OCTOBER 12, 2010
Business Backlash Grows
By ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON
VERNON HILLS, Ill.—Rick Woldenberg runs an educational-products company from a suburban Chicago office stacked with brightly colored toys. He supported President Barack Obama in 2008. But he has turned on Democrats this year.
Sally Ryan for The Wall Street Journal
Rick Woldenberg, chairman of Learning Resources in Chicago, backed President Barack Obama in 2008 but is now raising money for Republicans.
Mr. Woldenberg is angry that Congress and the Obama administration won't revise expansive new rules on lead testing in children's products that he says will kill his business, Learning Resources Inc. So he is raising money for Republicans among Chicago business owners to help the GOP—so much money that he is rattling the incumbent in what has been one of the safest Democratic seats in Mr. Obama's home state.
"If Democrats are going to put me out of business, I'm going to put them out of business first," he said.
Disaffected business owners like Mr. Woldenberg have emerged as a potent force in the 2010 campaign. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which plans to spend $75 million in this election cycle, says it has exceeded its targets for raising money from small businesses every quarter this year, despite the poor economy. More small-business candidates are running for public office than at any time in a generation, say officials at the National Federation of Independent Business, the capital's chief small-business lobby.
Business contributions are fueling campaign efforts by conservative and business groups, which are gearing up to spend as much as $300 million to help Republicans this fall.
Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats have wooed small-business owners with a series of tax breaks and a $30 billion lending program that was the centerpiece of a Small Business Jobs Act Mr. Obama signed last week at a White House ceremony attended by a group of supportive entrepreneurs.
But many small-business owners still fault Mr. Obama and Congressional Democrats for what they see as a costly explosion of new rules and regulations.
"I think Obama ran as more of a moderate, and business people here are now realizing that this huge expansion of government is not sustainable," said Leo Dombrowski, an attorney at Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon LLP in Chicago, whose clients are fighting new environmental rules.
Mr. Woldenberg has helped raise more than $470,000 for Joel Pollak, a 32-year old Harvard Law School graduate who is challenging Rep. Jan Schakowsky in Chicago's 9th district, a friend of Mr. Obama who is an author and ardent defender of the new children's-product lead law. That's 20 times more than any Republican has ever raised for a run against Ms. Schakowsky, who won 75% of the vote in the last election and is vying for a 7th term.
"This is a war," he said. "Individuals can make a difference, and I want my kids to see it."
Over the past few months, Mr. Pollak said, he and Mr. Woldenberg have been trying to tap into "donors residing outside the district with a strong business or personal motivation." The Pollak campaign scored a fundraising appearance by Republican economic policy star Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Mr. Pollak took the podium and pointed out Schakowsky campaign manager Alex Armour, who was in the crowd videotaping the event.
Ms. Schakowsky is polling at slightly more than 60%, according to her internal polls, a solid lead but narrower than in the past. The campaign has hired four field staffers for the first time, and is sending less money to Democrats in closer races.
"I'm not worried about it, but I'm taking it seriously," she said. Ms. Schakowsky said Mr. Woldenberg's success as a fundraiser, is proof that "very cynical … special interests are highly engaged in the campaign."
As for the lead law, she said she was proud of it. "The goal is to save children from toys that are toxic."
Mr. Woldenberg's efforts include addressing 130 people in a Holiday Inn ballroom in suburban Skokie, Ill., during Mr. Pollak's "Chicagoland Business Breakfast" in late September.
He held up a "box of rocks," the company's igneous rock collection kit, and read its new consumer warning.
"Caution: federal law requires us to advise that the rocks in this educational product may contain lead and might be harmful if swallowed,'" he read, to laughter.
"This is humiliating," he said, ticking off the costs of the law. "I'm hoping Joel can help us."
Two dozen attendees took the microphone, voicing concerns with health-care, tax, environmental and workplace rules. They included Jay Stieber, vice president of restaurant chain Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., and chairman of the Illinois Restaurant Association, who has his headquarters in the 9th district. He and his family have contributed the maximum $4,800 to Mr. Pollak.
"The hospitality industry is the biggest employer in Illinois, and my partners and I have been lifelong Democrats," he said, but changed sides because "I can't stand here and tell you what health-care is going to cost."
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