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COLUMN ONE : Business Executive as Populist : Though a political phenomenon, Ross Perot is only one of many businessmen candidates claiming to speak for ordinary folk against a distant political elite.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Ross Perot is moving down a surprisingly well-worn path in his odyssey from the boardroom to the campaign trail.

Perot has created a bigger splash in national politics than any businessman since Wendell L. Willkie, a charismatic utility company president who ran a strong race as the Republican presidential nominee against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

But the Texas billionaire is riding a wave that has gathered momentum over the past 15 years at the state level: As career politicians have faded in public esteem, voters around the country increasingly have elected businessmen without previous government experience as governors and senators.

“There is no question Perot is part of a larger trend,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “There is a sense politics has failed and politicians have failed--and the belief that we have to get a different kind of person in (office) is very widespread.”

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Two businessmen without previous political experience now sit in the Senate: Democrats Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, who was elected in 1988, and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, first elected in 1982.

Five current governors came into office directly from business: Republicans Kirk Fordice in Mississippi and Fife Symington in Arizona, and Democrats David Walters in Oklahoma, Bruce G. Sundlun in Rhode Island and Gaston Caperton in West Virginia. Several other businessmen with no previous political record--including Democrat Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, now a U.S. senator--held governorships during the 1980s.

This year, business executives are competing seriously for Democratic Senate nominations in Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Utah, and Republican Senate nods in Utah, Connecticut and Georgia. In Oregon, businessman Harry Lonsdale narrowly trailed Rep. Les AuCoin in the May primary for the Democratic Senate nomination, with the race now headed for a recount; on Monday, Lonsdale suggested he may launch a write-in bid if he loses the recount.

With just 12 governorships at stake this year, businessmen have already won Republican nominations in North Dakota and Delaware; a third is bidding for the GOP nod in Utah. Also in Utah, independent Merrill Cook, a businessman, is expected to be a serious factor this fall in his second bid for the governorship.

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Over the past decade, says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, candidates drawn from the business world have successfully “road-tested” many of the major themes powering Perot’s presidential campaign. And they have demonstrated that those who can fund their campaigns out of their own checkbooks, as Perot promises to do, enjoy enormous advantages.

But once in office, their accomplishments have been more modest. Many experts say that as a group, the business governors and senators have not yet demonstrated that the skills of the boardroom and the balance sheet offer any special insights for public life.

“I don’t think their record is anything to crow about,” says Steven D. Gold, executive director of the Center for the Study of the States in Albany, N.Y.

This crossover from business to statewide office is not entirely new: Illinois Republican Charles H. Percy moved from the top executive job at Bell & Howell into the Senate in 1966; four years later, Democrat Milton J. Shapp, who owned a television company, won the Pennsylvania governorship.

Nor does a business pedigree guarantee electoral success: Five businessmen lost gubernatorial elections in 1990--including Arkansas gas company executive Sheffield Nelson, who was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton.

But at a time when the word “politician” has become virtually an epithet, business executives are finding the path to elected office more open than at any time in memory, experts say. “It’s a change, because in the past you had a political ladder that people had to go up,” says Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina.

Almost without exception, these business candidates have presented themselves to the electorate just as Perot is today: as no-nonsense, hard-nosed managers, committed to imposing the bottom-line discipline of the private sector on a bloated and inefficient government. The promise, either implicit or explicit, is to run government more like a business.

Typical is Joe Cannon, chairman of the board of Utah-based Geneva Steel and the front-runner for the state’s GOP Senate nomination this year. “I don’t think people in Washington are bad or mean-spirited,” he says. “But I don’t think they understand what makes our economy work. Business people know in their bones what causes the economy to work or not work.”

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Politicians running against business leaders typically have fired back either by accusing their opponents of not really understanding government or of actually being insiders who have used their wealth to secure political influence.

With these arguments shaping the debate, many of the races involving businessmen have followed a remarkably similar pattern, says Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, who worked with Kerrey and Kohl.

Because businessmen candidates seem so fresh, so distant from the stagnant political system, they typically rocket up in the polls, according to Hickman. Then, they face a long second look from voters. “A doubt settles in at the end: Can this person really do the job?” Hickman says.

Oilman Clayton W. Williams Jr., the 1990 Republican gubernatorial nominee in Texas, embodies the phenomenon. Virtually unknown when the campaign began, Williams exploded like a political gusher after he aired a series of tough-talking ads--particularly one in which he promised to introduce youthful drug offenders to the “joys of busting rocks.”

But as the campaign wore on, Williams’ greatest asset--the freshness and frankness of his brusque, good ol’ boy manner--grated on voters. A series of gaffes--which began with a joke about rape and culminated with his inability to name a single ballot initiative facing Texas voters--swept up dust storms of doubt about his judgment and competence.

Williams lost his huge lead and the election to Democrat Ann Richards.

Perot, who also has built his public persona on a reputation for straight talk, strikes observers as a much shrewder and sure-footed politician than Williams. But some analysts saw signs of a Williams-like insensitivity in Perot’s recent comment that he would not hire homosexuals for top Cabinet posts or knowingly appoint adulterers.

Business candidates who convince voters that they understand the rules and grammar of public life clearly have benefited from favorable comparisons voters make between the private sector and government. Successful business executives step into the political arena with a presumption of competence in managing both the economy and the bureaucracy.

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“People think the private sector works and government doesn’t,” says Mark D. Gearan, executive director of the Democratic Governors’ Assn.

Nothing has been more striking about the campaigns involving business executives than the inability of their foes to dent the assumptions of economic and management competence--even in an era when polls show widespread distrust of big business as disloyal to American workers.

Some candidates have faced criticism for individual business decisions. But their opponents have been unable to successfully press the charge that men and women recruited from the boardroom won’t defend the interests of ordinary working people.

“Given what has happened in the 1980s, with the loss of jobs to foreign countries . . . you would think the politicians could say, ‘Here’s a guy who will take your job and move it to Sri Lanka at the drop of a hat,’ ” says Alan Ehrenhalt, author of a study of career politicians. “But there doesn’t seem to be anybody paying a price for that in these races.”

One reason is that the businessmen who have won office tend not to be executives in large corporations, but entrepreneurs who embody the American archetype of the independent self-made man--like Perot.

Perhaps more importantly, voter doubts about the allegiances of politicians have inhibited populist counterattacks against business candidates.

Consider the irony: For the past century, populists from William Jennings Bryan to the Rev. Jesse Jackson have defined themselves primarily through opposition to the economic elite. But in contests with career politicians over the past decade, wealthy business candidates have routinely sold themselves as populists--the tribunes of ordinary folks against a distant and insular political elite.

This has been all the more remarkable given that the businessmen candidates have often spent huge sums of their own money on their campaigns--just as Perot plans. Almost without exception, their opponents have accused them of trying to buy the election, an accusation already being directed at Perot; just as regularly, the charge has fallen flat.

Why? With the belief that special interests own politicians so widespread, most voters now view the ability to self-finance a campaign not as an attempt to buy office, but rather as “insulation . . . from the corruption of the political system,” says Hickman.

Take, for example, Kohl of Wisconsin.

Kohl, who ran a family chain of supermarkets and department stores and owns the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, spent $6.1 million of his own money in 1988 to win a Senate seat vacated after 31 years by William Proxmire--whose trademark was refusing to spend more than a token amount of anybody’s money in his campaigns. Proxmire’s expenses in his last campaign in 1982, for instance, totaled $145.

With Kohl’s open-bankbook tactic presenting such a stark contrast, the issue surfaced instantly. “Initially the press thought it would be a major concern,” Kohl says. “But about a month into the race, they did a survey and about 80% said they didn’t care.”

In fact, Kohl’s advisers used his wealth to portray him as an independent, incorruptible sort like Proxmire. The campaign’s slogan captured the shift of the public’s populist contempt from the wealthy to politicians. It read: “Nobody’s Senator But Yours.”

Ideologically, the businessmen recently elected to office have little in common: They range from hard-line conservatives such as Mississippi’s Fordice to liberals such as Lautenberg and Kohl.

Overall, the governors with a business background have been somewhat “more fiscally conservative than the average governor,” says Stephen Moore, who analyzes state fiscal policy at the libertarian Cato Institute. John Y. Brown Jr., who parlayed the millions he made at Kentucky Fried Chicken into a term as governor of Kentucky in 1979, was known as a budget-cutter; Kerrey was frugal in Nebraska; Oklahoma’s Walters, like Perot, has promised to put any tax increases to a vote of the people.

But several of the businessmen governors have substantially raised taxes, even after campaigning against them, when they felt they had no other choice.

That streak of pragmatism may be the single thread linking the businessmen in office: They tend to approach the job as careful managers, not visionaries.

In the Senate, both Kohl and Lautenberg are considered affable, hard-working and reliably liberal votes, but neither has been a major intellectual force in the manner of New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley or Texas Republican Phil Gramm.

Among the governors, the record is similar. “They are not people coming in seeking radical change,” says Moore. “They don’t have an overriding philosophy--it’s what works.”

Most experts on state policy don’t rank any of the past decade’s businessmen-governors among the period’s most creative state executives. None have been at the forefront of efforts to redesign the delivery of government services or restructure bureaucracy, says state policy analyst David P. Osborne.

“If you listed the great governors of the past 20 years . . . none of these people would be on it,” says Osborne, an adviser to Clinton.

One reason is that many of the business governors have had difficulty adapting to the nuances and rhythms of public life, analysts say. “The good news is you’re fresh, you have great ideas,” says Kerrey, whose political experience was minimal before he won the Nebraska governorship in 1982. “The bad news is you’re naive, you can make a lot of mistakes.”

Some learn the skills: in West Virginia, local observers say Caperton now works effectively with the Legislature after some initial difficulty. But others, such as former Republican Gov. Bill Clements in Texas and Democrat Brown in Kentucky, grow frustrated when they discover “that the Legislature isn’t a board of directors they can set the agenda for,” says political scientist Beyle.

Of the current crop, experts give Rhode Island’s Sundlun the highest marks, praising him for dealing forcefully with a crisis in the state banking system and a mammoth budget shortfall. Fordice hasn’t established much of a record yet and Caperton, whose tax increase violated a campaign pledge, faces a difficult reelection fight.

The two other businessmen sitting in governors’ mansions have been hit by allegations of impropriety. The FBI found no evidence to support the filing of charges against Oklahoma’s Walters after investigating accusations that he promised state jobs in return for campaign contributions. But the state attorney general is still probing the matter.

Arizona’s Symington, a former developer, has been engulfed in controversy since the federal Resolution Trust Corp. filed a lawsuit last fall against him and other directors of a failed Phoenix savings and loan.

That score card is sufficiently mixed to raise doubts about the relevance of business experience to success in government. “I think the skills it takes to succeed are quite different,” says David Vogel, professor of business and public policy at UC Berkeley.

The key distinction between the two worlds, Vogel contends, is that a business remains “basically an authoritarian structure” that a chief executive commands from the top down, while in politics, success depends on building consensus and accommodating a far more diverse range of interests.

Kerrey, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, takes a similar view. “Our government is a representative democracy; my business is a benign dictatorship,” he says.

Perot, like other businessmen who have moved into politics, insists his style is to seek consensus rather than issue commands. But some former colleagues have challenged that assertion--and Perot has turned prickly when pressed by reporters, in the manner of a man not accustomed to hearing his words questioned.

To Osborne, the issue is not only attitude but aptitude. Businessmen, he maintains, have rarely risen much above mediocrity in public life because they usually don’t understand government well enough to change it.

In the races that have involved businessmen in recent years, voters have balanced concerns about inexperience and insensitivity against their desire for change. Typically, business candidates have won when people “are so fed up with the status quo that they don’t consider the lack of experience a liability,” says Charles Cook, publisher of a political newsletter in Washington.

That same balancing act could shape the presidential race. It’s clear the public is fed up with the Washington status quo. But no one knows whether voters will place more weight on government experience when selecting a commander in chief than when picking a governor or senator.

Perot’s fate could hinge on the answer.


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