The Man With the Golden Phone

Before Mark Warner was a politician, he was a wildly successful entrepreneur—and his success as a huckster shows why he may be a formidable challenger for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination

"Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” wrote Mario Puzo, paraphrasing the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, in the epigraph to The Godfather. Mark Warner, the Democratic former governor of Virginia who is now eyeing a run at the presidency, is no criminal—but he did make his first big money by exploiting a multibillion-dollar government giveaway in the cell-phone industry. At campaign events and other speaking engagements, he often tries a disarming joke about the source of his wealth. When a cell phone rings in the audience, he will invariably pause. “Those cell phones,” he likes to say. “Most people consider them an annoyance, but I just hear ‘cha-ching, cha-ching.’”

While Warner is not yet registering strongly in most polls, his star is in its ascendancy among political insiders. Many appraisers of political horseflesh believe that he may have qualities—not possessed by the putative front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton—that could retrieve the White House for the Democrats in 2008.

Warner’s success as a blue governor of a red state—he departed the governor’s office, in mid-January, with an 80 percent public-approval rating—explains some of the current enthusiasm. But his earlier business accomplishments are an essential part of his story, and are perhaps the clearest window into his abilities, his character, and his political future. Ultimately, it’s the skills he showed as a pioneer in the arcane practice of flipping cellular-phone licenses that might also make him a success in presidential politics.

Warner, who was born in 1954 in Indianapolis, is not from a wealthy background. He attended public schools and was the first in his family to finish college. As a boy, he says, he was always interested in politics. And indeed his early adulthood follows an arc that is consistent with political ambition: George Washington University, followed by Harvard Law School, followed by an $18,000-a-year job raising funds for the Democratic National Committee.

But Warner began his career in 1980—either “Morning in America” or the onset of a decade of greed, depending on one’s perspective—and his thoughts soon turned to moneymaking. Wall Street may have been the iconic movie of the eighties, but in an era of deregulation and privatization, Washington offered its own brand of opportunity for the canny and the connected. The Federal Communications Commission—rule-maker for the broadcasting and cable industries, and for the then-nascent cell-phone business—was especially generous in the fortunes it bestowed.

In the mid-1980s, the FCC abandoned its cumbersome and costly license application process and began awarding licenses—which entitled the bearer to operate cellular franchises in specific markets—by lottery. Just about anyone could enter, and the winners received their licenses for free. Like most lotteries, this one attracted a lot of players (some of whom were individuals, and some partnership groups).

Warner—whose eyes had been opened to the growth possibilities of the cellular market by a DNC donor he knew—did not enter the lottery. But he did spot a way to profit from this federal largesse.

Most of the lottery winners had no intention of using their licenses; they hoped to sell them. To whom and at what price? That was murky—the market for cell phones was still in its infancy, and information was scarce. Warner, among a half-dozen or so other operators, stepped into this breach and brought some degree of order to the chaos. He furiously brokered deals between buyers and sellers (in return for 5 percent of the sale price). And in a risky gamble, he used borrowed money to buy shares in the licenses held by partnership groups (later reselling—flipping—these shares at much higher prices). Eventually, after making a name for himself, he signed on to Columbia Capital, a venture-capital partnership focused on the wireless industry. In ten years, he made $150 million.

When Warner began this endeavor, he had no expertise and no money of his own. (He’d blown his life savings—$5,000—on a failed energy start-up in the early eighties.) James Murray, a Charlottesville, Virginia–based venture capitalist who was a partner with Warner in Columbia Capital, tells the story of one of Warner’s first forays into cellular-license brokerage in his book, Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution in America. In 1986, a meeting was held in the ballroom of the Westin Hotel in Washington, D.C. In attendance were nearly a hundred members of a partnership that had won collective rights to ten cellular markets. The question was how the partners—individually, or as a group—were going to dispose of their market rights. Warner was not known to the investors, but, based on the knowledge he’d acquired through careful study of the cell-phone market, he persuaded their lawyers to let him speak at the meeting.

When it was Warner’s turn to talk, he stood in front of the gathering and “in his booming baritone” pleaded for the partners to stick together and hire a single agent—himself—to find the highest-price buyers for the licenses. If they failed to unify, he warned, “some of you are going to get a whole bunch of money, and the rest of you are going to get screwed.” Even though Warner “looked young enough to be a student,” Murray wrote, he generated “an excited buzz” with his presentation, like that at a revival meeting. When Warner wrapped up the pitch, the room fell silent. And then one partner spoke up: “Goddammit, Mark, I think we should do it with you.” All of them did.

As a deal-closer, Warner was masterful. He could walk cold into a room strained by a quarrelsome negotiation and lock up a bargain. He has the long reach of a man who stands six feet three inches tall, and he once used that wingspan to advantage by grabbing the wrists of a pair of verbal combatants and forcing them to shake hands across a wide table. Nigel Morris, a founder of Capital One Financial Corporation and a good friend and adviser of Warner’s, told me, “You sense him physically. He’s there, he puts his arm around you, there’s one shake, then a second hand … He has great instincts to know when to push and how hard to push.”

Murray, in a recent interview, put it in slightly different terms: “Mark has a way of being almost offensive in insisting on what people ought to do,” he told me. “He can intimidate, badger, cajole, whine—do whatever is necessary to get the buyer to buy and the seller to sell.”

In late December, three weeks before he was due to leave office, I met Warner at the governor’s quarters in Richmond. On his desk was a present he had received for his fifty-first birthday, five days earlier: a wristwatch with “Warner, 2008” inscribed on the face.

Warner can seem wooden in his public appearances—“I’m not a naturally gifted speaker,” he acknowledged to me—his success at hypnotizing the Westin ballroom partnership group notwithstanding. But one-on-one, he’s personable and loose, quite good at putting a visitor at ease. It’s easy to picture Warner comfortably relating to folks from all walks of life. In Richmond, he plays basketball with delegates—he’s known for his sharp elbows—and sometimes drinks beer with them as well. Diffidence is a crippling quality for both salespeople and politicians; Warner seems to have none.

Warner told me that his “value-added” in the political arena is his hands-on experience on the frontiers of the “New Economy.” He said he has seen firsthand the importance of innovation and entrepreneurialism, and believes staunchly that both of them must be nurtured and promoted by government.

Although this sounds a bit like a campaign commercial—or text from a corporate brochure—flagging his business experience is one way for Warner to separate himself from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Indeed, as a successful entrepreneur, a fiscal conservative, and a social-issues libertarian (he’s pro-choice on abortion), Warner would seem to fit fairly comfortably into the moderate wing of today’s Republican Party. Many of his friends in the high-tech community—some of whom donated more than $100,000 to back his gubernatorial campaign—are either political independents or outright Republicans.

But Warner told me that he has long seen the Democratic Party as the one more committed to expanding the economic pie and ensuring that everyone gets a slice. When he was at Columbia Capital, his politically less-committed partners teased him about insisting on hiring at least one support staffer on affirmative-action grounds. His rhetoric revolves around “Third Way” ideas to give everyone—through first-rate, equal-opportunity education—a fair chance to participate in our evolving information-based economy.

In Virginia, which has not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, Warner governed as a pragmatic, results-oriented centrist. Notably, he persuaded a Republican-dominated legislature to pass a landmark fiscal package that raised the sales-tax rate and boosted spending for public schools and law enforcement. “Politics is the only business I know of where doing nothing other than making the other guys look bad is an acceptable outcome,” Warner says. “That would never pass for success in the business world.”

As for Warner’s presidential aspirations, many of the abilities that he displayed as an entrepreneur translate directly to the building of a successful campaign: he is accomplished at networking, fund-raising, lining up backers—anything that gives him a chance to bend an arm or two. (Former DNC Chairman Don Fowler, a Warner enthusiast, says that the prospective candidate is now doing “what he has been doing [for] a long time—raising venture capital,” only in this instance, “he is the product.”) His pragmatism and deal-closing abilities can only help him as he seeks the support of the Democratic Party’s notoriously heterodox interest group leaders. What’s more, Warner has had time to hone his message and widen the appeal of his “brand”—as adviser Nigel Morris calls it—before entering the national spotlight, an advantage that the well-defined and politically polarizing Hillary Clinton conspicuously lacks.

Whether Warner can sell himself to the American voter—which is in no small part a matter of selling his life story—is a different question. Warner’s cellular-license-flipping exploits undoubtedly will draw some pointed questions from the national press corps. But then, too, Hillary Clinton will probably have to explain, once again, how she managed, long ago, to pocket a tidy sum by trading cattle-futures contracts. Americans, in any case, seldom resent a politician’s wealth. Back in 1976, they elected a millionaire peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, who was also, like Warner, a one-term governor of a southern state. Behind every great fortune, Americans tend to believe, is the story of a winner.