"We Built It:" Government support behind Mitt Romney's business examples in Colorado

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In this week's feature, "Purple Haze," we take a close look at why all eyes are on Colorado in the presidential race, just in time for the Republican National Convention in Florida. An issue Mitt Romney's campaign has pushed here -- one that was also the RNC's theme last night -- is the "We Built It" refrain, criticizing the president for saying, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." Romney's Colorado team jumped on the quote in July and brought out small business owners who said they were responsible for their success, not the government.

Turns out, though, that two of them have a history of government support.

The debate around small businesses and the government support they get has been an important part of the race nationally and locally. At the heart of the back-and-forth are arguments about the size of the government and its role in turning around the economy. Like all campaign slogans, it deserves close scrutiny. And information sent to us by a Democratic tipster, which we verified, shows that in Colorado, some of the "We Built It" small businesses promoted by the Romney campaign have received government help.

The people behind the businesses don't deny this -- but they argue that the various forms of government support account for a very small amount of financial help and shouldn't imply that public dollars helped them actually build their businesses. They also criticize the president for regulations they say have hurt their businesses.

Before we get to those Colorado businesses, let's review the quote that started the whole thing. Here's a video and short excerpt of the line from that speech in July:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Read more of the speech in context on Factcheck.org, which notes that the president was talking about government assisting businesses with government-funded education, infrastructure and research, among other things. Later in his speech, he says, "The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

The part where he says "you didn't build that" has since become a common phrase at Romney rallies and events and has even inspired slogans on campaign gear for the Republican Party. Obama's campaign has repeatedly said that the comment was taken out of context and sent an e-mail yesterday in response to the RNC in Florida, with links to various articles arguing that attacks on this comment have been misleading.

In Colorado, the local RNC and Romney campaign held events in Arvada and Colorado Springs, with representatives of five local businesses at each responding to the comment, according to press releases. We later received an e-mail from a Colorado Democratic source who wishes to remain anonymous that outlined various evidence of government support for two of the companies: Johnson Storage and Moving, based in Centennial, and Angler's Covey, based in Colorado Springs.

For Angler's Covey, a fly fishing retail and guide service store, the source pointed us to records showing that the business received a $250,000 small business administration loan, "To Aid Small Businesses Which Are Unable To Obtain Financing In The Private Credit Marketplace," back in 1999. The SBA loan is also mentioned in this Westside Pioneer article and apparently helped the company expand and move to a bigger, more convenient location.

Continue reading for the company's response to these loans. In a press release after the event, Angler's Cover owner David Leinweber is quoted as saying the following:

We've got a group of business people here -- including myself -- who really take offense to the idea that government builds businesses.... We create the jobs.... We've doubled our work force here because of our hard work, not because of some program or anything like that. We've just worked hard.

When we reached Leinweber, he had already been asked about the SBA loans -- and he feels it's absurd to use that as proof the government helped him build his business.

"I have an SBA loan. That's been around for years. Fine! I was helped -- that just eliminates this argument, right?" he said.

He also pointed out that for an SBA loans, businesses directly apply for their financing to lenders, who then can require an SBA guaranty -- basically assuring the lender that if the borrower does not repay their obligation, the government will reimburse the loss.

In Leinweber's words, "The government didn't lend me that money. The bank did. It wasn't government money that I got borrowed to me."

He added, "The SBA loan has been a successful way of supporting banks."

And putting arguments about the nature of an SBA loan aside, he said, "It's tiny. It's miniscule.... It's just a fraction of the bigger picture.

"Here's the point: If it was the loan that grew my business, then why do I need to come in every day and work eighty hours a week? Why do I have to worry about all my employees and taking care of my family? Because the government is gonna do that? No!"

Continue reading to learn about the government support from Johnson Storage and Moving and that company's response. Meanwhile, at Johnson Storage and Moving, evidence from our tipster shows a wide range of different support from government -- though, much like Leinweber, the company denies that this should contradict its participation in a "We Built It" event.

First items of note: a series of state government loans over the years, recorded through the Colorado Transparency Online Project.

• In 2012, the company received $2,200 from the Department of Military Affairs and $3,587.88 from the Department of Public Safety.

• In 2010, the business received $1,959.72 from the Department of Labor and Employment.

• In 2008, the company received $5,806.42 from the Department of Natural Resources.

The company has also received federal contracts:

• In 2010, the business received $1,216 from the Department Of Defense for "Delivery Of Household Goods."

• In 2007, it got $7,515 from the Department of Defense for "Relocation Services."

• In 2004, the firm earned $5,400 from the Department Of Commerce to "Move Excess Property."

Finally, the tipster divulged that Johnson Moving and Storage has a partnership with General Services Administration (GSA) Applications, which help businesses get awarded government work.

When contacted about this story, 55-year-old company CEO Mark Johnson invited Westword to take a tour of his 70,000-square feet Centennial facility -- the headquarters of a business started by his great-grandfather in 1900.

He said he employs between 100 and 125 employees, depending on the time of year.

In response to the grants, he said that some of them may have to do with benefits or tax credits he received for certain employment decisions, such as hiring a veteran. In some other cases, the government was his customer, in which case the funds can be seen as direct payments for services rendered.

"Certainly the government at various levels -- state, city, federal -- are my customers. So I certainly get paid by the government," he said, adding that he did not look into the specific grants we sent him.

But "in the overall scheme of my business, it's de minimis," he went on. "It's gratefully accepted, but my business is a $50 million plus enterprise, so obviously $15,000 is not a tremendous factor in the overall scheme of things."

He added that he has enjoyed tax credits and government training dollars over the years.

"I don't want to appear ungrateful, but would anything in this company be appreciably different with or without [those grants]?" he asked. "The answer is no."

Continue reading for the campaigns' official responses to this article. Both Johnson and Leinweber said their support for the "We Built It" campaign is about the Romney vision of a government that stays out of the way and respects small business owners.

"We do spend a lot of time building these enterprises -- putting a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears in," Johnson said. "I enjoy it.... It's been fun to build this business...but they don't happen on their own. We appreciate the highway and the bridge infrastructure, but we also pay for it [in taxes]."

About Obama's comments, he said, "I thought it was hostile to the very people that are tremendously needed to reverse a downward sliding economy.... Small businesses are the great engine of employment.... At least maintain a neutral position, don't reach out to strike those of us that are providing employment and providing meaningful jobs."

And Leinweber? He said his business is struggling and he faults big government: "It's just getting harder and harder all the time to survive...[yet] there's so many people that just feel like if they're an American, they just deserve something. It's just pulling our country down. We just don't have the resources to keep giving to everybody."

He added, "All the extra burdens put on businesses these days -- it's just really difficult.... I believe in less government, less intrusion."

Here are the official statements provided to us from both the Colorado camps of the presidential campaigns about this debate and these businesses:

From the Obama campaign:

President Obama believes the drive and ingenuity of our entrepreneurs and workers make American businesses successful, especially here in Colorado when three out of four jobs are created by small businesses. It's a contradiction to see Mitt Romney criticize the President by taking his words completely out of context -- all while sitting with small business owners who built their enterprises through their own initiative but with some help along the way. Mitt Romney's attacks may be unfair, but his events and own actions actually prove the President's point that while businesses are built through hard work and initiative, we're all in this together.

And from Ciara Matthews, Colorado communications director for Romney for President (Side note: Since giving us this statement, Matthews has reportedly been demoted):

For anyone to suggest that small business owners -- the people who take all the financial, emotional and personal risk - owe their success to the federal government, is nothing short of insulting. President Obama has illustrated that he doesn't have an appreciation for how jobs are created, or understand how to get our country working again, which is why we have had 42 straight months of unemployment above 8 percent and 23 million Americans struggling for work. Colorado voters will stand with America's comeback team, Governor Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan, to get the economy turned around and people back to work.

More from our Politics archive: "Videos: Obama greeted in Fort Collins by "Stupid" attack sign with typo"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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