A conversation with Hillary Clinton’s point man on small business

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

Rhett Buttle has a lot of experience in politics for a 30-year-old. After graduating from the University of San Diego (where he was class president), Buttle worked in the office of then-California Gov.Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a staffer in President Obama’s first presidential campaign and then as a special projects director to the president of George Washington University. Ultimately he landed at the Small Business Majority, an advocacy group, where he eventually became president and managing director.

Recently, Buttle was appointed by Hillary Clinton to be her business outreach director, where he now helps the candidate formulate and then communicate her policies affecting small businesses.

Gene Marks: So Rhett, so how do you like the job so far?
R.B.: It’s been a thrill to walk in the door every day and just see the energy in this building. Given the secretary’s focus on small business and all the small businesses that she has met with and will soon be meeting with, it’s been a really exciting time to be on the campaign.

G.M.: Where are you living now in New York?

R.B.: I’m staying with friends, and so I’ve already had the privilege of staying in three different neighborhoods in New York. I started in Sunnyside, in Queens, which was a great experience, for a few weeks; and then I was in Chelsea for a few weeks; right now I’m currently taking up in Williamsburg.

G.M.: So New York’s not your home?

R.B.: No, my home is in Washington, D.C. I was, believe it or not, born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. I started getting involved with public policy and my interest in small business formed during my time in California. My first job was actually in the Schwarzenegger administration.

G.M.: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. What was it like working for him?

R.B.: It was a unique opportunity to work in a very bipartisan administration. It was really there where I first saw the intersection of public policy and small business, and where I really became passionate about entrepreneurship. At that time, we were working on several important initiatives, like California’s health care reform, which was one of the models for, eventually, the Affordable Care Act. And it was there that I really saw the importance of making sure that the small business owner’s voice was heard in the public policy.

G.M.: You’ve done a lot in government, but you’ve never run a small business. How do you build credibility among small business owners like me?

R.B.: My exposure to small business started very early on for me. My grandfather ran a barber shop, when he moved out to Vegas in the 50’s. My grandmother ran an Italian deli in Las Vegas. My uncle had a Catholic bookstore, where I was very involved as a child, and one of my parents had a mom-and-pop handyman operation, when I was younger. So many folks in my family, have been part of the ups and downs of owning a small business and being an entrepreneur.

And then the other piece I would add is that from my early days on, being involved with public policy. I’ve worked with organizations like the U.S. Hispanic Chamber, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Women Impacting Public Policy and the National Small Business Association. I think building those deep relationships with folks from our shared commitments about growing the economy and small business being at the heart of that really has allowed me to be a strong advocate for the community.

G.M.: Do you find much disillusionment and cynicism among the small business owners you meet?

R.B.: I actually find the opposite. I find that these folks are folks who get up early in the morning and work late at night because they’re passionate about whatever they do, and I find that they have a much deeper relationship with their communities and their employees. I, like everyone, have come across businesses who’ve been in hard times, but I would say overall it’s a positive experience. Looking back over the last few years, as the economy has continued to recover, I feel like things have gotten more…folks have gotten increasingly…optimistic.

G.M.: How would you describe your job?

R.B.: I see my job as the front door for the business community to the campaign, and so part of that is being the liaison. I’m also an informal advocate around here for small business. I’m always in meetings and often asking the questions about what this means for the small business community. Lastly, my job is to support our people who are doing direct voter contact, and building coalitions in their communities.

G.M.: It sounds good, but I’m assuming there are headaches.

R.B.: I’m not sure if there are any “headaches,” per se. My biggest challenge is coordinating all of the different pieces of the campaign that affects small business.

G.M.: Is there any specific business you’ve always dreamed of having?

R.B.: I’ve always been very interested in, and had some creative ideas around, technological solutions that could open up travel opportunities, specifically for young people.

G.M.: So you’re a fan of travel – where do you like to go when you have time off?

R.B.: I love going to South Africa. I also love Vietnam and Thailand and the whole of southeast Asia. I am hoping to get to Burma at some point—I wasn’t able to get there on my last trip.

G.M.: Do you ever get any downtime?
R: Right now I’m working seven days a week on the campaign but when I get time off I love to eat. My partner and I are foodies and one of the exciting things about living in Washington is that the area, just over the last 10 years, has become so vibrant. We spend a lot of time eating, and drinking!

G.M.: Rumor is that you were a complete suck-up in college. What the heck is the “Alcala” award anyway?

R.B.: (Laughs). Yeah, I was a complete nerd in college, and I somehow convinced our student body to elect me as student body President. The Alcala award is given out by the University of San Diego; it goes to two graduating students, one male and one female, who are the most outstanding in their class, and it is chosen by input from students and university administration and presented at graduation.

G.M.: Favorite TV show?

R.B.: I love “Shark Tank,” but I’m also a fan of “Nashville.” I love country music.

G.M.: Favorite go-to movie?

R.B.: I love Disney movies.

GM: Oh no…

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