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Originally published September 5, 2012 at 9:22 PM | Page modified September 5, 2012 at 9:28 PM

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Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal praises Obama's business side

Speaking at the Democratic National Convention, Sinegal pushed back against the argument by Republicans — and some business allies — that entrepreneurs succeed on their own.

Seattle Times political reporter

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Who would want to shop at Costco, where you need to be a "member" to even go... MORE
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal took a turn in the political spotlight Wednesday night, making a business case for re-electing President Obama and saying the incumbent "understands what the private sector needs to succeed."

Speaking at the Democratic National Convention, Sinegal pushed back against the argument by Republicans — and some business allies — that entrepreneurs succeed on their own.

"Some of my friends in corporate America say that all they need is a government that gets off the backs of businesses," Sinegal said to the crowd at the Time Warner Cable Arena.

"But I think they get it all wrong. Business needs a president who has covered the backs of businesses," he said, citing Obama's support of public investments in education, research and infrastructure.

Sinegal was part of a concerted Democratic effort Wednesday to contest the GOP's reputation as the more pro-business party — while simultaneously attacking the ethics of Republican nominee Mitt Romney's own business record at private-equity firm Bain Capital.

Several business leaders spoke before Sinegal, including Austin Ligon, co-founder of the used-car retailer CarMax, who praised Obama for rescuing domestic car manufacturers from collapse.

Sinegal's support for Obama is no surprise. He has long been a major Democratic donor and hosted Obama at a pair of fundraisers at his Hunt's Point home on Lake Washington in July. He and his wife, Janet, have donated more than $107,000 to Democratic candidates and committees since 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks money in politics.

Sinegal's speech began at about 7 p.m. Pacific — just ahead of the night's headliners, Massachusetts Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren and former President Clinton.

He spoke calmly, frequently staring at notes on the lectern in front of him. The speech drew cheers, though nothing close to the adulation that greeted Warren.

The longtime CEO of Issaquah-based Costco who retired earlier this year, Sinegal touted the company's creation of hundreds of thousands of American jobs, boasting of plans to hire 7,000 more people in the next year, jobs with "the highest wages among our peers" and good health coverage.

His speech represented a pushback against the Republicans "We Built It" slogan, which was repeated frequently at the GOP convention in Tampa last week.

That line was based on a comment that President Obama made in a campaign stop this summer. In a speech arguing that everyone benefits from public education, roads and other infrastructure, Obama said, "If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

The GOP has replayed the quote repeatedly, saying Obama was revealing his contempt for the hard work of business owners. But several nonpartisan fact-checking organizations have rejected the GOP's framing of the quote as dishonest.

In an interview before his speech Wednesday, Sinegal said he agrees with Obama's point that businesses — even if built on the risk and sweat of individuals — owe something to the country that allowed them to succeed.

"I wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't had the opportunity to have been afforded a great education at a state university," said Sinegal, who graduated from San Diego State University.

"You'd have to be a fool not to recognize that you got a lot of help along the way," he said.

If that thinking is at odds with some conservative private-sector purists in the business world, that's a reflection of the way Sinegal and his Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman have always operated.

"Costco has always thought about the world in its own way," said Edward Weller, a retired stock analyst who followed Costco almost since its first warehouse store opened in 1983. He said he has seen it put customers' interests ahead of the company's, and employees' interests ahead of shareholders in the short term, believing it paid long-term gains. For example, Costco refused to make big job cuts or slash workers' health-insurance benefits during the recession.

Politically, Weller said, Sinegal "doesn't believe in the myth of Obama being a tax-and-spend nut. He's always been a socially conscious guy who's tried to be responsible to his community. Plainly he doesn't believe in big government, but in a strong and responsive safety net."

Sinegal, in the interview, said he lines up philosophically with Obama on the notion that a booming economy flows from the wallets of middle-class consumers, not the fortunes of the rich.

"It doesn't do any good for Costco to have the lowest price on a 70-inch TV set if nobody can afford to buy one," he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Melissa Allison and news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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