If you think small business owners can’t make a difference in politics, think again.
- Stepping into the political arena allows a small business owner to support fellow entrepreneurs
- Balancing political responsibilities with the demands of running a business can be challenging
The surest way to make small business’ voice heard in the political arena is for small business owners to enter the political arena themselves—and that’s just what some NFIB members are doing.
These NFIB members are seeking and taking political office with agendas that are heavy on the concerns of fellow small business owners. Their ideas have been shaped by their experiences as entrepreneurs. Because America’s economic progress remains so dependent on the success of the nation’s businesses, the issues and measures championed by NFIB members in office can change the future of the states and the entire country.
The leap from small business owner to politician isn’t the most natural, but here’s a look at four NFIB members who have done it—and how they are changing government for the better.
TN Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey: Looking Out for the Little Guy
Ron Ramsey received the prestigious national Unemployment Integrity Award this summer from Strategic Services on Unemployment and Workers’ Compensation, a national grassroots group for business. It was the culmination of a career of activism on this issue by a longtime NFIB member who rose to the position of Tennessee lieutenant governor after finding inspiration to go into politics more than two decades ago after participating in a day of industry lobbying.
As owner of Ron Ramsey and Associates for 28 years, the auctioneering specialist still runs his business with the help of a handful of family members. When the Tennessee Legislature is in session in Nashville, Ramsey auctioneers on weekends. “We’re a citizen Legislature, so the toughest job is balancing the demands of being a Legislator with having to run a business,” he says.
Ramsey also has learned to select priorities during his 22 years in the Legislature, which entered an important new phase in 2007 when he became the state’s first Republican lieutenant governor in more than a century. One of his goals has been ensuring that NFIB members’ concerns are heard clearly by the Tennessee Legislature. For instance, NFIB partnered with Ramsey on his statewide Red Tape Tour, during which he met with a total of 500 small business leaders in several cities.
The Red Tape Tour helped Ramsey settle personally on unemployment insurance and workers’ comp issues as a policymaking priority. He has led a variety of changes in state law that are very helpful to small business owners: ending unemployment-benefits entitlement for seasonal workers; capping “community damages” this year as part of comprehensive tort reform; and creating a dispute-resolution system that avoids heading directly to court.
“We didn’t have administrative-law judges or arbitrators that business owners could go to in a dispute with employees, and we were behind most other states,” Ramsey says.
Another priority for Ramsey is to persuade fellow business owners to run for state office so that the Legislature is friendly to the enterprises that serve as the backbone of Tennessee’s economy. He has helped boost the Tennessee Senate to a current 26-to-7 GOP majority from its former 18-to-15 balance in favor of Democrats.
“I think we have one of the most business-friendly Legislatures in the nation. No longer are we playing defense on some issues that would come up in the past,” says the 58-year-old Ramsey. “We have insurance agents, doctors and so on in office. Almost every state senator is a business owner, and I consciously recruited about two-thirds of them.”
He also likes the attributes that small business owners bring to the job of representing the public. “They set goals. They’re disciplined. They manage their time properly and figure out their priorities,” he says.
In fact, Ramsey says, the best thing that fellow NFIB owners can do to ensure their views are heard—and heeded—by politicians is to get to know their legislators personally. “We all eat at the same restaurants, after all,” Ramsey says. “Then they’ll listen to your advice or even, as I do, reach out for it.”
NV Assemblyman Patrick Hickey: Smarter Choices
When Patrick Hickey started a commercial and residential painting company, Pat Hickey Painting, 25 years ago, he began to experience the very real, day-to-day implications of policy and government decisions that he’d only pontificated on before.
Hickey was first elected to the Nevada Assembly in 1996 and left after one session. As soon as he was in a better position with the business, having brought in a son to help run it, Hickey returned in 2011 and became the Republican majority leader last year.
During Hickey’s time in office, he has focused on charter schools, single-site institutions for public education that are unencumbered by teachers’ unions and other vestiges of the bureaucracy. By improving education, Hickey argues, the workforce also improves, and smarter, more skilled employees are a big boost to small business owners. Chartered technical institutes, for example, prepare high school graduates to assume jobs in skilled trades and mining, two big industrial needs in Nevada. “They make students career-ready even if they’re not necessarily college-bound,” he says.
The National Association for Charter Schools moved Nevada up nine spots in its national ranking of states for charter-school innovation, to No. 13 from No. 22 in 2014. The group cited two major pieces of legislation that the Nevada Legislature enacted, in part via Hickey’s leadership, in 2013. The first created improvements such as performance frameworks as part of charter contracts. The second provided facilities support via new low-interest loans that help charter schools with the huge expenses of getting a new school off the ground even when it meets in an existing structure.
“Before, that was always a stumbling block because charters couldn’t use existing school buildings or get favorable financing,” says the 63-year-old Hickey. “That has changed, opening the possibility for more charters and innovative alternatives.”
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe: A Pulse on Workers’ Health
As a former owner of a thriving medical practice, Phil Roe, a third-term congressman from northeastern Tennessee, is a Republican Party point man in opposing the effects Obamacare has on small business. But Roe is reaching further back in his history to formulate his views on another major issue in Washington, D.C.: the minimum wage.
Roe encountered the frustrations of dealing with government bureaucrats in running his healthcare business. But his first stint in political office was as vice mayor of his hometown, Johnson City, Tennessee, for four years and then as mayor from 2007 to 2009.
He graduated to Congress in 2009 and now Roe, as chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions, part of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, plays an influential role in how Congress is confronting Pres. Barack Obama’s public support of raising the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.
And in response to demands that the U.S. government should ensure a “living wage” in every full-time job for every American, Roe leans on his formative years as a medical student. Then, his internship pay of $280 a month didn’t cover expenses for him, his wife and newborn child. “The rent itself was $200 a month,” Roe recalls. “I had to moonlight. After I worked all day and all night and all the next day at the hospital, I would leave and go work another job doing ER and make enough extra money so that we could live.”
For now, the issue of raising the federal minimum wage is sidelined in Washington, D.C. However, Roe wants to continue to educate Americans on the topic because states and municipalities are raising minimum wages on their own.
Roe isn’t urging every financially stressed American to moonlight his or her way to income adequacy. That isn’t possible in a slow-growth economy where decent-paying jobs—even part-time jobs—remain hard to come by. But neither does he believe mandating fellow small business owners to pay higher wages is the answer, because it would stress their bottom lines and they’d have to trim workforces, raise prices or both. “People who have never run a business think you can just raise the minimum wage, and that’ll take care of the problem,” says the 69-year-old Roe. “But the people you hurt the most will be those working at the low end. For consumers, a burger at McDonald’s will become $6 instead of $4.”
FL State Rep. Mike Hill: Taxing Issues
Mike Hill allows that running a government isn’t as streamlined as operating the State Farm Insurance agency that he has owned in Pensacola for two decades. But he also has managed to simplify a program of principles that has guided him since he won state office last year. They have already helped him achieve some significant success on his signature issue: cutting taxes for small business owners.
“My platform was what I consider the true conservative principles of limited government: low taxes, personal freedom and individual responsibility,” says Hill, a military veteran who joined NFIB in 2010. “I also was going up against the established politicians in Tallahassee who, in my mind, were wreaking havoc on the people of Florida.”
The 56-year-old veteran insurance agent got interested in politics out of frustration at what was happening in government at the local and federal levels. “You had this leviathan that wants to be part of even the minutiae in our lives,” he says. “When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and started to accelerate this trend, I said I could sit around—or I could do something about it.”
Hill first ran for public office in 2010, a campaign for the state Senate, prompted in large part by the state-regulatory burden he had been feeling as an insurance-agency owner. He got 30 percent of the vote in the primary—but not enough to beat the incumbent senator he was running against. When a local representative died last year, friends and fellow NFIB members urged Hill to run for that office in a special election. This time, he won.
Hill campaigned against the state’s doubling of license-tag and driver’s-license fees. “When I was elected, that was the first bill I filed—to reduce those tax rates back to where they were,” Hill recalls.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott grabbed hold of the idea and made it a major part of a proposed tax-relief package he called Give Back to the Citizens. The measure sponsored by Hill alone was responsible for the bulk of the relief provided by Scott and the Legislature, about $400 million of a total of $500 million.
Hill continues his tax-fighting ways in the new session by paring back a 6.5-percent energy-consumption tax that is paid by Florida businesses. “It’s a tax that only businesses pay, and Florida’s tax is one of the highest in the Southeast,” he says.
Hill also is fighting to remove a commercial rental-sales tax that landlords must pay to the state and is unique to Florida among all states. “They can pass that on to their tenants, but it adds another layer of expenses,” he says. “I want to remove that completely.”
Any initiative for his company that Hill can tackle outside of the 90-day legislative session every two years, he does. The rest of the time he still devotes about a day or two a week to the obligations of his office. So Hill relies heavily on his small team of veteran staffers to keep the insurance agency humming. “But my name is still on the State Farm sign out there, and I have ultimate responsibility for it,” Hill says.