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Entrepreneurs hope ally Klobuchar has future role to help enact their agenda

CQ-Roll Call — By Mark Stricherz CQ-Roll Call

March 20-- WASHINGTON-For the past few weeks, John Dearie, the founder of the nonprofit Center for American Entrepreneurship, has clung to a dream. His handpicked co-chair of the Senate Entrepreneurship Caucus, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, might become the next vice president of the United States.

In the summer of 2018, long before Klobuchar entered the presidential race, Dearie recruited her and Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican and former owner of an insurance agency, to serve as the leaders of the newly formed group dedicated to removing barriers for startups.

"We didn't want this to be a caucus for white men," he said, adding that he'd heard the two lawmakers were "well-liked, knowledgeable and got things done."

Six months later, Klobuchar announced her presidential bid. On Feb. 11, she finished a strong third in the New Hampshire primary. With her home state of Minnesota holding its primary March 3, Klobuchar seemed to peak at the right time.

"I felt like the owner of a racehorse that was about to win the prize," Dearie said in an interview. While he stressed that his organization is nonpartisan and doesn't endorse candidates, he admitted he was thrilled by the idea "of all the things we could get done if she's in the White House."

Klobuchar exited the presidential race the day before Super Tuesday, endorsing Joe Biden. Her departure was sobering, but Dearie continues to have national ambitions for his agenda.

Having Biden pick Klobuchar as his running mate would be the easiest way to achieve them. In the meantime, Dearie hopes to realize them through that perennial Capitol Hill institution-the caucus.

Dearie, 55, projects a dynamic air. The former high school football player speaks in great bursts, punching the air for emphasis. He got interested in startups from the unlikely perch of the Financial Services Forum, which lobbies for Wall Street bank CEOs, where he served as chairman. This was during the height of the Great Recession, and he was amazed that none of Washington's policy prescriptions cut the jobless rate.

As a private citizen, Dearie has donated money to numerous lawmakers, mostly Democrats.

He came across data from the U.S. Census and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation that showed that early stage businesses or startups generated the vast majority of new jobs in the country.

"When they control for age, the real difference is companies created within one year," Dearie said. "Which makes sense; these companies created a new product or service that wasn't on the market before and needed to hire people."

In 2011, Dearie and Courtney Geduldig, a former Financial Services Forum lobbyist, toured the country to talk with entrepreneurs. They reached two broad conclusions: Startups had no real voice on Capitol Hill; and Washington lawmakers paid attention to corporations and small businesses, who were their constituents and often donors.

In 2013, they released their book, "Where the Jobs Are: Entrepreneurship and the Soul of the American Economy," which featured an afterword from Sens. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. After Dearie stepped down from his job in 2017, he formed the Center for American Entrepreneurship, which is underwritten by Wells Fargo, among others.

The way Dearie saw it, his job was to connect Capitol Hill with capital-starved startups. He approached Klobuchar the following year to co-chair what would become the Senate Entrepreneurship Caucus.

While Dearie pitched startups as an aid to female and minority entrepreneurs, he said Klobuchar viewed them as salve for businesses in heartland states such as hers. She and Scott signed on, and 12 more senators followed. Several interest groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are informal sponsors.

In a statement last March, Klobuchar said the caucus would "allow Congress to work with entrepreneurs across the country to stimulate innovation, create jobs and move our country forward."

Before the coronavirus pandemic deeply affected the economy, Dearie said the U.S. system was beset by three main flaws: A slowing economic growth rate, geographic inequality in where venture capital invested and an overall decline in entrepreneurial activity.

To fix those problems, Dearie argues that the federal government should adopt a comprehensive policy for startups and entrepreneurs similar to that in Israel.

That country's government started a business incubator program for early-stage companies and gave tax incentives to foreign venture capital funds to invest in Israeli businesses.

Dearie hopes Congress can help carry out his vision.

In November, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a Klobuchar-Scott measure that would order the Commerce Department to study the decline of startups.

The previous month, Dearie helped form the House Entrepreneurship Caucus. Chris Slevin, president of the Entrepreneurship Innovation Group, credits the Senate Entrepreneurship Caucus for helping him generate support for legislation to limit employers from using non-compete agreements when hiring workers.

"It's a platform to educate members," Slevin said of the caucus.

And Dearie has not given up on his White House dream, or a version of it. With Biden pledging to pick a woman to be his running mate, Klobuchar, an experienced senator from a Midwestern swing state, has a lot going for her in the veepstakes. "There's appeal to having her on the ticket," he said.

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