A Role For Business

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Bill VirginWhenever the gears of government begin grinding and stripping teeth as though a box of crowbars had been dumped into the works, voters wistfully gaze at the supposedly well-oiled, smoothly humming machinery of the corporate world and muse, "We ought to have someone with business experience as (fill in the blank: president, governor, mayor)."

This would seem an odd time for voters to be entertaining such thoughts, given the stellar record of economic achievement by the business sector the last two years. The electorate could be excused for feeling that if business-world expertise is what's necessary to produce such a calamity, they want no part of it.

Yet here in Seattle, in a municipal election year, some candidates and more than a few voters are suggesting that business experience might be useful at City Hall. Three of the candidates-James Donaldson, Norman Sigler and Joe Mallahan, the latter of whom advanced to the general election-touted their business résumés, while a fourth, Jan Drago, called herself a "consistent voice for business." The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce's Alki Foundation made a priority this year of "issues central to advancing a competitive regional business climate" in making endorsements (although it then endorsed two government veterans, Drago and Mayor Greg Nickels, both of whom lost in the primaries).

Seattle businesses leaders will tell you their interest in candidates who have been in business, or at least understand what it's like, is not driven just by the recent performance of "the city that works" (a slogan that makes sense only so long as you don't expect an actual decision to be made, and as long as there's no snow). Instead, the motivating factor for business is what they see as a pervasive municipal political attitude that tax revenue, jobs and economic vitality are givens like sunlight and rain.

Entertainers, sports stars and even media types have made the jump to politics, with varying degrees of success. But the number of business leaders who have tried to translate their fame to the political realm is a much smaller set. Rarer still are those who succeed in both realms.

Why is that?

The political class would contend that the skills needed to succeed in politics are not those required in business. Furthermore, they'd add, businesspeople don't expect to launch their careers in the CEO's suite. Why should they expect to waltz into a top job in government without putting in time?

The politicos have something of a point. Business and politics are very different, even if both deal with large amounts of someone else's money, involve large, entrenched and often stultifying bureaucracies and large amounts of inefficiency.   

Business is not a democracy. At some point, the owner, manager or executive, if he or she wants to be successful, has to make a decision, even if-especially if-it makes someone unhappy. Cajoling and compromising have limits.

Executives, if they're determined, can always get new managers, a more compliant board, even another workforce. A president, however, is stuck with the congress he's given; governors cannot fire their legislatures or mayors their city councils, much as they might want to. And the bureaucracy knows that presidents, governors and mayors come and go, but it endures.

Combine that bureaucracy with the political DNA of Seattle-a love of process and an unwillingness to come to a decision-and it's little wonder that candidates and voters start grumbling that there might be a better, or at least different, way of doing things.

True, Seattle has had its own cautionary tales of crossing from politics to business (or back). Paul Schell came to City Hall with a record in both business and politics. Voters were so impressed with his performance as mayor that they didn't even wait around for the general election to cast him out, placing him third in the 2001 primary.

Norm Rice worked in banking before delving into city politics and serving two terms as mayor-not that either helped much with his tenure at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle.

Still, as long as Seattle continues to combine arrogance, obliviousness and inaction in its municipal politics, voters will continue to be intrigued with the notion that they could hardly do worse than try someone from the business world. They are far more likely to consider that option than people in business are inclined to muse, "What we really need is someone with experience in Seattle politics to run our company."

 

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