Backstage At A Small Business Roundtable

Yesterday John McCain dramatically changed his tune on the housing crisis -- now he's for government action to help struggling homeowners facing foreclosure -- and was there to witness the about-face in person. It was a revealing afternoon, a glimpse behind the scenes at a campaign stop, and the subject was our subject: The Entrepreneurial Agenda. Though the event didn't go badly for McCain, it did illustrate the hurdles he faces when he turns his attention to the economy, and the small business economy in particular.

It was just by chance that I learned the Arizona senator and "presumptive" Republican nominee for President would be speaking on, of all things, small business issues in, of all places, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, just a few miles from the Entrepreneurial Agenda's worldwide headquarters. Since was willing to spring for the $4 subway fare, I arose from my workstation, put on some pants, and ventured out into the field.

It was a surprising venue to find a Republican running for president. For one thing, Bay Ridge is far from the Manhattan precincts that Republicans (and Democrats) find so lucrative -- he might as well have gone to Pittsburgh. Plus, he'd have a better chance of carrying Pennsylvania: despite a poll that came out Thursday showing McCain slightly behind Clinton and slightly ahead of Obama in the Empire State, the odds of McCain winning here are approximately zero, and even smaller for winning Brooklyn. On the other hand, if a Republican is going to campaign in Brooklyn, Bay Ridge is the best place to do it. The neighborhood is conservative and prosperous, home to immigrant families (notably from Italy and the Middle East) who arrived here a generation or two ago and made good.

There were, however, few actual voters at Windows We Are ("Over 10,000 in stock"), where McCain and I both arrived shortly before 1 pm. I'd been told that I might not be allowed in without official press credentials issued by the New York police, which I don't have. The scene, however, was utter pandemonium, and nobody bothered to ask me for even a business card. Instead, I was directed to the back room, until recently the storage space for many of those 10,000 windows. A few moments later, McCain and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg appeared without ceremony, and the press scrambled to position themselves. (I took a seat in the front -- a spot, reserved, it turns out for McCain big-wig adviser and former Hewlett-Packard Chairman Carly Fiorina, who was nowhere to be seen as Mayor Bloomberg began to speak. When she showed up five minutes later, I took the seat of an absent state senator.)

Bloomberg introduced McCain as "his tutor." "When John was here, he was showing me how you press the flesh and walk the streets and say hello to complete strangers," Bloomberg recalled. He turned to the senator. "I got elected because of you. So if the people of New York are happy, they should say 'thank you' to you, I guess." It was a peculiar species of political speech (and emphatically not an endorsement), because this particular audience required no introduction. Apart from a handful of local pols in pinstripe suits -- who beamed reflexively and murmured "thank you very much" when Mayor Mike mentioned their names -- the audience in the storage room consisted entirely of reporters and campaign staffers. Further, those people who might need an actual introduction to the Senator would never hear Bloomberg's remarks in their entirely; his address intended exclusively for the editing console. The entire rear wall of the room had been given over to a line of video cameras. Shutters clicked incessantly -- further heightening the unreality, since most were digital. I looked up to find photographers in the loft, climbing between stacks of mechanical vinyl windows.

McCain relied on a TelePrompTer to deliver his speech. Actually, four TelePrompTers: reflective plastic screens on either side of the podium, a large flat-panel monitor in the center of the room, and, for good measure, a monitor embedded in the lectern. As the words scrolled up and disappeared, McCain outlined a bevy of economic policies, most notably what he called his "HOME plan." (The capital letters suggested an acronym, but McCain never defined what "HOME" stood for.) "My plan follows the sound economic principle that when markets decline dramatically, debts must be restructured," McCain read. "It offers every deserving American family or homeowner the opportunity to trade a burdensome mortgage for a manageable loan that reflects the market value of their home." His eyes darted back and forth -- fittingly, perhaps, the senator relied almost exclusively on TelePrompTers at the center and to his right. "They apply for assistance, and if approved, the government under the HOME Program supports them in getting a new mortgage that they can afford. There'll be qualifications which require the home to be a primary residence and the borrower able to afford a new mortgage. We'll combine the power of government and the private sector to find immediate solutions for deserving American homeowners." (The full text of his speech is here, and the press release is here.) Recall that just two weeks ago, McCain declared, "It is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers'¦.Any assistance must be temporary and must not reward people who were irresponsible at the expense of those who weren't."

Next, McCain, Fiorina, and Rudy Washington, who was New York's deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, moved to the store's small showroom in front, where a half-dozen entrepreneurs sat waiting for him with concerns of their own. "What I'd like to do," McCain began, "is maybe pursue some of the issues in depth with you by asking you some questions. You've piqued my interest on a couple of issues that I think I need to know a little more about." McCain was particularly struck by the worry professed by the owner of Damascus Bakery, David Mafoud, over rising wheat prices, which he said had increased two-and-a-half times since last July. "How much of that are you able to pass through?" McCain asked. "You pass through the first time," Mafoud replied, "Everyone turning around and says, 'We understand what's going on, we're your partner and we're going to work with you.' Then you come back three months later, and they're wondering what you response was as a business owner. Your answer is, 'there's no rhyme or reason why this is happening.' " (Full disclosure: I was particularly pleased to see Damascus Bakery at the roundtable. Though the firm, the first to bake pita commercially in the U.S., sells its pockets around the country, they also maintain a small storefront near my apartment, and I stop by frequently for fresh-baked pita corners and Laham Ajeen.)

Soon, though, McCain and his handlers tried to steer the conversation toward topics for which he had proposed remedies, in a manner that seemed ham-handed and only marginally successful. For example, McCain is proposing individual job training accounts that can be redeemed at community colleges, so when Briggs Forelli, the owner of Precision Gear, a military subcontractor on Long Island, mentioned his trouble attracting qualified machinists, McCain asked if funding training programs at community colleges (in, say, aircraft machining) would be helpful. "It's very difficult today, with computers that compete with machinists -- it's like, who wants to be a garage mechanic," Forelli responded. "Not only do you need to go out and give the community funding to start a program, you have to make the kids go to that class." McCain had no better luck pressing Forelli on whether he'd want to cross state lines to buy health care, another McCain solution -- Fiorina eventually had to intercede on his behalf. ("I think one of the reasons that the Senator has asked the questions is because he has long proposed that both employers and individuals have the opportunity to look for the insurance plan of their choice anywhere they choose to find it," she said.) The ex-HP chief solicited reaction to McCain's energy policies, which include short-term relief from soaring prices by suspending Strategic Petroleum Reserve purchases and a long-term initiative to build nuclear power plants. ("In classic straight-talk fashion," Fiorina said, without irony. As if.) Finally, as the roundtable drew to a close, Rudy Washington asked the entrepreneurs what they thought of McCain's proposal to slash corporate income tax from 35 to 25 percent. Not surprisingly, everybody loved it.

But the roundtable ended on a strangely dissonant note, voiced by Mafoud. "Eight years ago, I was ready to vote for Senator McCain to become president, because I entrusted him, and I do believe he represents leadership for this country," Mafoud began. "But a few months ago, when listening to Governor Romney, I was somewhat fascinated by a governor who is an executive of a company and a businessman who understands business and dollar-making. I hope that you will not only look at economics but you will look at business and how to make business more profitable and understand business as a businessperson does." No doubt the last thing McCain wanted to hear was mention of the rival he despised most.

Afterwards, I walked up to the front of the store, where a few of the invited entrepreneurs lingered. McCain had headed to a restaurant for a few minutes "off the record," and the most of the reporters followed. I, however, wanted to find out what the panelists made of the event.

"It was short," said Forelli, and it was -- just 35 minutes from start to finish. " We were told for the roundtable to take a look at his talking points and see if we had concerns that were aligned with his talking points." The campaign told him, Forelli recounted, " 'we're not going to tell you to agree or disagree, but if you agree, it would be nice to bring that subject up.' " Forelli thought the event was worthwhile. "It's always good to tell somebody, especially a presidential candidate, what your problems are. Nothing's better than face to face, so it does help," he said. Still, the Long Island businessman had other issues that the candidate didn't address, and as Forelli understood it, it was inappropriate for him to bring them up. "It was a short round table, and I can't monopolize the Senator's time," he said. "That's not what we're here for."

One issue that did not come up, at least not explicitly, was immigration. It's a sensitive topic for McCain, who has bucked his party on granting citizenship to some illegals. On Wednesday, a Republican Congressman from Michigan, Rep. Bart Stupak, told NPR (click on the audio file)that his effort to get Congress to renew an exemption to the H-2B visa program that would allow thousands of seasonal workers to return the U.S. for the summer was stymied by the McCain campaign, which, he claimed, did not want any immigration votes before the election. "As we were counting votes," he said, "word came from the Republican leadership that the McCain campaign would not entertain such a proposal and therefore there would be no Republican support." (The McCain campaign would not return NPR's calls on the matter.) Apart from the NPR story, McCain's role in keeping tens of thousands of seasonal workers has received virtually no press attention.

Back in Bay Ridge, immigration was on the minds of some of the panelists. It's important to Alfredo Rodriguez, who operates a Dominican supermarket in Newark, for one. But he did not mention it. "I already know his position--his position on immigration is clear," Rodriguez explained. The campaign, he said, did not ask him to keep quiet on the topic.

Of the three panelists I talked to, along with the owner of Windows We Are, Rodriguez offered the strongest support for the Republican: he said it "looks like" he would vote for McCain in November. The others were undecided. None of the four had contributed to his campaign.

I said goodbye to Rodriguez and walked out to the street. The network techs were rolling up mats and packing away cables. A CNN reporter told me McCain was already en route to the airport, and to Texas. It was 2:16 pm.