With the eyes of the world glued to this year's presidential campaigns, it's easy for local election issues to escape the public's radar. But entrepreneurs need to be tuned in because the results usually have an immediate impact on their businesses and the communities surrounding them.

Local elections often determine policies concerning hot topics such as eminent domain, workers' compensation, taxes and rent control. And entrepreneurs such as Steve Caughran, owner of Higher Ground Engineering and Land Surveying, must be more creative than executives of major corporations if they want their interests taken seriously by politicians and the voting public.

Statewide Elections
When a political initiative started by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger surfaced in California, for example, Caughran found that joining the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) helped him lobby for his company's interests despite his tight work schedule.

"Whenever they felt they needed the perspective of a business owner from Fresno, I would get the call on that and be able to talk at press conferences about my perspective on the issue," says Caughran, who eventually headed his region's NFIB action council. "As I got more involved, I also got to interact with the governor, as well as set up press conferences for senators and representatives in my area."

In the months since the initiative's campaign, Caughran has been invited back to meetings with the governor's staff to help counsel them on his concerns as a business owner.

"You'd be surprised; you can really get involved and get your voice heard," Caughran says.

Unfortunately, too many small-business owners don't know they can make a difference even with extremely busy schedules, says John Kabateck, executive director of NFIB California.

"We respect the fact that small-business owners have businesses to run on a daily basis, and they don't have much time or money on their hands. But that's what we're here for: connecting the dots between members and the issues that fire them up," Kabateck says. "If a great many are able to give a little time, they can move mountains."

City and County Elections
For a city- or county-level election, a different course of action may be needed, according to David Newman, founder of Templar LLC consulting firm.

"The very first thing I'd do, prior to starting up, is pay a visit to my city council, city administrators and the mayor. What I'm looking for is whether their vision of the city is the same [as] or opposed to my own," Newman says.

When Newman followed this agenda while consulting for businesses that wanted to start up in Jefferson City, Missouri, for example, he found that these three audiences had different expectations for the city and the state. Some wanted to see big corporate jobs; some wanted small, service-based jobs; and others wanted small businesses.

But he thought they'd all be pleased by what he was proposing: five new companies for the Jefferson City community that came with above-average wages, a willingness to hire family members together, on-site day care and a full-ride college tuition program for children who served the community.

He was wrong. He still hadn't learned something he now knows is an essential skill: pitching your idea so the politicians you're addressing know how this will get them votes.

"I was shut down because city and state leaders were afraid of what other businesses would be put out with such competition," Newman says. "So what I did instead was I personally talked to representatives and senators from outlying areas to tell them what these businesses would do for their communities. I showed them how it would be good press, good for employment, something for them to hang their hat on. They all ended up agreeing with me, and they all got re-elected."

However, Newman warns, don't even approach a politician with your concerns unless you've got a solid business plan to establish credibility, a one-page overview, a 30-second pitch and answers to the following questions:

  1. What's the problem?
  2. What's the solution?
  3. What will it cost me if I do not implement your solution?
  4. What do you need to make it happen?
  5. How does the state get its money back?

Spotting Hot Topics
Small-business owners, who already have enough on their mind, have to know how to pick their battles, though.

Caughran advises signing up for NFIB e-mails and scanning them every now and then for whatever issue you care about most, whether it's health care, workers' comp or something else. Then call NFIB and let the organization know you're interested in getting involved in the issue in some way.

Newman recommends establishing an advisory committee made up of five to 10 diverse business leaders in your own community, a group that can discuss local issues.

"These people can not only give me more clients, they can look at signs of change in the community and tell you what's coming down the pike," Newman says. "Restaurant owners are especially a good indicator of how the economy's going because people eat out a lot less when money's tight."

To have a say in what initiatives the NFIB lobbies for, Kabateck encourages business owners across the country to vote on their annual ballot for the issues most important to them because that's how the organization determines the causes it will fight for each year.