Main Street Alliance Offers Alternative Voice for Small Business

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After failing to secure affordable health insurance for workers at her family's small business in Waterloo, Iowa, ReShonda Young took up the fight for healthcare reform. But when she looked around for support, she felt her views were not represented by the lobbying groups that lumped small business interests into one unified camp, often along conservative party lines.

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Young eventually found her voice echoed by the Main Street Alliance, a grass roots coalition of small business owners espousing progressive views.

The Alliance often takes an about-face from the views of longstanding organizations, such as the National Federation of Small Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On May 14 the NFIB joined 20 states in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the healthcare overhaul, a move that gave fuel to the Alliance's mission of reform.

"So many of the views…they absolutely did not fit with what would help us," said Young, 35, noting that her transportation and property maintenance company, Alpha Express Inc., will not be renewing membership to its local Chamber of Commerce this year.

Her efforts with the Alliance included organizing town hall meetings and visits to Iowa legislators on behalf of local business owners, initiatives that brought together like-minded entrepreneurs, many of them women.

Last June, in keeping with the group's goal of letting business owners speak for themselves, she testified before the House Education and Labor Committee. She told lawmakers that providing healthcare for her business would have meant a crippling increase in payroll expenses of at least 12 percent and no guarantees that premiums would remain stable from year to year.

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"We've actually done a lot," said Young, 35, now one of the Alliance's national board members. "It's been a busy year."

TAKING ON WALL STREET

It may get even busier. The Alliance, which gained significant momentum around the healthcare issue, is now carrying the torch for a new set of concerns, among them financial reform on Wall Street.

"As Wall Street bankers have been busy converting taxpayer bailouts into massive bonuses, Main Street businesses continue to pay the price - in lost business, frozen credit, layoffs and bankruptcies," said the Alliance's leadership in an April 21 letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The group is calling for actions that include a crackdown on what it deems deceptive financial products, caps on bailouts for big banks and an end to proprietary trading. This week they also sent a letter to President Obama, on the occasion of the government's National Small Business Week celebrations in Washington, D.C., praising his efforts on behalf of small business and urging lawmakers to maintain "the same standards of commitment, honesty and responsibility we demand of ourselves and our employees."

The Alliance is trying to change the perception that "small businesses are uniformly conservative," said Sam Blair, network coordinator for the Seattle, Washington-based organization, which charges no membership fee. "We disagree with that fundamentally," Blair added.
Even so, Alliance members, whose numbers have doubled in the past year to roughly 10,000 small business owners across the country, do not necessarily line up on liberal party lines, he said. Based on the organization's own surveys, many are independents who vote issues rather than straight tickets. The majority are women. Most run companies with less than 20 employees, and they span a variety of industries.

The organization defines itself as a coalition of state-based groups such as the Iowa Main Street Alliance, where owners like Young connect on a local level. Blair said 11 states currently have active leadership. Business owners in states without representation align themselves directly with the national organization, which has maintained cohesion through regular Webinars and the use of social media.

The group has garnered the support of Democrat legislators such as Washington State Senator Patty Murray, who was an early supporter of the organization when it first emerged under a different name around the health-care issue in 2005.

"It has been really helpful to her to hear directly from people on Main Street and bring those issues back to Washington (DC)," said Alex Glass, a spokeswoman in Murray's office. "As opposed to having people speak through lobbyists, (the senator) wants to speak to the people themselves."

At least one small business advisor said it's no surprise that an alternative to historic small business lobbying groups has gained in recent popularity.

"NFIB spent many years acquiring clout on Capitol Hill," said George Cloutier, founder and chairman of American Management Services, a consulting group specializing in small business turnarounds. Cloutier regularly travels the country speaking to small business owners with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a lobbying group that includes 400 U.S. mayors. "Its (NFIB) membership simply doesn't reflect the wide breadth of diversity in small business."

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