US small businesses cry out for big policies


America’s battered middle classes want both candidates to tell them how they will get them back to work, writes CHUCK MURPHYin Aurora, Denver

BRYCE MURPHY hopped off his skateboard for a moment to ponder the question. A solidly middle-class hair stylist in Denver, Murphy supported Barack Obama four years ago, but considers himself a potential Mitt Romney vote this year.

So what did he want to hear from the candidates in their first debate?

“Just let us hustle at our own pace,” says Murphy (32), skating in Aurora’s City Park. “I just don’t want it to get any tougher.”

America’s next president will govern a battered and shrinking middle class. In interviews across the Colorado Front Range region, a bipartisan sampling of people in that income range had a message for the candidates that transcended political ideology: Help us get back to work, then stay out of our way.

The percentage of Americans who fit into the middle-income category is on a four-decade long retreat. That was exacerbated in the 2000s as median family incomes shrunk in the US for the first decade since the end of the second World War.

In Colorado, where the unemployment rate started rising in May 2007 and has stubbornly hovered around 8 per cent for the past year, the number of middle- class households has grown since 2008 – but at a slower rate than the household population overall, mirroring the national middle- class shrinkage.

With each passing generation, a larger percentage of us are rich, more are poor and comparatively fewer of us inhabit the middle. The effect is apparent.

South Broadway in Englewood is a haven for small businesses selling everything from home- brewing ingredients to dolls, furniture and guitars. These are the middle-class entrepreneurs both candidates like to say built America, and they have taken a beating.

“Closed” and “For Sale or Rent” signs dot both sides of the street. The doll shop is gone and other nearby businesses appear poised to follow suit.

Mark Salas (53), owner of Bears Custom Signs, nearly joined some of his neighbours in throwing in the towel. Ironically, the business he has operated for 34 years was saved by the slow recovery from recession.

“Last November or December I was going to call it quits and close,” Salas says, “but I couldn’t find a job.”

Salas, whose business makes and installs signs for other businesses, has had a front-row seat to watch the middle-class struggle. He has had to lay off 11 of his 15 employees over the past two years. However he likes Obama’s efforts to improve access to health insurance and considers himself a likely supporter of the president in November.

Still, he would like to hear both candidates be a little more specific in the debate about what they might do to prime the nation’s economic engine.

“I don’t hear either of them talking a lot about small businesses,” Salas says. “The middle class – we’ve been carrying this country for a long time, just let us keep doing it.”

The theme was repeated in several spots along the Front Range. In a coffee shop off Garden of the Gods Road in Colorado Springs, property investor Jerrod Butler (41) says Obama has allowed government to grow too large.

While he unshakably supports Romney, he still would like to hear his candidate reassure the middle class.

“I would like to hear Romney address the small-business aspect of the economy,” Butler says. “I want to hear how he will get government out of the way.”

Corey Thurman (29) is relatively new to the middle class. A Park Hill property agent for just two weeks, he was recently perched along East Colfax Avenue in Denver trying to attract new clients to his Keller Williams Central Denver office.

Thurman, who previously worked in the mortgage industry, believes Obama rescued the housing sector from possible collapse, so he knows where his vote is going next month.

However one element of Obama’s presidency still concerns him. “I want to hear what he’s going to do to get along with the Congress. That has been a problem for moving things forward.”

Eating breakfast with a friend in the Peak Grill in Colorado Springs, Holly Kroncke (69) has the same concern. “I would like them both to be positive and reassure me that we will be okay and move forward,” adding that her mind is made up but declined to reveal who she is supporting.

“And I want to know how they are going to make the Congress work. Romney has no experience in Congress and Obama has four years of experience but could not get along with them. We had better go back to some sort of statesmanship.” – (Denver Post/ New York Times service)