Civic Pulse

Are today’s business and policy leaders risk averse?

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This fall, the state’s largest business organizations decided to join forces opposing a union-backed effort to raise corporate taxes by an estimated $2.6 billion per year. That kind of leadership dynamic — organizing in response to a perceived threat instead of instigating solutions — is a common but not always productive tactic in Oregon business circles, some observers say. Nik Blosser, co-founder and former chair of the Oregon Business Association, describes the potential pitfalls this way:

Oregon businesspeople, he says, fall into three camps: a) those who want to limit government; b) those who seek good schools and other services, and support getting the revenue to pay for it; c) those who pay lip service to wanting effective public services but don’t help elected officials figure out how to pay for it.

“There are just too many in category C that are slowing everyone down in finding actual solutions,” opines Blosser, president of Celilo Group Media. “Want to address the homeless situation in Portland? Then it’s going to cost X. Too many business people aren’t constructive in figuring out how to pay for stuff we all want and need.”

At the start of a new (election) year and legislative session, Oregon Business asked a few business, nonprofit and thought leaders to weigh in on approaches to public policy leadership and the political arena, where, as of this writing, there’s no real race for governor and not much competition for the Portland mayoral office. As statewide debates over taxes, transportation and education funding rage — or languish — sources talked about proactive versus reactive styles, the dynamic between business and government, and how leadership in Oregon is changing over time.

Unsurprisingly, many business leaders take issue with Blosser’s assessment of reactive or obstructionist trends. “If you look at our ability to come together and work on things, in recent years, we’ve got a pretty good track record,” says Duncan Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council. In concert with community and elected leaders, business executives helped the state get out of “a deep, dark recession; curb expansion of corrections; win big expansion in higher-ed funding; and big growth in early child education,” says Wyse, who spoke to Oregon Business one week before the Oregon Leadership Summit, an annual gala aimed at setting the year’s policy agenda.

The style of executive leadership, not the substance, is changing, Wyse says. “CEOs used to be viewed as giants; now we have more facilitative leadership,” he says. “It’s less ‘sage on the stage’ — not necessarily as glamorous but extraordinarily effective.”

Business is engaged with government in meaningful ways, says Jack Isselmann, senior vice president for external affairs at railcar manufacturer Greenbrier Companies. Isselmann, who sits on the OBA and Associated Oregon Industries boards, notes business’s involvement in passing Ballot Measure 85, which mandates that corporations donate their tax kicker to provide for education. “Just because something is proactive doesn’t mean it’s good,” Isselmann adds. “We could put out a ballot measure every cycle like the public employee unions do, but the business community is showing restraint.” (One can also argue that ballot measures like the corporate tax proposal are reactive: a response to perceived deficiencies in the elected leadership.)

Isselmann does suggest the business community could be more active in some areas, especially when it comes to public relations around the benefits the private sector provides to the community. During an AOI legislative gathering in November, Isselmann said businesses have to battle the prevailing sentiment that “big corporations are evil. How can we improve our messaging?”

Winning the public opinion war is one aim of public and private sector leaders alike. In the political arena, one of the key leadership questions is this: Why are so few people running for office? Gridlock is only part of the problem, says Jim Moore, a professor of political science at Pacific University. “Back in the good old days — the 1960s, ‘70s and into the mid-‘80s — politicians were entrepreneurial; they would take chances,” Moore says. He offers up a few examples. In the 1980s, Ron Wyden, then a young attorney who represented the Grey Panthers, decided to try his hand running for Congress. “He knocked out the incumbent and won the primary.” Then there is Vic Atiyeh, the Republican businessman who lost to Robert Straub in 1974 then ran again and won in 1978. “Atiyeh looked at Tom McCall and said: ‘I can do that.’ He beat the Secretary of State, got creamed, came back four years later and won.”

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That stick-to-it-iveness doesn’t exist anymore, says Moore. On the Republican side, he points to gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley, who ran for governor in 2010, lost by a few thousand votes, then disappeared from view. On the Democratic side, Moore singles out Oregon Treasurer and Portland mayoral candidate Ted Wheeler, who planned to run for governor after Kitzhaber’s fourth term, only to be sidelined by the latter’s resignation and Kate Brown’s ascendancy. Democrats “cautiously wait their turn,” says Moore. As any startup CEO will tell you, the road to success is paved with failure. Today’s crop of politicians, says Moore, are “risk averse.”

Not everyone believes the big idea politician is a relic of the past. Doug Stamm, CEO of Meyer Memorial Trust, has faith that a few policy initiatives, namely, Kitzhaber’s healthcare reforms — nationally-recognized innovations that work toward systems alignment — will yield results. Stamm does say an earlier generation of business leaders were more directly involved in public policy. “When we had more corporate headquarters here we had more robust service clubs, with more robust influence in city hall and at the state level,” he says. Ed Blackburn, executive director of Central City Concern, a nonprofit housing and social service agency, agrees. “Thirty years ago, you had big institutions headquartered here like the Bank of Oregon, Willamette Industries and all of the utilities,” Blackburn says. It fostered a different relationship. “People were from here, they brought those institutions up and they raised their families here.”

Will a new generation of business leaders reshape the policy landscape — in their own image? And will a state known for community activism welcome their participation? (After all: One man’s leadership is another’s obstructionism, especially when it comes to funding public services or imposing regulations.) In the past couple of years, Silicon Valley startups have started to muscle in on government policy — think Airbnb, Uber — and take a more aggressive stance lobbying for social, economic and environmental changes: i.e., when CEOs from Facebook, LinkedIn and other tech firms lobbied against the Keystone Pipeline. Asked if that kind of pro-activism will happen in Oregon, Elemental Technologies CEO Sam Blackman points to a history of business leadership like 2013’s “Grand Bargain” that corralled PERS costs in exchange for tax increases, delivering more money to education. Even though the state supreme court rejected the PERS aspect of the bargain, “the Oregon Business Council took a leadership role to help make that compromise happen,” he says.

But for the most part, Blackman admits, the new entrepreneurial community has yet to make significant inroads on Oregon public policy. One reason is a simple lack of time. “Tech leaders have to be 110% focused on their business,” says Blackman. “My sense is that many of us in this space have a challenging time giving back to the community at the level we want to.”

Wyse, for one, is optimistic about that changing. “Technology leaders are activists and are used to very short cycles,” he says. “I see acceleration of decision making and testing new ideas creatively, especially in education policy.”

Fresh voices might alter what Blosser refers to as the tendency of all business associations: to drift to the lowest common denominator of business political opinion. “There are lots of things that a majority of businesspeople can agree on,” Blosser says. “However, the most controversial things — taxes, minimum wage and environmental issues — are not generally among them.” The Oregon Leadership Summit tends to focus on the common denominator, Blosser says, “while skirting the critical issues.”

Blackman notes that he and his tech cohorts relied on a previous era of policy innovations to help build their companies. “One reason Elemental has been successful is because we can recruit from all over the world,” he says. “People want to live in Portland because the urban growth boundary contains sprawl, because public transportation works, because of the biking culture.”

Leadership is typically defined as the ability to recognize a good idea and rally others behind it. But in 2016, are we mired at the starting gate? The need for collaboration, innovation and pragmatic solutions beckons, whether the instigators be facilitators, disruptors — or old-fashioned political visionaries.

Blackman points to the pitfalls of high paid tech workers surrounding themselves in a bubble instead of facing social and economic problems head-on. “You see it in the Bay Area,” he says, “labor unrest and gentrification leading to Google buses being attacked. That will happen here if companies don’t step up.” Addressing these issues will require taking chances and investing in the community, says Blackman. But it will also put the state in a strong position to win the next generation of innovative companies.

New faces

Doug Stamm says he hopes that variety in leaders — young people, people of color and individuals from marginalized populations — will bring change and vitality to local politics. But lack of access and the price of entry remains a stumbling block to this group. “When you have to spend $100,000 to be elected as a Portland School board member…seriously?” Stamm questions. Ed Blackburn agrees, recalling a time when “it cost $10,000 to run for the state legislature.” He now prices that race at “near a million.” Isselmann too called for more competition in government. “There’s nothing like competition to make you move with alacrity and that dynamic doesn’t exist in government. We don’t have a minority party or even strong internecine differences within the majority party.”