Taking political stands can be risky business
Date: October 8, 2000 Publication: The Gazette Author: Steven Saint
Mixing business and politics has been an American tradition since before wealthy Boston merchant John Hancock scrawled the first signature on the Declaration of Independence.
Having a ship confiscated by British revenue officers went a long way to thrust Hancock into the revolutionary forefront.
Colorado Springs has seen its own John Hancocks - some who've put their names out there, others who've worked behind the scenes.
Yet conventional wisdom says placing a campaign sign in your window or taking a controversial stance might cost you a customer or two.
It's not exactly a calculated risk when the cause becomes greater than the customer. Some of the Springs' merchant crusaders report politics might even be good for business.
"Most business people subscribe to the idea that you should probably stay out of religion and politics," said Will Perkins, a local car dealer and former mayoral candidate who became known nationally in 1992 for his support of Amendment 2. "But when you feel as strongly as I do, you decide it's just the right thing to do."
The public eye
From a business standpoint, politics can provide instant visibility, which business owners often spend lots of money and time trying to accomplish.
Perkins had established a credible local name for himself selling cars since 1950, but his visibility skyrocketed in 1991.
That was the year he started following the City Council's deliberations on keeping sexual orientation in a proposed city anti- discrimination policy.
Removing sexual orientation as a protected status was approved, but it led to Amendment 2, and a debate over gay rights in Colorado.
The amendment, pushed by Colorado for Family Values, was designed to prohibit laws that protect gays from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Perkins was picked to lead the charge.
"I was the obvious choice," he said with a chuckle. "What can you say that can tarnish the reputation of a used car salesman?"
Perkins' and CFV's Amendment 2 was passed in 1992 and immediately challenged in court.
Locally, another Springs businessman also found new prominence over the issue. Yet Richard Skorman, now a City Council member, vehemently opposed it.
"It was a crazy time," said Skorman, owner of Poor Richard's restaurant, book and toy store. "Employees answering the phone got lots of angry, threatening calls. Someone painted a swastika on our bathroom wall."
Poor Richard's, a stone's throw from Colorado College, became a hub for meetings and fund-raisers of various liberal-leaning groups.
Skorman had a rock thrown through one of his windows. Meanwhile, pro-gay-rights activists were picketing Perkins Motor Co. Both businessmen concede sales probably went up.
In the same way, local real-estate developer Steve Schuck said running for Colorado governor in 1986 had its side benefits businesswise.
"There's no question my profile was higher - I spent $2 million on the campaign," said Schuck, a long-time crusader for school vouchers. "You're also a bigger target, but in the balance, we benefited from my having been a candidate."
Win some, lose some
Schuck left teaching math and coaching football for real estate in 1969. Land development is not retail; it relies on personal relationships and a relatively short list of million-dollar transactions.
So Schuck cannot pinpoint how his political involvement may have effected his sales; he suspects it's a wash.
"It'd be impossible to measure the impact," he said. "When we score, we score big, in the tens of millions. In between, we don't do anything."
Perkins and Skorman said that for every customer they may have alienated, they probably gained a new one attracted by their political stances.
Perkins recalls a man calling from Arkansas, eager to come up and support family values by driving a car off Perkins' Motor City lot.
Skorman didn't like being boycotted by anti-gay forces and confesses he went too far in opposing Amendment 2 when it alienated some of his customers.
Poor Richard's hosted an art show to benefit the gay and lesbian cause that featured anti-Christian art many patrons found offensive.
Skorman ended up shutting the art exhibit down early and making a few apologies.
"I regret making such a strong statement in my business that I made certain people uncomfortable coming in," he said. "Now we're more careful. We have Out (a national homosexual magazine) and the Catholic Herald both in our racks."
Another businessman who has won some and lost some is Ed Bircham, who said he spends around $40,000 a year placing "opinion ads" in local publications.
For the better part of his 30 years in the office supply business, Bircham has adorned his advertising not with photos of copiers, but with conservative commentary on political and social issues.
"I may lose some customers, screaming liberals and abortion doctors," he said. "But everyday, people come in my store and say they like what I do."
Paying the price
Yet unlike Skorman, Perkins and Schuck, Bircham has never run for office and speculates that he never will. He said the press already has scourged him for his opinions and he doesn't want to be a larger target.
Bircham's advertised disdain for homosexuals and support of Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker and golfer Fuzzy Zoeller helped fuel his reputation as a bigot, a designation he flatly denies.
His support for conservative candidates Betty Beedy, Doug Bruce and David Schultheis has further relegated him to the far right politically. But Bircham believes the vast majority of local residents agree with him, and therefore he shouldn't lose business.
"I think I'm a role model in town," said the British-born Bircham, inspired to gain U.S. citizenship by President Ronald Reagan. "We're an honest company to do business with."
Honest or not, Bircham acknowledges that if he were doing business in Aspen or Boulder, his advertisements probably would not carry his opinion essays.
Bircham said some who dislike his politics have complained to his copier technicians and sales staff and he has lost a few customers. Yet, on the bottom line, he's looking at $4 million in sales this year and new major copier contracts with Lockheed-Martin, District 11, Fort Carson and Memorial Hospital.
Perkins and Skorman both said they were disappointed that taking political stands led to personal attacks.
Skorman said his landlord, First Christian Church, started talking about turning his building on Tejon Street into a parking lot immediately after Amendment 2 passed. Perkins said he did not expect to be labeled a bigot after the election dust settled.
"Just because you are on different sides of an issue doesn't mean you can't be friends," Perkins said.
"It surprised me to find that if you don't agree with a person on the issue of sexual orientation, they assume you must not accept them as a person."
For Schuck, taking a personal hit is part of the risk all entrepreneurs take. He has actively recruited business people to run for public office because he believes they are more concerned about outcomes and results than the average government employee.
The right thing becomes the bottom line.
"In the end, it doesn't matter whether your stance hurts you or not," Schuck said. "If business people are unwilling to fight for what they believe, then they get what they deserve."
- Edited by David Fondler. Headline by Jim Bainbridge