Business Issues Inspired Owner to Run for Office
by David Jenkins
Few successful business owners work part-time jobs, especially unpaid ones, yet Leonard “Lee” Rawson, proprietor of Rawson Builders Supply in Las Cruces, N.M., has done just that since the mid-1980s. For 18 years, Rawson has served in the New Mexico state legislature. He has spent the past twelve in the senate.
Rawson was first drawn into the political arena in 1985, when he joined a group lobbying to legalize home schooling, which was against the law in New Mexico at the time. This first-hand view of the political process inspired Rawson to run for house representative.
“I decided to run because two groups important to me—families and small businesses—were not being represented,” Rawson said. “There are a lot of advocacy groups for single-parent families, while intact families are more or less ignored. Likewise, in the business sphere, nearly every large group is represented, from the alcohol to the automotive industries; meanwhile, small businesses and mom-and-pop companies get lost in the shuffle,” Rawson said.
When Rawson was elected to office, he discovered a similar imbalance in the composition of the state legislature—a 32-year-old father and owner of a small business, Rawson was not “representative” of his new colleagues.
“Being unpaid, the legislature was composed mostly of public employees, retirees, and bankers and lawyers who controlled their own schedules. There were few parents in my age range, because such people lacked the time that the position required,” he said.
As a state representative, and later as a senator, Rawson was required to spend two months each year in Santa Fe. In most instances, such a commitment would be difficult for a small business owner and father of four, and nearly impossible for one who lived 286 miles away from the state capital. Yet, the very issue Rawson first lobbied for made the situation possible.
“Since my wife and I home schooled our children, I was able to rent a house and move my family to Santa Fe each year for the session,” he said.
Remaining abreast of the day-to-day operations of his business proved more challenging. Although cell phones, fax machines, and the Internet currently enable Rawson to remain in contact with customers and employees, such technology was not available in the 1980s. Consequently, Rawson relied on trustworthy workers in his absence and frequent trips home.
“In any business, problems arise that can only be handled by the owner. Numerous times, I left Santa Fe at [5 p.m.], worked all night at my business, and was back in the capital by [9 a.m.],” Rawson explained.
Rawson started Rawson Builders Supply in January 1973, only months after graduating from high school. Initially, he worked out of a 20- by 30-foot storage unit.
“When I started out, I had no capital—just energy. Back then the company was literally a one-man show. Since I was the only employee, I performed every task, from selling the job, construction, delivery and administrative duties,” he said.
Since that time, the company has grown considerably, and today, Rawson is aided greatly by his oldest son, who serves as an assistant manager.
“Having my son at the company while I’m away has been a tremendous help,” Rawson said. “Since my son is an extension of me, having him there is almost the same as being there myself. His presence eliminates the ‘boss is away’ mentality.”
Although Rawson has found a way to juggle politics, work, and family, his political life has been far from easy. As a Republican in a predominantly liberal state, Rawson usually finds himself in the minority.
“Since Democrats have control of the state government, I make my impact through amending legislature,” Rawson said. “When I read a bill, I do so with a critical eye, asking myself whether the bill could be used against the very people it’s intended to help. The amending process is important because it allows you to remove the bad parts from a bill and add good things. At the end of the day, you have to put aside the pride of authorship and realize it’s not important who gets the credit.”
Most Americans lack Rawson’s enthusiasm for politics; in fact, voter turnout for the 2000 presidential election was only 51 percent for the voting-age population. However, Rawson does not blame the public exclusively for their political passivity.
“We need to give people someone to vote for, as opposed to a candidate to vote against. Also, because the media is so hard on elected officials, excellent people who would be perfect for public office just don’t want to take the heat,” Rawson said.
Rawson also blames negative campaigning for curtailing the public’s interest in politics.
“Unfortunately, negative campaigning works, and as a result, people only hear negative things about candidates and become discouraged with the whole process,” he said.
In Rawson’s estimation, perhaps the biggest cause for political apathy is complacency on the public’s part.
“People think the government is taking care of them when that’s not necessarily the case,” Rawson said. “For example, I’ve heard the most senior legislators admit that they’ve never read a bill. If people saw firsthand how the political process really works—the extortion, the corruption, the ‘I’ll help you if you help me’—they would realize they’re not being taken care of.”
Rawson’s political experiences have taught him more universal lessons about business as well.
“In politics, you’re exposed to the very worst side of people—let’s just say that I’ve seen things change hands that shouldn’t have changed hands. Consequently, you become skeptical of people to a certain degree, and I’ve used this skepticism to recognize the failures of people and work around them. Since I believe in giving people second chances, I hire ex-cons, although never more than two at a time,” Rawson explained. “As an employer, the important thing is to focus job responsibility in areas where your employees can be successful. For example, I would never place an embezzler in accounting, just as I would never place a thief in deliveries.”
Although 2004 is an election year, Rawson’s streak of 18 straight years in the state legislature is almost certain to continue—at press time, he faced no opposition for his senatorial seat.
According to Rawson, “In order to be an effective politician, you need to have a servant’s heart—you should really want to help the people you serve.”
The people of District 37 in New Mexico appear to be in good hands.
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