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Thu August 23, 2012
First And Main

Wis. Business Owner Relates To Romney's Resume

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 7:47 pm

As the presidential election nears, Morning Edition is visiting swing counties in swing states for our series First and Main. We're listening to voters where they live — to understand what's shaping their thinking this election year. This week, we're spending time in Winnebago County, Wis., where we spoke with two women — one Democrat, one Republican — who embody their state's Midwestern charm and spirit of self-reliance.

Half an hour south of Oshkosh, Wis., in a rural area of Winnebago County, a family-owned fish restaurant sits on the shore of Lake Winnebago.

"This whole system — Lake Winnebago, the upper river lakes — is great right now with fishing, duck hunting," Shawn Wendt, whose family owns the restaurant, says as he walks on a dock over the lake. "You have your different types of pan fish, the perch and the bluegills — they are tremendous — and then the walleyes. Very good summer of walleye fishing out here on Lake Winnebago."

Wendt walks from the dock over to some picnic tables, where a few rambunctious children have built a makeshift fort. His two sons, ages 9 and 6, are playing with Nerf guns.

The Wendts' restaurant is a family affair. It's been in business for five decades. And Wendt tells us the person we really need to meet is his mom, Linda Wendt.

She sneaks to the table amid the barrage of Nerf bullets. She's wearing a turquoise sundress with white-framed sunglasses, and she has long, brightly painted fingernails.

At the restaurant, Linda Wendt is the person in charge, overseeing a staff of almost 50 people. And that, more than anything, has made her feel a connection to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

"He has done what I've done, so I can relate to him. I mean, he's made a payroll, you know? He's hired, fired people; he's [run] businesses, many businesses; he did the Olympics. I mean, I guess I look at that — he knows what business goes through and what it takes to run a business," she says.

"President Obama doesn't know that, and that doesn't mean one way or the other thing — that's not his fault. He just doesn't know what it takes to do it — in that, yeah, a business probably does make more than the people that you're hiring, but that's what it's about.

"They can work hard to get to where you are, if they so desire. You know, I mean, we're a free country, and that's what it's about, I think."

Social Issues And Self-Reliance

Asked what she thinks about social issues as the campaigns battle to appeal to women, Wendt says:

"Right now, they're saying that women are leaning more toward the Democrat vote ... because Republicans are against women and, oh my goodness, don't want them to have birth control or what have you.

"But I guess I don't feel that way. I don't think religion needs to be in politics together like that. ... As a woman, ... I don't expect you to pay for what I need — I mean, regardless of whether it is contraception or whatever it might be in life. And again, if we're talking about contraception, there's tons and tons of places you can go to that it's free."

Wendt says self-reliance is a very important concept in her life.

"When I took over this business, I was scared. I thought, 'How am I going to do this?' ... And then I thought, 'You know what? I know how I'm going to do it. It's just who I am and what I'm going to do. And I'm going to struggle, and that's what it's about. And I'm going to succeed.'

"And I did. And that's what you've got to do. You've got to tell yourself you can do it — no matter who you are, you can do it if you want to. That's just how I feel. That's how I was raised."

Different Ways Of Thinking

Wendt was raised in a family that values hospitality. That explains why, in the thick of an election year, there's not a single campaign sign on the property.

The way Wendt sees it, why risk turning off even a single potential customer, especially in a political swing county?

Then again, she probably wouldn't have put up an Obama poster anyway.

"Well, of course, he's a dynamic speaker. I mean, he's excellent. But my thinking and his thinking are different," she says.

"He doesn't understand small business — or any business. He doesn't understand what it takes to run that business. I mean, that's huge for me because I am a business owner, so that would be the top of my list. But my moral views are totally different than his. ... There are some issues that I think he's right on, but very few."

Those moral issues include things like abortion.

"I don't believe in abortion. I believe in life, and whatever you can do to keep the life going on," she says. "This is, again, a free country that — we need population, we need more people to keep the country going. And if anybody can get an abortion at any time or any other ways of stopping life, what is the point?

"I mean, and again, I believe there are certain times — when, you know, the mother's life is at stake or whatever ... I get that. But ... that would be one really big issue really where we're opposite."

A Business Owner's Perspective

Wendt says, as a business owner, she feels that Romney would understand better where she's coming from, "whereas President Obama doesn't get it."

"And you know what? Lot of times I vote for the person, and I have, and I give money to people that are on my page. And it doesn't matter ... what political party they're from," she says.

She says she's supported Democrats in the past, including President Clinton.

What was different about him?

"I felt like he understood me and what I was doing for a living," she says. "I don't feel that way with President Obama. I just don't. There's nothing that tells me that he understands."

When it comes to the federal health care law passed under Obama, Wendt says she's not sure how it will affect her yet, since it hasn't been fully implemented.

"But, well, it won't be good," she says. "It'll cost more. Supposedly with a small business, if you have over 50 employees, then you need to do something — it'll affect those. I don't have 50 yet, I have 46, but you know what, I won't get 50. You know what I mean? If it means I'm going to have to pay. And a lot of small businesses just won't hire anybody else."

Wendt says it does bother her that Romney supported a law similar to the federal health care overhaul when he was governor of Massachusetts.

"And of course, he's somewhat backing away from it," she says.

But she says she would like to hear more from him on the issue: "That's one area I don't feel real comfortable about with Mr. Romney."

As we finish our conversation, Wendt heads inside the restaurant to make sure her kitchen is getting that famous fried perch ready for the lunch crowd.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Today, we make our final stop in Winnebago County, Wisconsin. All week, we've been hearing people talk about their lives and choices this election year. It's part of our series "First and Main," where we're visiting swing counties in swing states, and doing a lot of listening. Today, we go a half-hour south of the city of Oshkosh, to a rural area of the county; to visit a family that owns a fish restaurant right on the shore of Lake Winnebago.

I'm walking out on the lake, on a dock here, with Shawn Wendt. And Shawn, tell us about Lake Winnebago. This is pretty beautiful.

SHAWN WENDT: Lake Winnebago, the upper river lakes, is great right now with fishing, duck hunting. You have your different types of pan fish - the perch and the bluegills, they are tremendous. And then the walleyes - very good summer of walleye fishing, out here on Lake Winnebago.

GREENE: Shawn Wendt walks from the dock over to some picnic tables, where a few rambunctious kids have built a makeshift fort.

These your boys right here?

SHAWN WENDT: Yup.

GREENE: And how old are they?

SHAWN WENDT: Zack and Sawyer, 9 and 6.

GREENE: All right. What do you got there?

ZACK WENDT: Guns. Nerf guns.

GREENE: Nerf guns?

SAWYER WENDT: Daddy, can you hand me my bullet?

SHAWN WENDT: Don't point it at people, Sawyer.

GREENE: The restaurant is a family affair. It's been in business for five decades. And Shawn tells us the person we really need to meet is his mom, Linda Wendt.

Hey, I'm David.

LINDA WENDT: Hi, David. I'm Linda Wendt.

GREENE: She sneaks up to the picnic table, amid the barrage of Nerf bullets.

LINDA WENDT: Where did you get those - contraptions from?

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Linda Wendt's wearing a turquoise sun dress, with white-framed sunglasses and long, brightly painted fingernails. At the restaurant, she is the person in charge, overseeing a staff of almost 50 people. And that, more than anything, has made her feel a connection to Republican Mitt Romney.

LINDA WENDT: He has done what I've done, so I can relate to him. I mean, he's made a payroll; you know, he's hired, fired people. He's - ran businesses, many businesses. He did the Olympics. I mean, I guess I look at that - he knows what business goes through, and what it takes to run a business.

President Obama doesn't know that. And that doesn't mean one way or the other thing. That's not his fault. He just doesn't know what it takes to do it in that, you know, yeah, a business probably does make more than the people that you're hiring, but that's what it's about. They can work hard to get to where you are, if they so desire. You know, I mean, we're a free country, and that's what it's about, I think.

GREENE: You being a woman in Wisconsin, you are - like, a coveted vote for - you know, you're in a swing state, and the campaigns are battling over how...

LINDA WENDT: Mm-hmm. Right.

GREENE: ...to attract women; that there are a lot of issues that they seem to, to talk about - you know, social issues...

LINDA WENDT: Right.

GREENE: ...abortion. I mean, can you tell me what you think, in general, about some of those social issues that...

LINDA WENDT: Well, I guess, you know, right now, they're saying that women, you know, are leaning more towards the Democrat vote - whatever - because Republicans are against women and oh, my goodness, don't want them to have birth control, or what have you. But I guess I don't feel that way. I don't think religion needs to be in politics - together - like that. I look it at it, as a woman, that I don't expect you to pay for what I need - I mean, regardless of whether it is contraception, or whatever it might be in life.

And again, if we're talking about contraception, there's tons and tons of places you can go to, that it's free. The government doesn't have to pay for that. Well, in a way, I guess the government is, at a lot of these places. But, you know, I don't think this needs to be an issue. This isn't an issue, I don't - for me. It's not an issue. And I was young once, and in these situations that these girls are in. And I would never have thought to, to ask somebody to - it was my problem.

GREENE: I hear a lot of self-reliance, that that's a very important thing for you, in your life; like, doing things on your own.

LINDA WENDT: Absolutely. You know, when I took over this business, I was scared. I thought, how am I going to do this? - you know, whatever. And then I thought, you know what? I know how I'm going to do it. It's just who I am, and what I'm going to do. And I'm going to struggle, and that's what it's about. And I'm going to - I'm going to succeed. And I did. And that's what you've got to do. You've got to tell yourself, you can do it. No matter who you are, you can do it if you want to. That's just how I feel. That's how I was raised.

GREENE: And she was raised in a family that values hospitality. And that explains one thing we noticed. Here we are, in the thick of an election year, and there's not a single campaign sign on the property. The way Linda Wendt sees it - especially in a political swing county - why risk turning off even a single potential customer? Then again, she probably wouldn't have put up an Obama poster, anyway.

LINDA WENDT: Well, of course, he's a dynamic speaker. I mean, he's excellent. But my thinking and his thinking are different, and we're at that time - than they are now.

GREENE: And how would you - if you were to describe your thinking and his, and how they're different; like, how would you...

LINDA WENDT: I don't think there's anything that's the same. He doesn't understand small business, or any business. My moral views are totally different than his. I just, you know, there are some issues that I think he's right on, but very few. I don't, I mean, I just don't...

GREENE: And what do you mean by moral issues? Tell me what's important to you morally that...

LINDA WENDT: Well, I don't believe in abortion, you know. I believe in life, and whatever you can do to keep the life going on. I mean, that's - again - what's happening - I mean, everywhere. I mean, this is, again, a free country that - you know, we need population. We need more people to keep the country going. And if anybody can get an abortion any time, or any other ways of stopping life, what is the point? I mean - and I believe there are certain times when there should, you know, when the mother's life is at stake, or whatever. I'm not that - you know, I get that. But I just - that would be one really big issue - really, where we're opposite, you know.

GREENE: You feel a sense of connection with Romney as a fellow business owner. How deep is the connection with him as a candidate? You feel like it's...

LINDA WENDT: Well, I obviously feel that he's definitely, on a bigger percentage, going to understand where somebody like me is coming from, whereas President Obama doesn't get it. And you know what? Lots of times, I vote for the person. And I have - and I give money to people that are on my page. And it doesn't matter where they're from, what political party they're from.

GREENE: So you've voted for Democrats, independents, when you've liked them...

LINDA WENDT: Oh, tons of times, tons of times.

GREENE: Is there a president you remember, who was a Democrat, who you supported?

LINDA WENDT: Clinton.

GREENE: Clinton both times?

LINDA WENDT: Yep, both times.

GREENE: It's interesting to me, because Clinton was also a lawyer and hadn't run a business. And, you know, Obama - lawyer, hasn't run a business. But Clinton did something to connect with you that...

LINDA WENDT: Right. Well, I felt like he understood me, and what I was doing for a living. I don't feel that way with President Obama. I just don't. There's nothing that tells me that he understands.

GREENE: And let me just ask you about health insurance. What is the effect of the new health-care law on your business as you see it?

LINDA WENDT: Well, I don't know exactly yet, because it's not all implemented, you know. But - well, it won't be good. It'll cost more. Supposedly, with a small business, if you have over 50 employees, then you need to do something. You know, it'll affect those. I don't have 50 yet. I have 46. But you know what? I won't get 50 - you know what I mean? If it means I'm going to have to pay. And that's - a lot of small businesses won't hire anybody else. I'd be under that.

GREENE: So, you would - if the law is you'd have to provide, if it's over 50, you would make sure to stay under 50.

LINDA WENDT: That's what I mean, yeah.

GREENE: Romney has spoken out against the president's health-care law. Some Democrats point out that a lot of the ideas came from Romney in Massachusetts, when he was governor. Does that give you pause?

LINDA WENDT: Right, right. Yeah, it does. Yeah, it does, absolutely. And, of course, he's somewhat backing away from it - saying, well, you know, it was a trial, whatever. And he said, well, it didn't work the way I planned, or whatever. No, it didn't. But I'm very - I would be very interested to see what he's - I would like to hear more. But what he...

GREENE: From Romney, kind of dealing with that.

LINDA WENDT: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, because I - that's one area I don't feel real comfortable about, with Mr. Romney.

GREENE: We wrap up our conversation, and Linda Wendt heads inside the restaurant to make sure her kitchen is getting that famous fried perch ready for the lunch crowd.

How long does perch have to fry up?

LINDA WENDT: A couple of minutes.

GREENE: How do you know it's perfect?

LINDA WENDT: By looking at it, when it's nice, golden brown.

GREENE: Golden brown.

This lakeside fish restaurant is our final stop in Winnebago County, Wisconsin. And we'll be continuing our series "First and Main," listening to more voters into the fall. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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