Either Ronald Reagan promises to make his next appointment to the Federal Reserve Board someone with firsthand experience in small business, "or, we'll raise some money and raise some hell," Bill Nourse promises. "Maybe we'll do what we did for direct expensing."
Nourse doesn't make empty threats. Direct expensing of small capital expenditures became part of the 1981 tax bill, despite Administration objections, in large part because he worked to get it there. The state of Tennessee has a new and permanent small business office and tightened unemployment compensation laws, again, in part, thanks to Nourse.
"I never thought a man who ran a hardware store could have so much influence on so many issues as I have," Nourse admits. "I wasn't satisfied being a small businessman. I wasn't contributing to society at my highest potential. But now I'm plugged in to the power structure."
The transformation of Bill Nourse -- and hundreds, if not thousands, like him -- began with the planning for the White House Conference on Small Business in January 1980. Back then, Nourse was a middle-aged father of five, happy to tend his growing West Nashville, Tenn., hardware store. He wasn't well connected, especially articulate, particularly gregarious, or exceptionally well-to-do. Nor was he a public person, limiting his political involvement to a trip to the voting booth on election day. Being a father and a businessman kept him busy enough.
But something happened during a meeting Nourse attended in Nashville in 1979. "I got the strong conviction that we were letting incentive die out in our system," he recalls. "I felt a strong urge to speak out."
That meeting was just one of dozens held across the country in preparation for the January White House conference. And Nourse was just one of more than 30,000 people, most of whom ran their own small businesses, to attend one or more of those preliminary sessions. But Nourse was hooked. He had never run for office, but he got himself elected as one of 2,000 delegates to the four-day conference at the Washington Hilton. He had no technical knowledge of tax law, but he worked the phone talking to experts and made tax reform one of his conference projects. And he became an activist. If no one else would call a meeting, organize a project, or stand up to cajole, Nourse would.
"None of us who now refer to ourselves as small business activists knew one another back then," Nourse remembers. "It all started at the conference. I've often said that the government doesn't quite understand what it unleashed with that meeting. It created a vehicle for a whole new class of people to move into the political process. The real results are still years off."
Whatever else the conference accomplished, it clearly unleashed a potent force for change when it unleashed Bill Nourse. Back home in Tennessee, he pestered G.O.P. Governor Lamar Alexander for 18 months to convene a state small business conference -- then became its chief organizer. He went on to become an adviser to Democratic Senator Jim Sasser, stumping for Sasser's successful reelection bid at small business gatherings across the state.
But Nourse's influence extended far beyond his home state. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce asked him to join its Small Business Council. He joined the advisory board to the Senate Small Business Committee as well, and worked for Senate passage of a resolution urging the President to make the next appointee to the Federal Reserve Board someone with experience in small business. He created a political action committee to direct money at congressional candidates friendly to the small business cause. He even set up his own "kitchen cabinet" -- a lawyer, an accountant, a public relations specialist, and other businesspeople in Tennessee and in Washington with whom he plots strategy and tactics.
"There's no other system on earth that'll let a guy with only two or three employees affect it," Nourse marvels. "If that's not a system that's working, I don't know what is."
Nourse is not alone, however; instead he is emblematic of a new breed of political mover and shaker. Like the small business community from which they come, these new, politically active entrepreneurs are a diverse group, committed to the cause of small business rather than any partisan line, and frequently and enthusiastically disagreeing with one another on specific issues. For example, Nourse and Morris Womack, president of All-Seals Texas lnc. in Houston and another graduate of the White House conference, have clashed over the jobs tax credit during meetings of the Senate Small Business Committee's advisory panel. Womack is an avowed Republican. Nourse has drifted into the Democratic Party. "I don't think there's any fertile ground in the G.O.P. for small business," Nourse argues. "I think the Republicans are married to Wall Street." On the other hand, he's disgusted with the Democratic party leadership for changing the party's Small Business Council from a policy forum into a fund-raising vehicle.
Nourse and Womack agree easily on one point, however, which is that whatever their political leanings, just having more people from small business participating in internal party debates, legislative lobbying -- the whole spectrum of political activities -- has got to be an improvement over the days not long past when "business's" position on an issue really reflected the opinions of a few influential, mostly big, businessmen. Bill Nourse has proved that a small businessperson -- if he can combine vision, determination, and drive -- can speak loudly on policy issues.
Four years after the White House conference, however, some of his enthusiastic excitement has been replaced by a recognition of the challenges any small business advocate faces. Nourse has shed some of his idealistic -- if not naive -- assumptions about the ease of shifting the course of the ship of state. "In that sense I've grown up," he says, "or maybe I'm still growing up." Change comes slowly, and there is still a business to run. Sales at Nourse's Brookmeade Hardware & Supply Co. fell short of the $1 million he projected for last year, and he is in the process of selling the retail end of the business. He wants to concentrate on expanding his wholesale distribution of apartment building janitorial and maintenance supplies, not only in Nashville but throughout the Southeast.
But what Bill Nourse calls "the movement" still absorbs him, even if he can't spend as much time with it as he has in the past. "I travel within circles of influence now in the [Democratic] party," he says, and that is a role he is unlikely to give up. He keeps his business simple so that it will be easy to sell, and he dreams of the future. Maybe Nourse himself will run for Congress. Or maybe his role will be just to keep other people stirred up. "There are all those people out there, and nobody is energizing them. I just haven't found the vehicle yet."
"The Democrats will lose this year," he predicts, "and then the rebuilding of the party will begin in earnest. I want to be part of that."
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