What we can learn from those who turned from profits to politics
In a country convinced that government is broken and its servants hopeless, perhaps plutocrats are cuddlier than bureaucrats, writes syndicated columnist Frank Bruni.
Just two years ago, during his first term at the helm of Colorado, John Hickenlooper did a quick mental survey of his fellow governors and realized something that he found surprising.
By his very rough count, only about five governors, including him, had spent a significant chunk of their professional lives in the private sector and in roles that included the management of dozens of employees. The other governors, many of them career politicians, didn’t have that kind of managerial experience.
But when Hickenlooper, who once ran a small empire of brewpubs and restaurants, took stock of the 11 new governors elected Nov. 4, his surprise was the exact opposite.
Most of them have precisely such experience and have achieved enormous success in the private sector, where many of them have spent much more time than they have in public office.
Doug Ducey, the Republican governor-elect of Arizona, worked as the chief executive of Cold Stone Creamery, the ice cream parlor chain. His government service is limited to his last four years as the state’s treasurer.
Gina Raimondo, the Democratic governor-elect of Rhode Island, also didn’t enter politics until four years ago. Like Ducey, she’s her state’s treasurer. And like him, she’s best known for what she did in business. She started Rhode Island’s first venture capital firm.
Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor-elect of Pennsylvania, was the state’s secretary of revenue from April 2007 to November 2008, but that short stint pales beside the many years he spent running a big family business that specializes in kitchen cabinets.
Larry Hogan, the Republican governor-elect of Maryland, has never held elective office before but spent three decades running a real estate development company that he founded.
In a column two weeks ago, my New York Times colleague David Brooks noted the elections of Hogan and of Bruce Rauner of Illinois, who ran a private equity firm, as examples of the Republican Party’s re-establishment of its roots in the business community.
But the bigger group of governors-elect from both parties also suggests a larger lesson, shedding light on the mood of an electorate fed up with the status quo.
“The American public sent a message through this election of new governors,” said Hickenlooper, a Democrat whose familiarity with their résumés reflects his current position as the chairman of the National Governors Association.
And to his ears, the public was saying that it’s desperate for more effective, efficient government and willing to see if leaders with “serious executive management experience” can deliver it.
Richard Celeste, the former Democratic governor of Ohio, agreed. “People chose governors who brought, presumably, very credible private-sector experience,” he said. “I don’t think it’s about ideology — conservative versus liberal — but about this notion: We really do want government to work.”
He and other observers cautioned that each gubernatorial race had its own context and currents, many of them more potent than any overarching trend. In Illinois, for example, Rauner toppled a Democratic incumbent, Pat Quinn, who seemed ripe for defeat no matter his opponent.
“But everybody’s frustrated,” said Bradley Tusk, a strategist who works in state and local politics nationwide. “People are looking for alternatives.”
Some candidates with strong private-sector ties also have financial advantages, in terms of their personal wealth and fundraising connections.
Their most lucrative asset, though, may be their ability to present themselves as political outsiders, a claim that seemingly eclipses even the taint of the trades in which they profited.
Some of these new governors come from professions — venture capital, private equity, stocks — that have come under withering scrutiny over the last decade. But in a country convinced that government is broken and its servants hopeless, perhaps plutocrats are cuddlier than bureaucrats.
Will their business backgrounds lead to better results? A state isn’t a company; the lawmakers in a Legislature aren’t employees obliged to follow orders.
But there are indeed examples of well-regarded governors right now who draw on private-sector management experience. They include Jack Markell of Delaware, a Democrat, and Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican, both of whom are frequently singled out for praise by political observers.
Hickenlooper said that the country’s Founding Fathers “didn’t intend such a large percentage of public servants to have worked only in government.”
And he asserted that “many of the lessons of business can apply to state government.”
I’ll buy that. And I agree with him wholeheartedly on this: “You can argue that government should be smaller or bigger or this or that,” he said. “Either way, it needs to work.”
Frank Bruni is a regular columnist for The New York Times