Leo Hindery, Jr. is one of those big personalities in real life that we see characters trying to play in the movies. He sees himself as a larger than life change agent, working to rewire America's social contract to be more fair to American workers. A former CEO of cable firm TCI, then AT&T Broadband, Global Crossing, and the Yankee Entertainment Sports Network, Hindery helped lead firms to rationalize their assets, streamline staffing, and pump up productivity. From a CEO perspective, he saw businesses offshore their production and service lines rather than re-invest in workers in the United States.
Believing that financial institutions were being deregulated even as the labor market was stuck in 1930s-era legal structures, Hindery believed that the American government, U.S. business leaders, and the markets were on track to wreck the foundations on which middle class America was based.
He believed that workers would see their jobs continually off-shored, and their pensions and savings ripped off in a system increasingly designed to work at odds with them. In the end, Hindery surmised that this would forfeit America's future to other rising powers like China, which was making smart investments in manufacturing, infrastructure, and in workers.
As a CEO who found his soul and developed a profound concern for the state of American workers, Hindery wrote a book called It Takes a CEO: It's Time to Lead with Integrity, in which he argued for a new deal between workers, firms, government and the financial markets -- one that was fairer and more supportive of the aspirations of workers. I got to know him when he supported some of the work at the New America Foundation, where I had founded the American Strategy Program.
After this, HIndery joined the worker-concerned presidential campaign of John Edwards as senior economic adviser to the failed and now legally beleaguered former candidate. When Edwards' campaign sputtered Hindery was assigned the task of proposing that the ascendant Obama take Edwards as his vice presidential running mate. Obama adviser David Axelrod shrugged that off, but Hindery nonetheless joined the Obama campaign ranks as someone carrying the flag for American working families and the eroding middle class.
As soon as Obama prevailed in his first presidential win, Hindery and many of the labor leaders and worker-concerned Congressional leaders working with him believed that their sector of campaign supporters would be elevated in Obama Land. This didn't happen. Instead, those with a general neoliberal economic tilt, who tended to see workers as micro-economic distractions to bigger macro-economic crises, took over the helm of Obama's financial and economic team.
A former big-time CEO who had turned into one of the nation's leading supporters of organized labor might have been perceived by Obama as the kind of bridge-builder he needed between divergent national economic factions -- he could have made for a distinctive Secretary of Commerce. But in fact, has America had a distinctive Secretary of Commerce? Not in recent memory -- not perhaps since the late Ron Brown held the post. Penny Pritzker, confirmed just weeks ago, may emerge as a Secretary of Commerce who finally does something -- but Hindery's profile indicates that he would have either succeeded or crashed in ways there that made Commerce consequential. But while he was on the list for the job, the administration kept him at arm's length, in part because "he was too close to labor," a White House source shared with me.
To make matters worse, Hindery offered a car and driver to his friend and business colleague Tom Daschle, former Senate Majority Leader and leading health care adviser to the Obama campaign, as well as a potential vice-presidential running mate or chief of staff to Obama, which helped undermine Daschle's political perch in Obama Land. While the press reported this as Daschle accepting a gift on which he did not pay taxes, the real story is that Hindery kept on his payroll a driver he had known for years, whose health care needs were significant, and who desperately needed a job lest he and his family face destitution because of their medical costs.