Dem Candidates Give Pelosi, Party Leaders a Pass on SBA Loans

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John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s two-term governor whose 2020 Democratic presidential bid morphed into a Senate campaign, wants voters to know he’s not an average politician. The former Denver mayor is trying to unseat freshman Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, and his campaign literature is sprinkled with references to his small-business beginnings and the brewpub chain he created with a loan from the city more than three decades ago.

Hickenlooper would go on to sell his stake in the chain for a reported $7 million.  

“Change is on tap,” his website bio page proclaims, describing Hickenlooper’s “different path to public office.” The life story is accompanied by beer-tap icon and black-and-white photo of a 1980s-styled Hickenlooper and his three business partners, all clad in T-shirt and jeans, standing below a Wynkoop Brewery-coming-soon sign that promoted the undertaking as a project of the city and county of Denver’s Revolving Loan Fund Program.

Now that a global coronavirus pandemic has workers locked down in their homes and more than 22 million Americans out of work, business-friendly Democrats like Hickenlooper are urgently pressing for more loans and action to help small businesses survive.

“We must accelerate our efforts to enable small businesses to keep workers on payroll,” Hickenlooper said in a statement over the weekend. Last week he unveiled his multi-point plan to do just that. It starts out by acknowledging that “half of small businesses only have about a two-week cash buffer before they collapse.”

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., have been  holding up hundreds of billions in federal funds intended to rescue the same kind of restaurants, stores, breweries and other small businesses across the country. A $350 billion loan program, part of the CARES Act, was paused last Thursday after quickly burning through all of its money. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have been facing heat over the last week for their role in the stalemate. While acknowledging that small businesses are being crushed, Democrats have insisted on tying the rescue to their own priorities, including $150 billion funding for state and local governments that are facing spiraling budget deficits – many COVID-related, but some not — and some $75 billion for hospitals.

All of this is occurring during an election year, and Republicans have hammered Democratic candidates over it while playing up what they see as a wildly out-of-touch moment for Pelosi last week. The wealthy Democratic Party leader joined comedian James Corden from her California home on his late-night show, taking shots at President Trump’s handling of the pandemic while showing off how much designer ice cream she has in her two gleaming sub-zero freezers.

“While Nancy Pelosi sits in her ivory tower in San Francisco eating $13 dollar a pint ice cream out of her $24,000 fridge, she is cheering on Democrats for blocking coronavirus relief aid that has so far been distributed to 1.3 billion small businesses that is about to run out,” Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest tweeted.

“Question for Nancy Pelosi: How many more jobs will you eliminate while you and your fellow Democrats continue to block more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program?” Guest followed up in an email to reporters on Monday.

Critics on the left also panned the appearance as unseemly.

“Millions of Americans are waiting for crappy one-time 1200 checks that Congress passed before they went on holiday, and the Speaker is on a late-night comedy program showing off how much ice cream she has stored in her freezer,” tweeted Mehdi Hasan, a columnist for the Intercept.

The Trump campaign this week started running a brutal digital ad showing the pain of out-of-work people looking into their own near-empty refrigerators intercut with Pelosi’s comedy segment where she titters about how much ice cream she’s eating while under lockdown. The ad ends with the words, “Let them eat ice cream—Nancy Antoinette.”

Stalling legislation to get more of what you want is part of normal Washington sausage-making. But during a pandemic with the economy cratering, two days can make or break companies, advocates warn. The National Federation of Independent Business released a survey on the small business loan program Monday, showing that 80% of small business applicants are still urgently waiting for financial assistance and many have no idea of where they are in the application process.

“Every day that goes by without financial support for these small firms is hugely detrimental for those who have to adjust their workforce or operations to keep afloat,” Holly Wade, NFIB director of research and policy analysis, told RealClearPolitics. “It’s incredibly stressful, frustrating and scary.”

The urgency certainly isn’t lost on Hickenlooper and other prominent Democratic candidates with business backgrounds, but most have tried to frame the debate as Washington politics delaying the funds, instead of Democrats wanting add-ons that could be pursued later.

Astronaut-turned-small-business-owner Mark Kelly is one example. The husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords is challenging Arizona Sen. Martha McSally in a closely watched election battle. Kelly, a part owner of near-space tourism company World View, recently said he is acutely aware of how difficult it is to start a small business in the best of times, never mind trying to keep it running during a pandemic.

“Washington needs to get out of its own way, immediately put more resources into this program, and fix some of the issues that have made it harder for Arizona small businesses to get this relief,” he said. “The Arizona small businesses I've spoken with aren't receiving the help they need and can’t wait any longer.”

M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran and teacher who also has her own business consulting firm, casts her frustration over the delays in similar terms. Hegar is challenging Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn. A spokeswoman for her campaign told RCP the Democratic candidate “has been clear that Washington needs to put politics aside and provide immediate relief for Texas small businesses.”

She also faulted Cornyn for the $2.2 trillion relief package Congress passed in early April for failing to fund enough virus tests, which could, if conducted extensively enough, help state and local leaders in Texas assess how to best open the state’s economy. Less than 1% of Texans have been tested for COVID-19, the spokeswoman said. “Texas small business owners deserve both economic relief and peace of mind that, because of adequate testing, once they can reopen, they will stay open,” she added.

Other Democrats with business backgrounds in tough races argue that it’s good policy to delay the funds to make sure they’re going to the small businesses that need them the most. Clearer guidelines are desperately needed, they say, after embarrassing examples of the loans being awarded to more than a dozen companies with annual revenues in the hundreds of millions, such as Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain and Shake Shack, which received $10 million but has since pledged to give it back.

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, whose state of Michigan is getting hit hard by both the pandemic and the accompanying economic free fall, said Democrats have delayed the new funding to try to fix a problem with the first tranche already passed, namely that many small businesses were left waiting while bigger businesses, restaurant chains and some big hotel groups were given money instead.

“We need to be focused on those businesses that are most damaged – folks that need the help the most,” he told MSNBC on Monday. “Help can’t wait much longer, but we want to do this right as well and to make sure there’s proper accountability,” added Peters, who has an MBA and spent his early career as a Merrill Lynch financial adviser before becoming an executive at PaineWebber.

Peters, one of the most vulnerable senators this cycle, maintains only a four-point lead over challenger John James, according to a poll conducted in January, before the pandemic. Republicans say they were close to a deal late last week but Democratic leaders are still not appreciating the urgency of the situation.

“Apparently, Senate Democrats decided over the weekend that providing financial relief to small business owners and their employees was not an urgent priority,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt told RCP.

Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Joe Biden who now works for TransparentBusiness, a consulting firm, brushes off the notion that voters will blame Democrats for holding up the funds for two weeks. Vela, who sat on the White House emergency preparedness and continuity of government council during Barack Obama’s presidency, argued that Democrats are fighting to ensure that the money goes to those who truly need it, such as minority- and women-owned small businesses -- and voters are smart enough to see that.

“Shake Shack got some, but Mrs. Gonzales’ tortilla factory didn’t?” he asked.

A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pressed similar points.

“Democrats had to fight for more money for small businesses in the original relief package, and are now fighting to ensure this aid actually gets to small businesses, including those that work with community leaders, are in rural communities or are owned by veterans, people of color and women,” said DSCC spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said in a statement.

“They’re also fighting for more hospitals and coronavirus testing so we can safely reopen the economy – why aren’t Republicans?”

But at least one prominent Republican, President Trump himself, has expressed concern over bigger businesses getting the loans while smaller ones struggling to find the money to stay afloat are having more trouble. “Some people will have to return it, if we think it’s inappropriate,” he pledged during Monday’s press conference. “If somebody got something that they think is inappropriate, we will get it back.”

When it comes to more money for testing, Trump was less trusting of Democrats’ motives. Earlier Monday, he tweeted that Democrats are pushing for more testing as a way to shift responsibility onto the federal government for any problems involved in re-opening state and local economies.

“States, not the federal government, should be doing the testing,” he said. “But we will work with the governors and get it done.” 

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.



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