Small-business owners enter 2010 political fray

You probably have heard a lot about all those big-time corporate and union donors financing political advertisements throughout the 2010 mid-term election season.

But what about the little guy?

Well, he’s out there, too: Individual small-business owners have made themselves heard this fall with their own ad buys, broadcasting their opinions in pointed spots urging changes in the country’s direction.

Take Las Vegan Gerald Shlesinger, owner of Ciao Ciao Apizza Angelato, a pizza and pasta place on South Durango Drive.

Shlesinger spent several thousand dollars in recent weeks on three Las Vegas Review-Journal ads, all registering his frustration with an Obama administration that he said doesn’t treat small-business owners fairly. The most recent edition ran in Sunday’s paper.

It’s the first time Shlesinger has ever purchased a political ad.

“I’m just so compelled this year to express an opinion that doesn’t seem to be stated anywhere,” he said. “Obama comes up with this magic $200,000 threshold for the rich that he made up, and nobody disputes it. But you have all your business expenses, you take the risks, you invest your money, your time, your effort and your health in making payroll. You pay for your house, your car, all your business expenses, maybe you have two kids in college, but if you make over $200,000 a year, you’re rich?”

Shlesinger’s not alone in his frustration or his methods.

Kent Davenport, owner of Quality Hearing Aids in Las Vegas, has dropped $50,000 on local radio spots since November 2009, first taking on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his support of the health care bill and, more recently, pontificating on behalf of Reid’s Republican opponent, Sharron Angle (though Davenport said he’s “against Harry Reid” more than he’s for any candidate, and he said he has “scrupulously” kept his distance from Angle’s campaign operation).

Davenport took to the airwaves after he grew tired of hearing ads from special-interest groups urging Nevadans to call Reid and thank him for supporting health insurance reform. To inject a little humor and reinforce his independence, Davenport’s sign-off provides a nod to official campaign-ad verbiage: “This message was approved by me, myself and I, and paid for with a little help from me and myself,” he ends.

An uncommon political ardor — plus an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court — is helping drive the trend, said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The court’s January decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down limits on corporate funding of independent “electioneering communications” in the weeks before voters head to the polls.

“Now, you don’t have to worry as much about skirting legal issues involved in buying campaign ads,” Damore said. “And there are a lot of people who feel passionately about these races.”

Some small-business owners are looking to independent ad buys because they don’t want a sizeable share of their investment going to a candidate’s or party’s overhead, Damore added.

“And if it’s a close race in the outcome, they can claim credit,” Damore said. “If you have the resources, it’s a way you can sort of make the difference, thanks to the Supreme Court.”

Nor is it a surprise to Damore that many of the ads lean toward supporting conservative causes because small-business owners are likelier than other voters to prefer candidates that support lower taxes and fewer regulations, he said.

Media outlets don’t track political-ad buys based on whether they come from small-business owners, but sales executives say anecdotal evidence shows that 2010 has proven an unusually active campaign season for such election-related spots.

Chris Trares, retail advertising director for the Review-Journal, said he couldn’t recall seeing any ad similar to Shlesinger’s in previous years. He chalked up the emergence of entrepreneur-based political ads to today’s tough atmosphere.

“It seems like every election gets more and more divisive, so it doesn’t surprise me that people are more willing to step up to the plate than they were in elections past,” Trares said.

Trares added that the paper fielded numerous requests for pricing on political ads from smaller operations in prior years as well as this year, but most businesses decide against buying campaign ads once they see what it’ll cost. It’s difficult for company owners to spend on ads that aren’t explicitly designed to drive patrons through the door with coupons or other special offers, he said.

Still, Shlesinger and Davenport say boosting business is exactly what their political spots have done.

Davenport said his political ads on KXNT Newsradio, KDWN-AM, KJUL-FM and KKLZ-FM have brought in far more customers than his business-based commercials ever attracted. He’s even taken calls from 30-somethings telling him they don’t need hearing aids yet, but when they do, they’ll contact him. The ads have proven so successful that Davenport said he plans to continue the political marketing bent even after the campaign, taking a break occasionally to introduce a new product line or service.

“If Harry Reid wins, I’m gonna keep yapping at his heels,” Davenport said. “If he’s gone, there are plenty of issues at the state level to talk about.”

Like Davenport, Shlesinger said his ad has drawn hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from the public, and 99 percent of those communications have registered support for the businessman’s views. He estimated that more than 100 customers have stopped by Ciao Ciao specifically because they agreed with his ad.

“People are just standing out there without a voice, thinking, ‘I pace the floor making payroll for 20 employees, and no one cares about that,’ ” he said.

Shlesinger said he’ll await the election’s outcome and see how the winning party governs Congress in the next two years before he decides whether to buy more political ads. But if he had to choose again in 2010, he wouldn’t change a thing.

“It absolutely was worth it to me to express my opinion,” he said. “Everything else that came with it as far as e-mails and support was gravy.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@review or 702-380-4512.

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