Lori Compas at the helm of new association for Wisconsin's small and rural businesses
Post by Christie Taylor on 9/28/2012 12:00pm
Brad Werntz, owner of Boulders Climbing Gym, says the idea to organize the state’s small business owners started, in many ways, with protesting Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill.
On March 9, 2011, having entered the locked-down state Capitol through a window and bumped into several other Madison business owners who did the same, he was dismayed to hear that he and other protesters, including Planet Propaganda co-owner John Besmer were being written off as “out of state union thugs.”
“John and I, two middle-aged guys with kids and businesses and mortgages in town,” Werntz said.
And so, Besmer, Werntz and another half-dozen business owners who had been spending time at the Capitol gathered themselves together. Starting as a more informal group they called “the Job Creators’ Club,” they met over beers to talk about their concerns.
Werntz said they eventually gathered enough membership that it was time to find someone to lead them full-time–something they couldn’t do as people with businesses to run. That search began this summer, and culminated Thursday with the launch of the new Wisconsin Business Alliance, led by another who had gotten her start during the protests.
“The day after the recalls, it seemed we had other things to do,” Werntz said. “So we reached out and Lori responded and filled in the missing piece we needed.”
Lori Compas, the other half of the story, rose to local fame last year when she single-handedly took on then-Senate Majority (now Minority) Leader Scott Fitzgerald, gathering the signatures to get his name on the ballot for recall with little Democratic Party help, then running against him herself when no one else would step up.
On Thursday, speaking as the new executive director for the Wisconsin Business Alliance, she described her campaign process, meeting small business owners–Democrat and Republican–in small towns throughout the district who were concerned with shuttered shop windows, schools and libraries suffering from budget cuts and a government that didn’t seem to be responding to their needs.
“I promised to be their voice,” she said. “And then,” she added with a wry smile, “I lost.”
Compas said that with the WBA, she hopes to do what she couldn’t as a politician–provide them a voice, and help them get their needs met in a nonpartisan, “results-oriented” setting.
Despite the protest origins of the core group, Werntz said that politics had little to do with the decision to group together. Rather, he said, he and the other members of the group had seen too many politicians claiming to do things–including but not limited to the budget repair bill’s union-stripping measures–on behalf of small business. Meanwhile, as businessmen, he said, “We were saying this is not good for business.”
“If you look at Governor Walker, Scott Fitzgerald, their resumes, they know literally nothing about business,” he went on. “Meanwhile, we’ve got award-winning businessmen standing in this room today.”
“Small businesses are basically being left to fend for themselves,” Planet Propaganda owner Besmer said. “Larger companies, their interests are being represented in a variety of ways, and that’s okay.”
He said small business owners needed a voice to speak up for quality of life and conditions that will attract and foster a high-quality workforce. “The quality of people we can hire dictates the quality of our business,” he said.
Many of the 20-some business owners in attendance in Madison (the day also saw launches in Milwaukee and Janesville), echoed Besmer, saying they valued an educated, healthy workforce, and wages high enough that workers can also afford to be consumers.
“This current idea of deifying job creators is not working,” said Keith Schmitz, who runs a public relations business in Milwaukee, and who said he’s likely to join on as a WBA member. “Let’s instead do what works.”
Compas, herself the owner of a photography studio, said policies that drive wages down, for example, were counter to her interests as a business owner. “If people don’t have money in their pocket, they can’t spend money–I’m a photographer, photography is the first thing to go,” she said. “I want people to have disposable income so they use my services. Retailers want people to have disposable income.”
The association will aim in particular for small businesses, rural farm-based enterprises, and independent contractors and entrepreneurs. But Compas thinks they can attract business owners from across the political spectrum, with enterprises of all sizes, with those values: the group will be strictly nonpartisan, and she’s looking for anyone “committed to broad-based prosperity and a modern economy that’s built to last,” she said. Nor does she think her history in Democratic politics will hold that back.
“I campaigned on values–respect for the rule of law, respect for the process, and that’s not a Democratic or Republican value,” she said. “We all agree that it’s time to get past the bitter ideology that’s divided our state. True prosperity comes from collaboration, not contention, and we work best when we work together.”
The association will focus on outreach to media and other public platforms, Compas said, and policy-specific lobbying to both parties when the Legislature resumes in January. Specific policy positions, however, will have to wait until the members can discuss–all Compas can count on now, based on talking to people since the early days of her campaign, is that healthcare access and affordability is likely to rank high on the list.
Any other policy positions will be based on their long-term benefits, with careful study of the economics. “We’re not going to have a kneejerk reaction,” she said. “We’re going to be more deliberate.”
As of Friday morning, 24 hours after the website went live, Compas said her WBA inbox was “swamped.” “I’d say we have dozens of new members,” she said.
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.