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Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Romney Backer Explains Why Obama's Wrong, Despite Her Firm's Gov't Contracts

Jul 26, 2012
Originally published on July 26, 2012 3:48 pm

Rebecca Smith owns a Tampa, Fla., construction-management firm that does a lot of work overseeing the building of schools and jails, and other projects for state and local governments.

But even though much of her firm's $80 million in annual revenue comes from contracts with government agencies, she says she was "disgusted" by President Obama's thesis that government had a significant role in her business achievements.

Obama's actual words, from a July 13 speech in Virginia, were:

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Smith was a featured speaker at one of the 24 "We Did Build This" events that Republican Mitt Romney's campaign held nationally Wednesday to tweak Obama for the statement.

In a lengthy interview with It's All Politics after the event, Smith suggested there was no contradiction in her position:

"The government is the people. So when someone says, 'Rebecca, gosh, it looks like a lot of your contracts are with government entities,' I say, 'Right, we build for the citizens. Yes, we build for the people.'"

"If the government needs to build a school, or a city hall or a public library, the government has a right to build it with their own forces. The government buys printing paper. Does that mean that a paper distributor that might have a purchase order from a government agency is any less of a business, because the government bought a piece of their services or products?

"Does that mean A.D. Morgan [Smith's firm] is any less of a contractor because we build jails and schools and city halls and libraries? Hell no. Government is people. There is no us and them.

"How can you try to detract from Rebecca Smith or A.D. Morgan by saying: 'You got it from the government?' The government is me."

Smith is certainly not alone in such sentiments, apparently. A number of small-business owners the Romney campaign has used to underscore its message have generated a lot of revenue from taxpayer dollars.

For instance, there was Jack Gilchrist, the New Hampshire small-business owner featured in a Romney ad. It turned out Gilchrist's metal-fabrication business received substantial government assistance, including tax-exempt government revenue bonds and a Small Business Administration loan. Liberals have pointed to a Fox News appearance in which Gilchrist actually agrees with Obama, more or less.

On Thursday, the former Massachusetts governor's campaign team introduced its latest variation on the "Built By Us" theme. The campaign is inviting small-business owners to share their stories about how they built their firms.

That's what the entrepreneurs at the two-dozen related Romney events in battleground states did Wednesday.

But, again, what the Romney campaign appears to be inadvertently underscoring is that behind many successful small businesses can be seen some benefit, even if indirectly, from government.

Take PRL Inc., for instance, a Cornwall, Pa., company whose CEO, Janis Heschkowitz, was a listed participant at an event in Harrisburg, Pa.

The company makes highly specialized metal castings, and its customers include the Defense Department, which uses the company's products in nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines.

Indeed, it was the Defense Department that provided most of the company's revenues in the 1980s, during President Reagan's military buildup.

Ball Office Products CEO Melissa Ball participated at a Romney event in Virginia.

Ball was featured in a 2009 document from Virginia's Department of Minority Business Enterprise produced during the Democratic administration of then-Gov. Tim Kaine.

In the document, Ball credits her company's certification by the state agency as a "small, women- and minority-owned business (SWaM)" for allowing her to compete successfully for state contracts. Indeed, she said it was key to her ability to win a bid to supply a new dormitory at a state university. An excerpt from the document:

" 'Basically, certification allows me to play in the game,' " she
explains. 'It's not a free ticket. It's still the responsibility of every
supplier to be competent, but at least this gets us the opportunity
to prove what we can do.' Recently, Ball found out Longwood
University was building a new dorm — through a Quick Quote that
came across on her computer — and she won the sizeable order.
'I hadn't met them before,' she says. 'I never would have even
known the need existed if it hadn't been for SWaM.' "

In Florida, Smith had no apologies. Speaking to her, it's clear government at some level contributed to her achievements, some of which she acknowledged, from the public education she received, to her government-backed college loans. She also notes that her father worked for the federal government. He was a NASA engineer, and his $10,000 loan helped her start her business 24 years ago.

But it's she who took the risks and continues to do so. She said:

"Every day I wake up and put my feet on the ground. Everything I own is at risk. I personally guarantee every bond, every bank note. If anybody driving a company truck rolls out, hits somebody, there's an accident on a project [I'm responsible]. A subcontractor I don't even control, we just happened to be 'married' for a particular project, does something wrong, they will come and personally pick Rebecca up by the scruff of the neck and stand me under the bright light and tell me how they're going to break it down and how much of my assets they're going to take.

"So how is it again that people who are leading businesses aren't accountable, or they haven't built the business, or they're not solely responsible, not only for the success but for the failure?"

It's clear there's much about Obama that rubs her the wrong way — that he has no business background to speak of, that she expects "Obamacare" will drive up the costs and complexity of running her business, that he wants to increase taxes on those who earn more than $250,000.

The president's "you didn't build that" line only played into the narrative that Obama doesn't have the best interests of small business at heart.

"President Obama, if you want to pick on this sentence you said on this day [to say his words were taken out of context] you're missing the big picture here," Smith said. "His overriding consistent behavior, choices, legislation, allocation of funds, his commentary on the economy absolutely does not support small business, period."

Despite such antipathy from many in the small-business community, the Obama campaign wasn't about to cede small business entirely to Romney. His campaign released an ad Wednesday (following another from Monday) to try and beat back the attacks from Romney over the president's comments.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.