territory would always be solidly Republican. A counterpart in downtown Portland, well-versed in public affairs, promised to be a one-issue voter on gay marriage this fall.

Only J.L. Wilson, head of Oregon’s National Federation of Independent Business chapter, was somewhat open to the idea of a small-business block (might have something to do with his lobby being founded on that premise).

So it won’t be easy. It’s going to take a candidate with vision, who can speak to this diverse audience in the simple language of the small-business owner. The pitch understands the unifying tie of this group: Economic life is precarious and the owner bears the brunt of whatever cash-hemorrhaging catastrophe comes along. Solutions that ease that financial and emotional burden are what will win over this voting block.

This year, health care provides a magnet issue for candidates courting the small-business community. Though small-business owners may have expressed disinterest in voting with each other, they all spoke clearly about how health care costs were holding them back. “Health care costs are the top issue and there probably isn’t a close second,” Wilson says.

Too bad Oregon’s two leading prospects for governor are meek with their proposals to help small businesses out of the health-cost whirlpool. They’re copping the plea that health care is too complicated for them to take a comprehensive shot at it.

So instead of seeing the opportunity to unite a block of disparate voters around a pressing issue, the candidates are doing the traditional divvying-up of small-business votes — some left, some right and so on.

The problem is they lack the imagination to see a latent voting block out there. It doesn’t take much. In the fractured, stale world of Oregon politics, economic issues may be one of the last commonalities. And at the root of the Oregon economy are the small-business owners. What could be more fundamental than currying favor with them?

 

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