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msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: 10 business leaders with politics in their blood

  • Whoever believes politics is big business must have seen this coming. The high levels of accountability from running a corporation and high expectations of seeking a seat in government have many parallels. Amid this confluence of business and political streams, Chief Executive magazine dubbed 2010 “a high-water mark for the CEO as candidate.”

    More than 40 business magnates – the presidents and founders of banks, restaurants and tech giants – are running for seats on Capitol Hill or for governor’s offices in 25 states. And looking ahead Donald Trump says he is “absolutely thinking about” a 2012 presidential bid.

    Political observers see a clear link between national economic frustrations and the flock of chief executives seeking office. As captains of industry flaunt their fiscal prowess, would-be voters are watching closely.

    "They are looking for financial acumen, and they associate that with CEOs," said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "They can talk with credibility when they talk about real financial issues."

    But former Oklahoma congressman Mickey Edwards argues that market success doesn’t automatically qualify a CEO to run the country or even the county.

    "In a corporate setting you are trying to make a profit … (but) government is about providing services," said Edwards, who served Oklahoma's 5th congressional district as a Republican from 1977 to 1993. "You have an obligation to make sure those programs work – and they're not going to make money.

    "It's a totally different kind of decision-making process."

    With this as a backdrop, here are 10 of America's high-profile business leaders who have added politics to their resume.

  • Meg Whitman

    Image: Meg Whitman
    GABRIEL BOUYS  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Meg Whitman
    The private fortunes amassed by business superstars often fuel their political campaigns, including torrents of TV ads.

    Whitman, eBay's ex-CEO and now the GOP nominee for governor in California, has invested $140 million of her own funds to try and beat Democrat Jerry Brown. The billionaire also has accepted more than $10 million in political donations from individuals, businesses and other groups, according to the Los Angeles Times.

    "Former CEOs like Meg Whitman all have (such) personal wealth, they wouldn't have to have a penny of donation," said MacManus, the politics professor. "The problem is: at what point do you reach diminishing returns? At some point, people say, 'You're buying an election.'

    "That's because voters think of the good they could be doing with that money. (Many voters) don't think politics is good. They ask: 'Why wouldn't you want to be philanthropic instead?'"

  • Carly Fiorina

    Image: Carly Fiorina
    Rich Pedroncelli  /  AP
    Carly Fiorina
    Fiorina gained fame – and controversy – as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard before and after the tech bubble burst. In 2005, the company's board of directors forced her to resign. That power play followed her decision to merge with competitor Compaq – a move that stoked fiery disagreement within the highest ranks of HP.

    In 2008, she became an advisor to presidential candidate John McCain. While in that role, she told MSNBC: "A major corporation is not the same as being the president or vice president of the United States. It is a fallacy to suggest that the country is like a company."

    Today, running as a Republican for one of California's U.S. Senate seats, Fiorina's campaign website describes her as "perhaps best known as the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett-Packard Company."

    A contradiction?

    "No," says, ex-congressman Edwards. That's just politics.

    "You get a group of campaign consultants around the table and they say, 'OK, what are the things in your background we should highlight because we think we can gain advantage from them?' And they say, 'No matter what you said (in 2008), this is your strongest thing.' You've got to have something that you offer as a reason you should be elected," Edwards added. "It can't just be because you want the job."

  • Mitt Romney

    Image: Mitt Romney
    JOEL PAGE  /  Reuters
    Mitt Romney
    Considered a possible front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the ex-Massachusetts governor – and 2008 White House candidate – owns a Harvard MBA degree.

    About 10 years before being enticed by politics, Romney co-founded Bain Capital, today one of the world's top private investment firms. According to the company's website, Bain Capital manages about $64 billion in assets.

    In 1994, Romney took on Ted Kennedy, who was defending his long-held U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. Edwards, the ex-Oklahoma congressman who later became a Harvard lecturer, vividly recalls the turning point in that race.

    "One of things Romney did in that campaign is he kept touting his business experience. And this was his qualification," Edwards said. "So what did Ted Kennedy do? He ran TV spots featuring people who had been laid off by Romney's company. They had been laid off because that was the financially profitable thing to do. And Kennedy just killed him with that.

    "Later, when I taught course on elections, I would point to the Romney campaign and say that you don't bring up an issue unless you know where it's going to lead," Edwards added. "When Romney runs, he still talks about his business experience."

  • Steve Forbes

    Image: Steve Forbes
    Joshua Roberts  /  Getty Images for Meet the Press
    Steve Forbes
    The editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine has business laced into his DNA. He is the son of Malcolm Forbes, the late publisher of the same business magazine.

    The younger Forbes ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 and in 2000. Despite his deep financial knowledge, Forbes failed to connect with voters on the very issue he embodied – the economy.

    "He had credibility because he had the magazine – a brand of fairness and respect," MacManus said. "But I think he was a bit wonkish for the time and probably a bit more sophisticated (than politicians today) in his discussions with average people.

    "Part of the difference today," she added, "is the CEOs are in the limelight – on a lot of (TV) talk programs, and they have PR people who coach them. There's so much difference, now, in preparing them for being a politician."

  • Michael Bloomberg

    Image: Michael Bloomberg
    KIMBERLY WHITE  /  Reuters
    Michael Bloomberg
    Here is living proof of the professor's theory. New York City's mayor has made more than 50 appearances on entertainment-oriented TV shows, including "The Late Show with David Letterman," "30 Rock," and "A Muppets Christmas."

    A billionaire and the founder of Bloomberg LP, a financial news and information services company, Bloomberg clearly is at home on camera. (Bloomberg Businessweek is a content partner with msnbc.com.)

    "Michael Bloomberg is as successful as he is largely for two reasons," said Cedric Muhammad, an economist and a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant. "First, he is seen as an inspirational entrepreneurial success story more than a representative of corporate power. And there is a big difference in one being an entrepreneur and one being a corporatist.

    "Secondly, he conveys to voters that the managerial, administrative, negotiating and decision-making skills he used to build a billion-dollar business are relevant to the problems faced by an inefficient city government with a multi-billion dollar budget."

  • Craig Miller

    Image: Craig Miller
    craigmillerforcongress.com
    Craig Miller
    The former CEO of the Ruth's Chris Steak House chain is the Republican candidate for Florida's 24th congressional district. Located along the Atlantic Coast, the district includes Brevard County and is home to the Kennedy Space Center.

    With its economic challenges, Florida is a case study for the business chief-as-candidate. In addition to Miller, the 2010 Florida governor's race pits Democrat Alex Sink, former president of Florida operations for Bank of America, against Republican Rick Scott, who grew Columbia/HCA into the largest health-care provider in the country.

    "Florida's economy went from top of the world to nothing in like two seconds," MacManus said. "We rank among the top five states in foreclosures and unemployment, and 2009 was the first year we had net migration out of the state.

    "Any candidate here who gets up and talks about anything other than finance and how to create jobs is not going to get anyone's attention."

  • Linda McMahon

    Image: Linda McMahon
    Rich Messina  /  AP
    Linda McMahon
    The Republican candidate for one of Connecticut’s seats in the U.S. Senate may possess the most colorful business background in modern politics: professional wrestling.

    With her husband, Vince McMahon, she helped build World Wrestling Entertainment – better known as the WWE – into a financial hulk with events broadcast in 30 languages to more than 140 countries.

    "I believe many are misreading Linda McMahon's success as a business story. It is not,” said political consultant Muhammad. "It is the story of a maverick politician who has credibility as an independent voice ... It is the defiant, free-wheeling energy and culture of professional wrestling that she is riding to electoral success, not the fact that she and her husband built a business empire out of that industry."

  • Rick Snyder

    Image: Rick Snyder
    Carlos Osorio  /  AP
    Rick Snyder
    The former president of Gateway Computers and current CEO of Ardesta, a venture capital firm in Ann Arbor, is the Republican candidate for governor in Michigan.

    Like Florida, Michigan has been financially sandblasted by the recession and by the collapse of the housing market.

    Voters in economically challenged states tend to give people with proven business chops a longer listen when considering their options, MacManus said.

    "They bring a better connection sometimes with the citizens – when economics is a front-burner issue – than does a regular politician," MacManus said. "When finances get tight, and people have to tighten their belts, they really lash out at government spending. The imagery (many financially struggling voters have with career politicians) is: 'You've wasted all this money and you haven't done things well or we wouldn’t be in this mess.'"

  • Jon Corzine

    Image: Jon Corzine
    JASON REED  /  Reuters
    Jon Corzine
    The former governor of New Jersey is one of the rare Democrats on the list of famous CEO-politicians.

    Before his term as governor, Corzine also served in the U.S. Senate. But at age 47, he was a Wall Street whiz, becoming the CEO of Goldman Sachs.

    "Being raised in New Jersey, I can tell you that Corzine's rise is partly a by-product of the triangulation strategy embodied President Clinton and political consultant Dick Morris that allowed the Democrats to redefine themselves as economically relevant, by embracing certain aspects of Republican Party policy in the 1990s," Muhammad said.

    But in a larger sense, why are CEO-candidates more likely to run as Republicans than Democrats?

    "If you take out party and you think in terms of philosophy, most of the people who become Republicans, they believe in the market system, in free enterprise. People who become liberals, they tend to ... believe the free market is unjust and that you need more 'distributionist' policies," Edwards said. "It tends to make (a liberal) less inclined to go into business or to champion profit."

  • Ross Perot

    Image: Ross Perot
    Alex Wong  /  Getty Images
    Ross Perot
    The founder of Electronic Data Systems, Perot may be remembered by many voters as the ultimate tycoon-turned-politician. Perot ran for president in 1992 and 1996 as a third-party candidate.

    "Better than any other business politician in American history, (Perot) sold voters on the idea that he had superior problem-solving skills than traditional politicians of either party," Muhammad said. "The governing style he portrayed merged the American progressivism of President Woodrow Wilson with the brand of American conservatism represented by President Reagan.

    "He fused his business success story and Texan confidence into a formula that gave the electorate the impression he could manage the nation's affairs more efficiently and face its fiscal difficulties more bravely than a Republican or Democrat."

    And then there were the pie charts.

    At seemingly each campaign appearance, Perot accompanied his everyman delivery – and supported his talking points – by wielding and referencing cardboard economic graphs and fiscal tables.

    "He combined his ability to break down (economic trends) to the average person with a visual – before visuals were really commonplace on television," MacManus said. "You know, what he did with those charts was fabulous."

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