How Have Business Leader Politicos Performed?

Did the significant class of CEOs and business owners who won high office in 2010 make the kind of difference they’d declared they would—cutting government deficits, lightening regulatory loads, spurring job creation and generally goosing economies the same way they grew their companies?

The answer depends on whom you ask and which of these political tyro you include. Some ex-CEOs who became governors made a material impact in just two years, while chiefs who won seats in Congress and the U.S. Senate tend to have been stymied.

Former Gateway CEO Rick Snyder, for instance, got elected governor of Michigan as a Republican two years ago and has been following through on his promises to make the state run more like a good business and to make it more attractive to job creators. Significantly, Snyder led the elimination of a $1.5-billion state budget deficit and of the onerous Michigan Business Tax, and he spearheaded a deal to build a new Michigan-to-Canada bridge against some fierce opposition.

Also, wisely, while pushing to cut the costs of carrying public-sector workers for the state, Snyder hasn’t tried to toy with their collective-bargaining rights as counterpart Ohio Governor John Kasich tried and failed to do. Nor has he spit in the wind by trying to nudge union-clad Michigan toward right-to-work status even though Indiana to the south just went that way.

Meanwhile, former Columbia HCA CEO Rick Scott has accomplished some of what he planned in Florida but hasn’t been as effective as Snyder since he was elected governor of the state as a Republican in 2010. He also has been stymied by a popularity deficit that apparently didn’t hurt him as a corporate chief but, for example, has influenced Mitt Romney to stay away from the governor while campaigning in Florida.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses said that 23 NFIB members were elected to the House and two to the Senate in 2010. But the crop of former business owners and corporate CEOs, including many conservatives, who made it to Capitol Hill then largely have been handcuffed by the fact that liberals inured to the ways of business, at best, control the Senate and White House.

“But I don’t think voters are blaming former-CEO candidates who won in 2010 for not changing American policy in two years with only one-half of control of one-third of government,” says political consultant Matt Mackowiak. “They just prevented Obama from doing more bad things; it was always the first step in a four-year process.”

Still, business chiefs aren’t used to sitting on their hands even in a legislative body. So, many members of the class of 2010 did as much as possible to fulfill the promise of their electoral platforms.

Reid Ribble, for instance, owned a family roof-construction company, sold it in 2009 and ran for Congress in his native eastern Wisconsin two years ago. In early 2011 he created what he called the Congressional Job Creators Caucus and opened it exclusively to members with experience as small-business owners.

“Nothing was focused on job creators,” said Ribble, who built the caucus into a body of about 30 members before this year’s elections.

But overall as a business owner, he said, “there’s been no more frustrating experience in my lifetime than working in the Congress. Along with other [ex-CEOs], we brought ideas on energy, taxation and regulation that we felt would advance a jobs agenda. We’d get them passed [in the Republican-controlled House] in a bipartisan fashion” and then they would die in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Now Ribble is running for re-election in the hopes of having even more colleagues eligible to join the caucus in 2013, and with more leeway to activate their business acumen in running the federal government.

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