By AnnMarie McDonald | The Times of Trenton

Even in the best of times, small-business owners’ days are long and downtime is scarce. Time spent away from one’s business often requires a trade-off in commerce. And keeping up with the ever-changing rules, regulations and requirements can be a job in itself.

Too often, small-business owners say that they don’t vote in “off-year” elections for the state Legislature because they’re not as important as presidential elections. That belief is misguided.

It’s not the president, but those in the levels of government closest to the people – the mayor, town council and state senators and Assembly members – who decide the best use for the empty lot across the street from one’s business, vet factors that affect the small-business owners’ liability insurance rates and determine how long trash will remain near a storefront.

Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Belford) calls them “the most important politicians you’ve never heard of.” That’s why it’s especially important for small-business owners to exercise care and concern during “off-year” elections, even if televised media coverage implies otherwise.

Two out of five New Jersey residents are employed by or own a small business. In addition to forming the backbone of our state’s economy, New Jersey’s small businesses have the potential to be a force to be reckoned with if their clout is used efficiently. Engaging at the local level gives busy small-business owners their highest return on investment.

Here are five straightforward steps small-business owners can take to make a difference:

1) Do your homework. At a minimum, small-business owners need to know who represents them and at which level of government. Several websites, including, allow users to search in one place for all elected officials. The New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance ( can also help small-business owners who need assistance.

In addition to two U.S. senators and a member of the House representing them at the national level, New Jerseyans have representation at the state level in their district: one state senator and two members of the General Assembly. Our state senators and Assembly members are the real agents of change.

2) Speak up clearly. Small-business owners should ask for a meeting about issues that affect their business, especially if they have never done it before. Whether it’s a new tax or regulation, traffic changes outside their storefront or any government action that affects how they run their business, it is important to be as clear as possible. For instance, “I am concerned about a proposed ordinance I read about on Page 3 of the newspaper yesterday” is easier for lawmakers to address than “I am mad about this new tax I heard ‘they’ want to impose.”

This gives small-business owners quality “face time” with their representatives and an opportunity to build a relationship with their staff. When a small-business owner needs help cutting through red tape, her first call should be to an elected official’s staff, who may be able to help.

3) Don’t assume Republicans assist only Republicans or Democrats assist only Democrats. A good representative will never ask a constituent’s party affiliation nor deny service even if he or she is an unabashed member of the opposing party. It is a small-business owner’s constituency and value to his local community that makes him worthy of an elected official’s time and services. Period. State representatives are solidly within a business owner’s reach: They live, work and socialize among us and our neighbors and may even be patrons of your business.

4) Build a coalition. Today, it’s as easy as it has ever been to rally like-minded individuals around a common cause and so extend their reach. Building support for a cause has never been easier or more convenient. Make a Facebook page. Start a Twitter campaign. Demonstrating that an idea has community support (or opposition) is helpful; using it to threaten or berate an elected official is not.

5) Be persistent. The wheels of democracy turn slowly, and there is a good reason for that. Our Founding Fathers wanted to create a system of government that would withstand the whims brought on by pop culture (yes, there was such a thing back then) and change laws only after careful deliberation. The same paradigm holds true for state government. Although the pace of change can seem dishearteningly slow, small-business owners should keep in mind that it is a necessary evil. And in the end, it will be worthwhile.

Full story.