Why Do CEOs Go Into Politics?

Former CEOs like Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are subjecting themselves to personal attacks and mudslinging -- not to mention blowing millions of their own money -- in pursuit of political office. Is it really worth it?

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Business as usual: California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is among the many former CEOs pursuing political office this year.No matter your political persuasion, you can't help but look at Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and other CEOs who run for office and wonder: What the heck are they thinking?

After all, CEOs are captains of industry, who are used to calling all the shots and have amassed small fortunes along the way. Sure, they may seek power and influence beyond the boardroom, but they certainly don't go into politics for the money. The moment they declare their candidacies, they become the target of attack ads, media investigations, and good old fashioned mudslinging. And if they're lucky -- and win -- they have the privilege of fighting a slow-moving bureaucracy every single day. So why suffer the indignities of running for political office?

The bipartisan consensus? With a healthy dose of ego mixed in, to be sure, CEOs pursue public office for the same reason most people do -- they simply think they are the best people for the job.

"Public service is a calling like any other calling," says Costas Panagopoulus, a political science professor at Fordham University and editor of Campaigns & Elections Magazine. While there is no one profession that makes anyone more qualified to be in public service, "Businesspeople feel they have a great deal to offer, particularly entrepreneurs and those who have managed people or created jobs. It's no surprise that when people feel they've achieved what they're going to achieve in business, they often do become interested in serving in elected office."

"People run for mixed motives," adds Jim Gomes, the director of Clark's Mosakowski Institute, a political think tank based in Worcester, Mass., who spent several years working for Sen. John Kerry, including a stint as policy director in Kerry's first senate campaign. "But sometimes it is because you think you can do that job better than the person in office, and you feel it's an important job.
Plus, it can be very exciting and affirming. You picture yourself on election night with 2,000 people chanting and waving signs with your name on it, and you're on television, and that's a thrill for most people."

David E. Johnson, CEO of Atlanta-based Strategic Vision and a Republican consultant who worked on Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign, says political office can be a logical next step for can't-sit-still former CEOs. "Businesspeople are often by nature type-A personalities and living the easy life on the beach just doesn't appeal to them," he says. "If they're still young enough and have a lot of years ahead of them, they're often looking to make a difference, and that's when politics seems to beckon."

Panagopoulus, Gomes and Johnson agree there have been more businesspeople running for office in recent years, hoping to follow the model of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now in his third term.

Whitman is probably the best-known CEO-turned-candidate right now. The California Republican gubernatorial hopeful served as president and CEO of eBay from 1998 to 2008, but she also worked for Walt Disney, Procter & Gamble and Hasbro, among others. She is believed to have a net worth of $1.3 billion.

Also in the Golden State, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina is challenging longtime Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer this year.

Then there's Linda Edwards McMahon, who helped run World Wrestling Entertainment with her husband, Vince, from 1980 until 2009, and is now running as the Republican Senate nominee in Connecticut.

Among the other former businesspeople running for office this election season:
  • Doug Ducey, former CEO and chairman of Cold Stone Creamery, for Arizona state treasurer
  • Rick Snyder, co-founder of Ardesta and former CEO and chairman of Gateway, for governor of Michigan
  • Mike McWherter, a lawyer-turned-beer distributor, for Tennessee governor.
  • Bob Donahue, owner of an industrial equipment company, for Arizona state senator.

Even Donald Trump has recently expressed interest in running for president in 2012.

One reason a lot of businesspeople are running for office right now is the flagging economy. "How many times have we heard that if you bring a business approach to government, you could solve the country's problems?" Johnson asks. "These people really believe it."

Johnson notes that was much of Ross Perot's appeal in 1992. Perot, with his charts and graphs, famously said he wanted to manage the nation like one of his many successful business endeavors. "The political climate favors successful businesspeople right now," Johnson says. "It almost provides reassurance, that 'If you elect me, the success I brought to eBay, I'll bring to the government.' These are people who see themselves as problem solvers during times of crisis."

Indeed, it was a crisis that brought Chuck Meyer into the political fold -- but a personal one.

Meyer, who lives in Houston, is a former BlackBerry executive turned professional mediator. But he is prepared to leave the business world behind if he earns enough votes next month in what is likely an uphill battle -- unseating Democratic incumbent Shelia Jackson Lee and becoming the representative for the 18th Congressional District in Texas.

What's more, he isn't the Republican challenger -- Meyer is running as a write-in candidate. He intends on running as a moderate, which he realizes is a difficult proposition these days, especially in his state. "In Texas politics, if you're in the middle of the road, you don't win elections," he says. "You just end up as roadkill. I'm trying to break that cycle."

Meyer wants to get the nation to divert more federal funding into research to find cures for rare diseases. One of his three daughters, 15-year-old Emily, has Juvenile Batten's Disease, a genetic, neurodegenerative disease. And according to the National Institutes of Health, it's fatal.

Meyer concedes that he is running for office "as a dad as much as a former businessman. When you have a situation like this, you try to figure out what you can do to resolve the situation. I contemplated getting a degree in biochemistry and trying to work on finding a cure, but that didn't seem to be a practical use of my time."

Meyer started off refusing donations, but now accepts anything under $100. As for his own stake in his election, he says he has tried to keep his investment in the low five figures. "I'm not out to buy an election," he says. "I just want to have a platform for people to hear my own ideas on the issues, and if they agree with me, they can vote for me."

As to whether businesspeople really can make the government work more efficiently -- that's debatable. "Not everything that works in a business environment works in politics," Panagopoulus says. "There's a consensus required to pass legislation that's very different from what you have in the business world. Many business leaders are unaccustomed to that. So while business skills may help them get elected, the governing process is altogether different."

Whether the entrepreneur-as-politician trend holds depends largely on what happens with the midterm elections, according to Johnson. "Success breeds imitation," he says. "If these guys all lose, then a lot of people are going to say, 'Is it really worth it? Do I really want to put myself out there? If these guys couldn't win in an environment like this, what's going to happen to me?'"

After all, many businesspeople running for office right now are seeing their reputations trashed on a daily basis. The headline in a column in one Phoenix newspaper recently said of Ducey, "Doug Ducey: Emperor of Ice Cream or as Sleazy as They Come?" And the headlines and controversy swirling around Whitman and her undocumented housekeeper certainly have not been pleasant for the former eBay head, who
has reportedly spent more than $138 million of her own money on her campaign.

Meyer admits, "I'm fascinated by the amount of money some people spend in a campaign."

All that money begs another question: Couldn't politicians do just as much good and maybe more if, instead of running for office, they took those millions and invested it in the community or nonprofits?

Shel Horowitz
, author of books like Guerilla Marketing Goes Green and a consultant known as the ethical marketer, says, "In general, I would vote for distributing it to charities with appropriate stipulations."

Still, it is a calling, and politicians should be able to spend their own fortune without bystanders questioning their financial wisdom. And as Gomes puts it, "I know of no occasion where a businessperson has spent their last $50 million in trying to get elected."

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to AOL Small Business. He is also the co-author of the book
Living Well with Bad Credit.

Tags: Business Trends, Carly Fiorina, CEOs and politics, Chuck Meyer, eBay, Fiorina 2010, Fiorina for Senate, HP, Meg Whitman, midterm elections, midterms, Mike Bloomberg, politics, Whitman 2010, Whitman for governor

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