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Parties Find Small Business Doesn't Always Vote Their Ticket

CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- For U.S. politicians, aligning themselves with "small business" is a sure winner. That's why pitches to small-business owners cropped up again and again at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions: Entrepreneurs represent the American ideal of bold self-reliance and the key to reducing unemployment.  

In a head-to-head matchup, it's clear the Republican Convention hit harder on small-business issues. Organizers devoted an entire day to the theme "We Built It" and promoted the party's pro-business platform (lower taxes, less regulation). Business-creation stories appeared in almost every high-profile speech, from Ann Romney's reminiscences of her husband's early days at Bain Capital to Paul Ryan praising his mother for going back to school and starting her own company after his father's death.  

Republicans can point to plenty of specifics why small-business owners should vote for them, just as Democrats can insist they take the side of the "little guy" competing against large corporations. But is either party really "the" party of small business? Convention speeches favor oversimplification and grand promises; in reality, the experience of American entrepreneurs is more complicated than red or blue.  

There's no question it's been a winning strategy for politicians to pit small businesses against the government (whether that be federal regulators, the IRS or President Barack Obama himself). But the experience of one speaker at the Republican Convention showed the divisions are not always so stark.  

Sher Valenzuela, a candidate for lieutenant governor of Delaware, is also the co-founder of a successful industrial upholstery business. In her speech before the convention, she referred to the government's "assault" on free enterprise, lamenting regulations that stifle growth.  

Critics quickly struck back, pointing out that her company, First State Manufacturing, grew in part thanks to loans backed by the (government-funded) Small Business Administration and earned millions from Department of Defense contracts. Valenzuela and her co-founders were even awarded Delaware's "2012 Small Business Person of the Year" by the SBA.  

It was easy to paint Valenzuela as a hypocrite, just as supporters found it easy to portray her as a straight-shooter speaking truth to power. Is it possible that the government vs. business storyline is both true and false? That the government as a customer can be a friend to small business, while the government as a regulator can be the enemy? In an ever-more partisan media landscape, it's hard to find and acknowledge such nuances.  

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