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In rough economy, state candidates tout biz skills

November 1, 2010

Democrat Vop Osili’s campaign ads for Indiana secretary of state tout that he’s “not a politician, but a small business owner.”

Sharon Negele, a Republican candidate for the state Legislature, highlights her undergraduate and graduate business degrees at the top of her biography on her campaign website.

And Republican Kyle Hupfer, in his race for a seat in the Indiana House, emphasizes his endorsements by several business groups.

Candidates might brag about their business credentials in any campaign year, but in the lead-up to Tuesday’s election, some say it’s been particularly intense.

Fixing a sour economy, unemployment and tackling a difficult state budget are key issues on voters’ minds, and candidates such as Osili, Negele and Hupfer are playing up their business experience in hopes that it will play well in the election.

“There are a lot of applications of business principles in government,” said Negele, who runs Attica-based Wolf’s Homemade Candies Inc., which she purchased in 1996. “I think the general population is becoming more receptive to it because they are understanding the weaknesses of the current government structure.”

Osili, who co-founded the Indianapolis-based interior design and architecture firm A2SO4 in 2001, also is counting on his business credentials to serve him well in his fight against Republican Charlie White.

“The No. 1 issue facing our state comes down to jobs,” Osili said. “I think you can tout job experience when you’ve created jobs.”

The efforts in Indiana are a reflection of what’s taking place in a more dramatic way on the national scene. In budget-strapped states such as California, for instance, the Republican nominees for governor and Senate are both former Silicon Valley CEOs. And both candidates—gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Senate seat contender Carly Fiorina—have emphasized their own business chops.

In Indiana, Osili may be the Democrats’ best example of a candidate trumpeting small-business experience. Marion County Democratic Party Executive Director Adam Kirsch said locally, the party has plenty of incumbents “who are running on their records more than anything else.”

But Trevor Foughty, spokesman for the Indiana Republican Party, said business experience was among the qualities the party was looking for in soliciting candidates this year. And he said the current economic climate helped to drive interest among them in running for office.

“They understand what it takes for businesses to expand and grow—they understand where the Legislature can help or get in the way,” he said. “We think there’s a real value in candidates who understand what it means to budget.”

Whether voters see the same value, however, remains to be seen, said Margaret Ferguson, chairwoman of the political science department at IUPUI.

While the notion of running government like business tends to pick up steam during rough economic times, Ferguson said that kind of focus may not be a sure bet at a time when public sentiment toward big business is lagging.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Ferguson said. “The problem in our economy is a lot of people in business made some very bad choices. It’s not clear to me that there’s necessarily a pro-business feeling.”

Also, candidates with purely business experience rarely make transitions directly from business into government, in part because many voters want assurance that they also have government savvy.

Osili, Negele and Hupfer also have some government experience. For instance, Hupfer served as the state’s Department of Natural Resources director before taking his current job as vice president and general counsel at ProLiance Energy LLC.

But it’s the business knowledge that seems to be getting the most play in this campaign.

“The main purpose was to distinguish myself from my opponent,” Hupfer said of his commercial that calls him a business leader and proven job creator. “Small-business owners have endorsed me because of background and policy stances.”

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