Politics December 2004

Executive Assistance

The split between "red" states and "blue" states has never been wider, but one type of candidate is bridging that gap: businessmen
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In a year when politics seems to be viewed strictly in terms of the red state-blue state divide, a candidate like Brian Schweitzer tends to escape notice. Schweitzer, a cherubic-looking forty-nine-year-old, is a rancher who has never held elective office and yet at the time of this writing was favored to become the next governor of Montana. His success is due in no small part to the way he has leveraged his business background, frequently citing his experience "signing the front side of a paycheck" as ideal training for the governorship. He stressed this theme in his first campaign ad, titled "Businessmen," in which he introduced himself as a rancher, vowed to challenge every state expense, and touted his penchant for soliciting ideas, even from political opponents. The spot omits the more colorful details of Schweitzer's career as an "agricultural entrepreneur": he has helped manage a dairy farm in Saudi Arabia, grown mint and soybeans, and exported such venerable Montana commodities as cow embryos and bull semen. Although he hasn't been shy about detailing his quirky résumé, Schweitzer stresses the nuts and bolts of running an enterprise to make a case for his candidacy. "Business is all about managing people and resources," he told me recently. "I think those skills transfer to government." Evidently, many voters agree. They've made him the rare example of a Democrat who is faring well in a solidly pro-Bush state.

If he wins, Schweitzer will become just the latest business chieftain elected governor of a state generally hostile to his party. This trend applies to Republicans as well as Democrats. In the past few years the "red" candidates Mitt Romney and Donald Carcieri have prevailed in the "blue" states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, respectively, as has the blue Mark Warner in the red state of Virginia. Also this year New Hampshire Governor Craig Benson—a Republican business tycoon, elected in 2002—faces a strong challenge from the Democrat John Lynch, formerly the CEO of an office-furniture company. None of these men had previously held political office. But each has accomplished what increasingly seems to be beyond the reach of even the most veteran politicians. In a political atmosphere riven by partisanship, these CEO candidates have managed to bridge the divide.

With the outcome of this presidential election all but certain to boost animosity on both sides of the aisle, candidates like Schweitzer offer a glimmer of hope that there may be some respite from the endless bickering. The lesson of his campaign and others like it seems to be that when it comes to elected officials, voters prefer business to business as usual.

The attractiveness of business leaders as politicians isn't new. The Democratic governors Milton Shapp, of Pennsylvania, and Averell Harriman, of New York, each traded an executive office for the executive branch. Mitt Romney's father, George, left the helm of American Motors to become the governor of Michigan. H. Ross Perot leveraged his business experience (and fortune) to make a serious run at the White House.

But today's businessmen have a deeper appeal both for voters and for political parties. The most obvious draw is a promise of financial proficiency and administrative expertise, which voters can often be persuaded is lacking in career politicians. "If there is an advantage to a business background, it's the familiarity with finance and the economy," says Mitt Romney, a star leveraged-buyout investor who engineered the turnaround of the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics before running for governor later that year. "It gives a credibility that is particularly helpful in tough economic times." It's probably no accident that the most recent class of CEO governors was elected in 2002, when the country was suffering through a recession. Nor was it coincidental that Carcieri, the former co-director of a large conglomerate, campaigned by asking prospective constituents to consider him their "chief economic-development officer."

Particularly for beleaguered voters in states suffering an economic downturn, the business-first, no-nonsense intensity personified by a figure like Craig Benson can be welcome. Before he was elected, Benson earned some half a billion dollars; as a tech entrepreneur he co-founded the computer-systems company Cabletron in a garage and nurtured it into one of New Hampshire's largest corporations. As CEO, Benson fostered an aggressive culture. A top executive at his company donned combat fatigues and thrust knives into basketballs to demonstrate the damage he intended to wreak on competitors. For efficiency's sake, meetings were limited to fifteen minutes and held at elbow-high tables without chairs. Critics of the governor point out that Cabletron has floundered since the end of the tech boom, splitting into four units, one of which became the subject of an SEC investigation. Benson has nevertheless brought many of the company's practices with him, including some that must delight those habitually displeased with the bureaucratic stasis that typifies most state governments. Department heads tardy for the 8:00 a.m. weekly meeting—again, conducted standing around a table—are literally locked out of the room.

Business leaders can position themselves not only as rainmakers but also as green-eyeshaders whose thrift will stretch the public's tax dollars further. Schweitzer is fond of remarking that "a small businessman knows how to squeeze a penny till you get copper wire." In fact, all the recently elected governors in this category have quickly delivered on their campaign pledges to audit state expenditures. Schweitzer believes that the voters' desire for fiscally responsible leaders even caused an attack against him to backfire. This summer an opponent assailed him for buying trucks for his ranch from over the border in Idaho rather than showing loyalty to his economically ailing home state. "Only a lifelong government guy would think comparison shopping is a terrible thing," Schweitzer retorted.

The state parties backing CEO types are often drawn by the way the candidates' success can direct attention to the economic concerns that are their strong suit and away from treacherous social issues. This is particularly important for those who, like Schweitzer, belong to a party whose views the majority of their state's voters don't share—and sometimes emphatically repudiate—when it comes to hot-button issues such as gun control and abortion. And the fact that they can cut large checks to pay for their own campaigns is also a decided plus. What in an earlier era might have been viewed as a handicap—that they have never held elective office—is, paradoxically, turning out to be an advantage: because they are not associated in voters' minds with the overt partisanship of most politicians, they can project an above-the-fray stance that has found considerable favor in red and blue states alike.

Indeed, most sitting CEO governors garner high approval ratings. Perhaps that's not surprising: although they often run as business managers who almost stumbled into campaigning, many display a politician's deft touch with voters. "A lot of the CEOs are wonderful politicians," says Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University. "But they aren't seen as politicians, which gives them more credibility."

Though corporate leadership skills may be an effective credential with voters, they don't offer much preparation for tangling with state legislators. Romney provoked the enmity of his state's Democratic legislative leaders when, according to one lawmaker, he declared himself the "CEO of Massachusetts" at their inaugural meeting. "He's chosen to put himself over them," says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. "As a result, they don't have much of a working relationship, and he doesn't have [the Republican former governor Bill] Weld's record of dynamic achievement." In Rhode Island, Carcieri saw the legislature override his veto of the 2005 budget. "Everything gets so politicized," he laments. "I assumed there would be more give-and-take." Perhaps mindful of such pitfalls, Schweitzer tapped a Republican—and former small businessman—to serve as his running mate and, if he wins, as a de facto emissary to Montana's Republican-controlled legislature. "I don't need to have the legislators in Helena embarrassing me," he explained. "We've got to work together."

Despite these difficulties, most businessmen have managed to govern effectively. And though they may position themselves as open-minded innovators immune from traditional ideological pigeonholing, once in office most have pursued typically partisan agendas. Romney and Carcieri actively recruited candidates to challenge incumbents in their Democratic-majority state legislatures. Benson signed into law a parental-notification requirement for minors seeking abortions. In Virginia, Mark Warner engineered a tax hike to stave off budget cuts. All these acts reflect policies favored by the governors' political parties. In other words, despite their cross-party appeal, CEO candidates govern very much like their predecessors. They don't spend millions of dollars and endure the indignities of campaigning just to be technocrats.

There's reason to expect that more businessmen will enter national politics. George W. Bush may have been the first M.B.A. President, but he most likely won't be the last. Harriman, Shapp, and the elder Romney all ran for the White House. Given the success and ambition of popular young governors like Warner and Mitt Romney, and their ability to win in hostile territory, it seems only a matter of time before one of them seeks the presidency. Because a major realignment of voters to one party or the other doesn't appear likely, and they have a history of bridging partisanship at the state level, seeking the top job would, after all, make good business sense.

Alexandra Starr is the Capitol Hill correspondent for BusinessWeek.
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Alexandra Starr

Alexandra Starr is an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation.

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