NEW YORK CITY — With the 2016 elections quickly approaching, business owners everywhere are wondering who will win the presidential race and how the political makeup of Congress will change. And no wonder: The decisions of the voters will determine the passage of legislation that helps or hinders the economy over the coming four years.
Important as the federal elections are, though, your business operations will likely be impacted more profoundly by decisions made at a much lower level of the political food chain: your city.
“It’s all too easy to focus our attention on legislation and regulations from the federal government,” says Sean W. Hadley, a Moorestown, N.J.-based attorney active in government relations. “But the reality is that businesses are more affected by ordinances passed by their local communities than by anything that goes through — or doesn’t go through — Congress and the federal agencies.”
OFFER TO HELP
Helping a politician do a better job promotes the kind of win-win relationship that goes a long way toward building your power base.
“Politics is all about back-scratching,” says Fairfield, Conn.,-based attorney Cliff Ennico, author of the Small Business Survival Guide from Adams Press. “Tell the politician how you will help him or her in exchange for support for your position on proposed legislation.”
If the politician supports a bill you want passed, will you invite him or her to speak before your civic group on the topic? That can help garner more voters.
While you can employ the process described for as many politicians as you like, your time is limited so you will need to be selective.
“Find out who the powerful people are,” suggests Ennico. “In every community, there are people who are effective in making things happen, and people who are not. And the former might not be the people with the biggest offices. In one town, for example, it might be the head of the local Democratic party rather than the mayor.”
Your informal talks with local politicians will reveal the names of these power players. Those are the ones you want to cultivate.
Your first contact with a politician should be to establish a dialogue. Avoid making a request right away.
“It’s never good to start a relationship with your needs at the forefront,” says Hadley. “Remember, you will need this person’s assistance over the long term.”
Once you have cultivated a growing relationship, though, you can feel free to approach the politician with your own ideas. Perhaps you want to block a proposed regulation. Or perhaps you want to promote an entirely new business-friendly ordinance. At this point, you will be happy that you have a friendly person to call.
Despite the relationship you have established with the politician, you want to present your case as benefitting the community at large rather than your business in particular. That requires doing your homework.
When speaking about how a proposed regulation will affect your revenues or your employment activity, do so in the context of how your activities, and those of other businesses in your town, help the region grow and prosper. Calculate the numbers.
“Back up your story with data,” says Nancy Bocskor, a political consultant in Arlington, Va. “Show the official how a certain proposed regulation will affect X, Y and Z. People need to know the consequences of government actions that too often sound good before you do the math.”
Speaking of numbers, few are as important as the ones in your town’s budget. You may not ordinarily give much thought to that arcane document, but it can have an outsized influence on your Laundromat.
“Budget issues are really issues of priority,” says Hadley. “Suppose you need improvements to the roads leading to your place of business, and you were able to convince your town to pass an ordinance requiring that. You think you have accomplished your goal, but if the town budget does not allocate the requisite funds, you will see no road improvements over the coming year. Without the money to fund it, an ordinance is only worth the paper it’s written on.”
Vital as it is, involvement with the town budget is a long game.
“You have to start small, by getting to know your town officials,” says Hadley. “You can’t just walk into your town hall and say, ‘I want to know everything about the budget and want to influence it.’ Your town officials will not be forthcoming. You have to get to know them first on a personal level as a small-business owner.”
TEAM UP FOR SUCCESS
These suggestions have championed the political power of the small-business owner acting alone. But there’s no doubt that scheduling constraints can hamper the most well-intentioned effort.
“Any kind of community work is a time vampire,” says Ennico. “We are so busy running our shops and working 24/7 that taking time out for civic involvement is a lot to ask. It’s easy to let things slide because you are too busy.”
Reach out to your fellow business owners for assistance. When they see you have blazed a trail through the wilderness of local politics, they will be more willing to lend a hand. Join your local chamber of commerce or business council.
Small-businesspeople working together can improve the local business climate for everyone. “If you don’t reach out, you will become invisible to local politicians,” says Ennico. “And when you become invisible, bad things can happen.”
Missed Part 1? You can read it HERE.