It would have been easy to forget Mitt Romney is running for president Friday. Speaking before a packed ballroom of Northern Virginia businesspeople, the former Massachusetts governor didn’t sound particularly pro-government.
Watching regulators “drives me crazy,” Romney said, to knowing chuckles from the audience. “I know sometimes it feels like the government doesn’t like you — I love you.”
The event, sponsored by the Northern Virginia Technology Council and the Consumer Electronics Association, reflected one of the unique qualities of the Washington business community. Its fortunes are invariably linked to the federal government, yet it’s hard to get worked up for a presidential whistle-stop.
Sure, about 900 people registered for Romney’s address, a big number for an NVTC event. Some companies even bought multiple tables; commercial real estate firm Avison Young sprung for three.
Still, the contracting industry, which makes up a significant part of NVTC’s membership, typically mutes its partisanship. It has to; its companies need to pursue business with the government, regardless of who is in charge.
“It’s an oddity of the defense industry that even though its principal customer is a political system, it often doesn’t follow electoral trends until the last few months before the vote,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant. “
Indeed, NVTC Chairman Brad Antle, who heads Fairfax-based Salient Federal Solutions, said the group avoids partisanship at the federal level, preferring to hear candidates offer their broader perspectives on technology and innovation.
“This is an opportunity to really address issues more important to the business community here,” Antle said.
Friday, Romney made his pitch for improving business. To a standing ovation, the former Bain & Co. CEO called for a tax structure that encourages risk-taking and regulators who encourage innovation rather than try to minimize risk.
The government should not make large investments in particular companies or pick winners and losers, Romney said, but should instead invest in basic science and research that can help all. Also, he said the government must improve education to create human capital for businesses.
In attracting candidates, NVTC is helped by Virginia’s status as a swing state and its business ties. Last year, the group hosted Herman Cain, a candidate for the Republican nomination who has since dropped out. The group said it has invitations out to President Obama as well as Republican candidates Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. None have set a date yet.