Crafting a new career in politics

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Carol Sorgen

Wendy Rosen is “completely surprised” at how her life has evolved over the past three decades. In her 57 years, the former graphic designer-turned advertising executive-turned successful business owner has, along the way, also become a publisher, the founder of a trade association — and now a candidate for a U.S. Congressional seat from Maryland’s First District.

It was at the age of 25, after selling advertising for the (now defunct) News American, as well as Baltimore magazine and the Towson Times, that Rosen first realized she loved helping small businesses solve their problems.

The idea for her own business came about when she was attending an art fair and suggested to several of the exhibitors that they could promote their work at the show by having a hospitality suite.

“They didn’t even know what [a hospitality suite] was!” said Rosen during an interview in her office at the Mill Centre. (Rosen helped develop this former Civil War mill in the Jones Falls Valley into a complex of offices and artists’ studios.)

From that conversation close to 30 years ago, the Rosen Group was born. Through workshops, visits to art schools and skill-building programs, the service offers business planning tools to help artists sell their works to art dealers, museum stores and upscale retailers nationwide, “not just in their own neighborhood.”

Today, the company serves about 2,000 artists and micro-manufacturers (start-ups who produce handmade items) throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The business side of crafts

In 1981, when she started the Rosen Group, she also established the Buyers Market of American Craft, which remains one of the top trade shows in America, connecting artists with galleries, craft shops and retailers.

Through the years she has also authored a book, Crafting as a Business, addressing business start-up topics for artists; produced a documentary, “Crafting an American Style,” tracing the evolution of crafts from their functional origins to their contemporary status as works of art; and created two magazines that she still publishes — AmericanStyle and NICHE.

Even as Rosen was encouraging artists to take steps to grow their own businesses, she came to realize that she also wanted to advocate on their behalf to create new market opportunities for American-made products. At the same time, she felt it important to inform legislators and consumers about the importance of buying American.

That became the impetus behind founding the American Made Alliance, a nonprofit trade association supporting the start-up and growth of micro-enterprise in the professional craft sector.

Some of the association’s accomplishments in 2011 include: meeting with the staffs of legislators involved in the Made in the USA movement, sponsoring an Arts Advocacy Day, partnering with the American Sustainable Business Council to brief the White House on sustainable business and domestic policy issues, and reviewing and reporting on the retail practices of gift stores that don’t “sell American,” including shops at the Grand Canyon and the Smithsonian.

On her soapbox

But despite her efforts, it was Rosen’s growing disillusionment with the lack of jobs, the reliance on foreign goods and manufacturers, and what she calls the “obstructionist” Congress that has led this former Republican to throw her proverbial hat in the ring and run for Congress as a Democrat.

She is contesting the 1st Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Andy Harris. The district encompasses the Eastern Shore as well as parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford Counties. Rosen lives in Cockeysville.

Though she has previously worked on political campaigns, Rosen has never run for office herself. Her opponent first successfully ran for office in 1998, but Rosen isn’t fazed by his experience.

To the contrary. “I think the time has come to think twice about those who are ‘career politicians’ or lawyers,” said Rosen. (Harris himself is a physician.) To Rosen’s way of thinking, this is not the best training for coming up with creative and resourceful solutions for many of the challenges facing the country today.

One issue Rosen is particularly vocal about is the need for enforcement of trade laws. She said that in today’s global economy, domestic manufacturers have to compete in a marketplace where most gifts, housewares, jewelry and accessories are marked with removable paper stickers — instead of permanent and indelible labels that indicate country of origin.

She said that a law written more than 80 years ago — but all too often not enforced — requires permanent labels. Many retailers remove these stickers, leaving consumers in the dark about where the products they are buying are actually made.

“The injury is magnified when these labeling practices are used on imports that mimic the designs of American and Native American artisans,” she said. She believes that country-of-origin fraud has destroyed livelihoods by flooding markets with imports made to look like handmade baskets, Christmas ornaments, perfume bottles, paperweights and folk art.

“Passed off as authentic, these deceptively labeled imports crowd domestic, locally produced, handmade and tribal-made goods off the shelves, driving the [authentic] makers out of business,” said Rosen.

“If every consumer would spend just $3 more a day on something made in the U.S., we would see the creation of millions of jobs,” said Rosen, who is a strong proponent of buying local or searching for American-made goods on sites such as www.etsy.com and www.findinamerica.com.

From her kitchen table start-up 30 years ago, Rosen never would have foreseen entering the political arena. “I was never motivated to run for office before,” she said. “I thought I could get more accomplished doing what I was doing.”

But whereas Rosen once believed that it was better to work outside the system to create change, she now thinks that change has to come from within.

“We need some ‘right-brained’ people in Congress,” she said. “We need more creative solutions.”