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Though many small-business groups bitterly opposed campaign finance reform while the legislation was passing through Congress, political consultants say the Shays-Meehan reform bill, which President Bush signed this past spring, will actually prove a boon to entrepreneurs.
Shays-Meehan bans soft money-unlimited contributions from large companies and rich individuals to political parties and some interest groups. This change may empower small businesses, which are often more affected by the government than larger companies because government agencies are often the source of some of entrepreneurs' start-up financing. "In the new political climate, the focus will be on obtaining moderate-sized donations from many business owners, which should help level the field between small and big companies," says John Dunbar, senior associate at the Center for Public Integrity, an organization that studies campaign finance.
Darrell McKigney, president of the Small Business Survival Committee, an advocacy group, agrees. Shays-Meehan is going to make grass-roots politics, like interacting directly with voters, more important, says McKigney. "There are a lot more small businesses than large companies, and small businesses usually are in closer touch with their communities, so small-business owners are better able to serve as grass-roots links to voters than the CEO of McDonald's."
Indeed, small businesses already helped determine a Virginia special election to replace a deceased congressperson. Thousands of entrepreneurs spread the word about the candidate they supported, Randy Forbes, to their customers. Forbes triumphed.
Still, experts say, entrepreneurs will continue to trail large corporations in political influence for years. McKigney believes small-business groups have yet to become as effective as organized labor and larger companies in developing a unified message and launching issue advertising. What's more, even with Shays-Meehan's restrictions, no one believes big business will turn off the cash taps. "Though there will be more emphasis on grass-roots campaigning, larger donors will find ways to give sizable sums of money, such as having their executives give donations," says Dunbar. "In politics, water is like money-its flow only gets diverted, never fully stopped."