Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate campaign became a battle for mayor of Main Street this week, with Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak each staking a claim as the better advocate for small business.
Toomey, a former member of Congress from Allentown, has been stressing his experience as the owner of a small chain of bars and restaurants in the 1990s as he calls for lower taxes and less regulation. A 30-second biographical TV ad now running, for instance, calls Toomey "a former small-business owner who has created Pennsylvania jobs."
Supporters of Sestak, a House member from the Philadelphia suburbs, say that Toomey is exaggerating his restaurant role to downplay eight years spent as a Wall Street investment banker.
"Congressman Toomey comes from an ideology that says if you benefit Wall Street and large corporations, eventually wealth might trickle down," Sestak said during a campaign stop Tuesday at Black Gold Biofuels, a start-up alternative energy company in the Tioga section of Philadelphia.
Sestak is pushing for tax cuts and federal loan guarantees aimed at small business.
In a 2000 sworn deposition taken in a lawsuit against Rockin' Robin's, an Allentown nightclub owned by Toomey and his brothers, Pat Toomey testified that he delegated the day-to-day running of the establishment to his brother Steven and was not aware of details.
The attorney for the plaintiff, who had claimed a bouncer beat him in 1998, asked Pat Toomey if he would agree he was a "hands-off" owner. "That would be a fair colloquial description," he said.
At other points during questioning, Pat Toomey said he believed he had visited Rockin' Robin's once a month or less over the years he held majority ownership, from 1991 until 1998, when he was elected to the House.
"For most of the period of '91 in which Rockin' Robin's was opened, I was living and working in Hong Kong" as a banker, Toomey said.
Court records were not immediately available Thursday to determine how the lawsuit was resolved, but people familiar with it say they believe the plaintiff eventually received about $6,000.
"There's a difference between investing your Wall Street profits in a venture and being a hands-on small businessman," said Sestak adviser April Mellody. "It's clear Pat Toomey is Wall Street all the way."
But Toomey's campaign said that he had handled strategic decisions for the restaurants, including expansion plans, real estate transactions, menu planning, and supply ordering.
After Rockin' Robin's, the family company opened sports bars named Rookies in Allentown and Lancaster.
All told, about 1,000 people were hired to work for the restaurants over the seven years Pat Toomey was in the business before he sold his interest in it.
Toomey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik called attempts to minimize the candidate's involvement in the business "a ridiculous and silly level of hairsplitting." She added that Sestak, a Navy admiral before he was elected to Congress in 2006, would understand the situation "if he had spent even one day working in a small business."
Toomey served in the House from 1999 to 2005, leaving office after he narrowly lost to then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2004 GOP primary.
Until resigning last year to run for Senate again, Toomey was president of the Club for Growth, a Washington group that lobbies for lower taxes and less regulation on business.
Democrats across the country are tying their Republican opponents to Wall Street as often as possible, since risky practices in the financial industry are blamed for the deep recession and bankers are at a low ebb in popularity.
But Toomey, during a visit to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, argued that Democratic policies such as the health-care overhaul will put costly new burdens on small businesses. He took particular aim at pending "cap and trade" legislation that would increase the costs of carbon-emitting fuels to fight climate change.
That bill, which Sestak voted for in the House and supports wholeheartedly, would "further destroy Pennsylvania's struggling industrial sector," Toomey said.
The climate legislation has passed the House, but Senate leaders say they have no plans to bring it to a vote. Republicans are united in opposition, and many Democrats from energy-producing and manufacturing states also are wary.
Sestak, in his own Wednesday stop in Pittsburgh, said that the cap-and-trade bill was important because it would stimulate the development of new sources of energy.
"Real growth in Pennsylvania is going to come through green job creation," Sestak said, according to news reports.