The California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of 720,000 California-based, Hispanic-owned businesses, was in San Diego last week for its 30th annual convention.
The chamber came to town with an aggressive agenda of business seminars and roundtables interspersed with speeches by politicians and top-level bureaucrats.
Taken as a whole, the stature of the convention and the people who came to speak to the 1,200 attendees reflects the power and influence of the Hispanic community on the state’s business and public affairs.
Nowhere is this influence more clearly reflected than in the list of speakers.
They included business leaders like Jim Steeg, COO of the San Diego Chargers; Moctesuma Esparza, chairman and CEO of Maya Entertainment; Monica Lozano, publisher and CEO of La Opinión and a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board; and David Lizarraga, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Public officials included state legislator Manuel Perez, chair of the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economic Development and the Economy; John Bohn of the California Public Utilities Commission; Dale Bonner, secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency; and Rubin Garcia, U.S. Small Business Administration district director San Diego.
Perhaps most interesting was the appearance of gubernatorial candidates Steve Poizner, California insurance commissioner, and Meg Whitman, former president and CEO at online auctioneer eBay.
Poizner and Whitman are facing off to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and keep the office in Republican hands. Schwarzenegger was invited but did not attend.
That the two leading Republican candidates would travel to San Diego to address the convention reflects both the intense competition already existent in the GOP race and the importance these potential governors give to the Hispanic business community.
Equally noteworthy was the absence of the Democratic candidates, such as Jerry Brown or Gavin Newsom.
Curious about this, I asked Julian Canete, director of operations at the CHCC, and I hit a nerve, though not one I expected.
I commented to Canete that his lineup of speakers, other than the gubernatorial candidates, included representatives from both parties, so there was no apparent bias on the part of the CHCC that would keep Democratic candidates away.
The agenda was politically balanced with a focus on a quality convention.
Canete then responded, “Why they (the Democratic gubernatorial candidates) did not attend, I cannot say. Both … were invited,” he said, referring to former Gov. Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Also invited no-shows were U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the national director of the Small Business Administration, Karen Mills, both Democrats.
Then Canete revealed the hot button: small business.
“Maybe,” he said, “there is a lack of interest in small business on their part.”
According to Canete, the 720,000 businesses represented by the CHCC are overwhelmingly small businesses.
“Ninety percent are small businesses,” Canete said of his community. “Businesses that have less than 100 employees total.”
But there was more.
Canete noted that not one member of the California congressional delegation — Republican or Democrat — sits on a small-business committee in Congress.
“Maybe they don’t think small business is important,” Canete observed. “Why wouldn’t they come when small business and health care are on the agenda this year?”
According to the CHCC Web site, the chamber opposes efforts to establish a single-payer health care system championed by the Obama administration.
Canete confirmed this saying, “A single-payer system is detrimental to small business,” because it will increase costs to small business.”
This is not, Canete was quick to note, due to a lack of caring for employees on the part of Hispanic small-business owners. “They care about their employees,” he said.
Canete’s observations about a lack of interest in small business on the part of elected officials struck me at odds with the many comments offered in support of small business by those holding office.
Maybe, just maybe, he is onto something here. And maybe Poizner and Whitman, both with successful track records at building organizations from small operations to big companies, recognize the critical role small business plays in our economy.
Or, as noted on the CHCC Web site, if every one of the 720,000 Hispanic businesses in California could hire just one new employee, we would not have the jobs crisis we now face in the state.
Reo Carr is associate publisher of the Business Journal.