THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
As a former small-business owner, Alfredo Ortiz is sure of one thing: There’s no sense waiting around for help from the Chamber of Commerce.
“The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t represent small businesses. It just doesn’t,” he said. “We are trying to rally the troops where we need to.”
As president of the Job Creators Network, the Georgia-based advocacy group that bills itself as “the voice of real job creators,” Mr. Ortiz is organizing rallies to raise awareness of the issues facing small businesses.
The network is on a bus tour that has just left the Great Lakes area and will make three stops in Florida before concluding in its hometown of Atlanta on Oct. 13.
The rallies’ purpose is not to run down the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or even the Small Business Administration, Mr. Ortiz said. The Chamber works well with big businesses and deep lobbying pockets, he said, and the Small Business Administration has had success with “smaller community banks” in particular.
Instead, the bus tour is a tactic in service of a grander strategy that Mr. Ortiz feels will lift small-business morale and swell its organized ranks.
The bus tour is in line with the Job Creators Network’s sense of itself as a conservative reimagining of the Merry Pranksters, the 1960s-era counterculture collective of intellectuals and artists who thumbed their noses at the establishment on a cross-country bus journey.
Take the network’s series of irreverent, tongue-in-cheek billboards in Times Square, a spot for unorthodox messaging going back to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s announcement to a puzzled city that “War is Over.”
Mr. Ortiz, 52, said he did not get the billboard idea from the former Beatle and that the campaign has been successful by, if nothing else, raising the network’s profile.
“Yeah, sometimes I get called ‘the Billboard Man,’” he said with a laugh. “But believe it or not, those still work.”
In March, after President Biden held his first press conference since inauguration, the Job Creators Network ran a triple-option billboard that slammed Mr. Biden for job losses, looming tax hikes and shuttered schools.
“We couldn’t fit all of Biden’s monumental failings on one billboard,” Mr. Ortiz joked at the time.
Because the billboard series’ prime location is in Manhattan, one of the network’s first targets was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat who wore a “Tax The Rich” dress at the Met’s recent $30,000-a-plate gala dinner.
In 2019, after she tweeted dismissively about the Job Creators Network billboards as “wack” and a way for billionaires to blow cash, the group went after the left-wing darling and congressional “Squad” member for her role in scuttling Amazon’s proposed regional headquarters in Queens. Critics said the move cost her district thousands of jobs.
“Hey, AOC, saw your wack tweet,” one billboard said. It then added a math lesson, pointing out that the billboard cost $4,000 while the jobs Ms. Ocasio-Cortez helped drive away from New York deprived the city of some $4 billion in revenue.
The Job Creators Network popped up on many radar screens when it sued Major League Baseball for moving its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver.
“Manfred is all strikes and no balls,” Mr. Ortiz said of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
The network’s president said it was ironic that the “woke” billionaires who run baseball felt compelled to hurt minority businesses in one city to side with Democrats on how elections should be run.
“It was minority-owned businesses, which are much bigger in Atlanta than Denver, that were hurt the most, and some of them have closed,” he said.
Still, the game was played in Denver, and any fallout to the MLB appears, well, minor. Nevertheless, Mr. Ortiz insists that should hardly chalk up the lawsuit as a loss.
In fact, the Job Creators Network will “start being more litigious,” he said.
This is much different from the role Mr. Ortiz envisioned playing in the economy after earning a graduate degree from the University of Michigan and starting a small business in Georgia.
His loyalties remain with small business, which he said is the true heart and soul of the American economy.
“We are unabashedly pro-capitalism,” Mr. Ortiz said.
The Job Creators Network was founded in 2012 by one of Home Depot’s creators, Bernie Marcus, who said the status of red tape and government regulation at the time would have made starting Home Depot impossible.
Cutting red tape and government regulations remains the core of the group’s mission, Mr. Ortiz said.
The group played a significant role in pushing for the 2017 tax cuts under President Trump. It has a variety of methods for illustrating small-business needs and priorities.
The Job Creators Network started with a paying membership base of about 1,000 but now counts nearly 500,000 members in terms of those signed up for its news alerts.
Perhaps the most widely read offering is its Small Business Intelligent Quotient, which comes from a monthly poll of small-business owners.
Although the Job Creators Network spends much of its time fighting policies pushed by Democrats in Washington, it does not seek only conservative supporters.
“We’ll take any and all businesses. We’re not just looking for conservative GOP types,” Mr. Ortiz said. “The real problem is the Democratic Party hates small business because it can’t control them, it can’t corral them and it can’t get in bed with them.”
Much of the concerns reflected in the current Small Business Intelligent Quotient revolve around COVID-19 and the lingering impacts of the 2020 shutdowns. Attractive unemployment benefits still interfere with the job market, making hiring difficult, and mask mandates are hurting customers.
“And there’s the new inflation, which is really the Biden pay cut,” Mr. Ortiz said. “You’ve got 10.1 million unfilled jobs, and there are 5.8 million unemployed. Why would that be? Because you have a lot of small-business owners competing with the federal government.”
Mr. Ortiz recounts a recent visit he paid to a kitchen remodeling supplier in Georgia that he said reflects the problem facing many small businesses. Business might be booming, he said, if the owner could find workers. Instead, a warehouse sits full of backorders.
“People are spending their savings now, and consumer confidence is in the tank,” he said. “Now it’s very possible you could have a Carter 2.0.”
Mr. Ortiz said he is seeing ripple effects of the misery index, which refers to the inflation and unemployment rates and reflects a moribund economy. People are getting less for more, he said.
“I’ve already seen it with prices going up and serving size going down,” he said.
That can hurt those trying to drown their sorrows.
“I notice it already in wine by the glass pours,” he said, noting what was once 8 ounces in many places has become 5 or 6.
All of this can make for a dour outlook.
“It was bad under [President] Obama. It got a hell of a lot better under Trump. Now, how bad it’s gotten in a matter of months is amazing,” Mr. Ortiz said.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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