WASHINGTON – Baltimore business owner Steve Salamon says he has a “particular insight and involvement” with what was once President Clinton’s top priority, his unsuccessful effort at health care reform.
“Our dear president tried to put me out of business,” said Salamon, owner of The Salamon Agency, which designs health care plans for small businesses. “I would not shed any tears to see him go back to Arkansas and see what it’s like to pay a mortgage.”
These words – music to the ears of Salamon’s fellow Republicans – represent an energized front of small business owners who have joined the battle against government.
Salamon and about 300 other business owners came to a downtown Washington hotel this week for a “political boot camp” conference organized for the first time by the National Federation of Independent Business.
The organization – which claims 600,000 members nationwide, 99 percent employing fewer than 100 workers – also expanded its political action committee last year, said Kristin Hogarth, an NFIB spokeswoman.
Once just a political action committee with a staff of one, the larger department now has six employees who organize support activities for candidates seeking federal and state offices, she said.
In addition to opposing what spokesman Jim Jennings called Clinton’s “health care mandates,” other priorities of the business federation and PAC include reforming workers’ compensation laws, stemming personal injury liability awards and encouraging greater access to pension plans by small businesses.
Conference organizers sought to train a new crop of political candidates.
Workshops focused on topics such as running for public office and convention delegate, dealing with the media, fund raising and survey research.
The importance of the business owners’ conference was underscored by the number of Republican presidential hopefuls who addressed it. Vying for support were Steve Forbes, a millionaire magazine publisher; former U.N. ambassador Alan Keyes of Maryland; columnist Patrick Buchanan; former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander; Illinois businessman Morry Taylor; Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas; and Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
“I am an entrepreneur business owner like you, someone who has met a payroll and paid off debts,” Forbes told the conference-goers.
President Clinton was invited but did not attend. A White House spokeswoman said he was in New York for events marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.
One conference participant said he has already started running for Congress. Bud Walker, of Clintondale, N.Y., said he has begun campaigning to oust Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D- N.Y.
“Fiscal and economic issues are absolutely essential,” said Walker, who said he is a fourth-generation apple farmer and owner of five New York radio stations.
Although the cause taken up by the business owners dovetails into many Republican Party ideas, the business federation is nonpartisan. “We’re just conservative,” spokesman Jennings said. “We’d love to find conservative Democrats.”
Jim Whitney, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats are by no means conceding the businessmen to the GOP.
He said in the first two years of the Clinton administration, a “Democratic president and a Democratic Congress” took a number of steps to aid them, including cutting the deficit and bringing down interest rates.
Other issues he said Democrats and owners of small business could agree on are efforts to encourage research and development and pass a capital gains tax cut targeted for small business investment.
The business federation has grown 3 percent or 4 percent annually, spokesman Jim Weidman said. Although Maryland remains receptive to liberal politics, he said the organization has found “good conservative Democrats” in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
The business federation counts about 6,000 members in Maryland, said James Goeden, the group’s Maryland lobbyist.
Like Salamon, many owners of small businesses were galvanized by their fear that the red tape from Clinton’s health care plan would leave them in ruins, Goeden said.
“Health care really scared people,” Hogarth said.
The head of the DCCC, which recruits candidates for House seats, said in an interview that Republicans “are clearly on the wrong side of the Medicare issue and the wrong side of the health issue.”
Rep. Martin Frost of Texas added that Clinton’s effort “was not the determining issue” in last year’s Republican capture of Congress.
Goeden said the group’s effort is part of a growing activism among business owners and managers. The business federation claims as members eight freshmen in the House and two senators, all Republicans.
When he first began working for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce in 1970, the prevailing attitude was “let’s not get political,” Goeden said. Now, “instead of dealing with the cards you’re dealt, businesses realize you can have an effect on the cards you’re dealt.” The business federation pursues an active recruitment strategy, with about 700 “territory managers” soliciting door-to-door, Weidman said. -30-