`Businesscrats' To The Rescue?

Like most CEOs, Elliott S. Close embraces many goals of the Republican Congress, such as balancing the budget, curbing government regulations, and enacting term limits. But the head of Island Harbor Development Corp., a residential real estate firm in Fort Mill, S.C., is turned off by Capitol Hill's partisan rancor and GOP leaders' reluctance to limit the influence of special interests. So Close has decided to do something about it: run for the U.S. Senate in 1996. As a Democrat.

Close, who's trying to oust 92-year-old Republican Strom Thurmond, admits he's a bit uncomfortable in the party of Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy. "People are not enamored with either party," says the 42-year-old businessman, who describes himself as a moderate conservative. "We need people without a hard-line political agenda who can get things done through business logic and common sense rather than bicker."

Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) couldn't have said it any better. As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he's scouring Corporate America for a few good execs willing to run for the Senate next year. Kerrey hopes a wave of business recruits such as Close will convince swing voters that his party is not captive to the three L's--liberals, lawyers, and labor. "Someone who has been successful knows the effort, focus, and discipline necessary to do the job," says the two-term Nebraskan, who owned a chain of family restaurants before entering politics.

HELP WANTED. Kerrey's ad: Centrists with real-world experience sought. Must be willing to tackle thorny political issues, such as reining in the costs of Social Security and other entitlement programs. "The Democrats have to redefine what they're all about," says Dr. Charles A. Sanders, who quit earlier this year as chairman of Glaxo Inc., the U.S. unit of British drug giant Glaxo Holdings PLC, to challenge Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). "I stand for growth, fiscal responsibility, and investment in education."

While Kerrey has so far recruited at least six businessmen, he faces a daunting task. With the GOP already holding a 54-46 edge and eight Democratic incumbents retiring next year, Democrats are given scant chance of retaking the Senate. But Kerrey hopes his enrollees can capture some of the "outsider" magic that helped House Republicans in 1994: More than half of the 73 GOP freshmen have business experience. He's also betting that CEO candidates can aid his party in conservative states, such as South Carolina, Idaho, and Oklahoma.

The new Businesscrats will have to get used to being loyal Democrats. Most have donated to the GOP as well as the Democratic Party. Sanders, for example, gave money to former President George Bush and ex-Senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). Walter C. Minnick, ex-CEO of TJ International Inc., a Boise (Idaho) building-materials company, worked in the Nixon White House. Moreover, all favor a balanced budget and vow to limit their service in Washington to two six-year terms. "We're a little younger and less traditional" than incumbent Democrats, says James Sears Bryant, founder of an Oklahoma sports-agent company that has merged with ProServ Inc. "I want to show that it's O.K. to have a job and a career and take some time off to help the country--and then go home," says Bryant.

Republicans are warily eyeing Kerrey's effort. Although many of the execs were wooed only after other prominent Democratic pols opted out, the opposition is praising the strategy. "It's a lot smarter than recruiting young lawyers," admits GOP consultant Eddie Mahe Jr.

The new approach is also winning approval from executives. "The more we bring businessmen in there, the more they could bring [the Democrats] to the center," says James Bradley, retired CEO of Springs Co., a South Carolina insurance and machine-tools business. Bradley has donated to both parties in the past, but he's backing Close in '96.

If just a handful of Democratic execs win, they could push a pro-growth Democratic agenda on Capitol Hill and seek bipartisan centrist coalitions to temper the excesses of the GOP revolution. For instance, Kerrey's corps would push regulatory and legal reforms to ease burdens on business without curtailing the rights of victims of corporate misdeeds. They also would seek a bipartisan overhaul of campaign-finance and lobbying rules. Heading their economic wish list: federal partnerships with the private sector to improve the nation's education, research, and job training.

Virginia Senate hopeful Mark Warner, who made a fortune running wireless-communications companies, wants government to work with business to make the U.S. more globally competitive. "I reject the argument of Democrats who say government is always the solution and Republicans who say government is always the problem," says Warner, who hopes to replace GOP incumbent John W. Warner (no relation).

While Warner, a former Democratic state chairman, was eager to run for Senate in '96, other execs have been more reticent. Minnick was first approached by a jogging partner who told him the Democrats wanted a Senate candidate who was "socially moderate, fiscally conservative, and had a career that had nothing to do with politics." Minnick repeatedly rebuffed the entreaties because "the Democratic Party is damn near nonexistent in Idaho, and nobody had ever heard of me." But Kerrey wouldn't take no for an answer. "He kept calling me, pestering me," recalls Minnick. With Democratic polls showing that GOP incumbent Larry E. Craig is vulnerable, "he convinced me that, if I could win, it was an opportunity to do a little good on some issues I care about."

IMITATION? The liberal Democratic Establishment, meanwhile, isn't just rolling over while these centrist newcomers grab the party's reins. In North Carolina, Sanders faces a tough primary fight with liberal ex-Mayor Harvey B. Gantt of Charlotte, the unsuccessful 1990 nominee against Helms. And the state party organization is deeply divided. Some traditional Democrats worry that the business candidates offer little more than a pale imitation of GOP conservatism--and are likely to be rejected by voters who will opt for the real thing. Says ex-Representative Tom Andrews of Maine, an unsuccessful 1994 Senate candidate: "If, in an attempt to make Democrats more `acceptable,' you try to out-right Republicans on some of the issues, then you've undermined yourself ultimately."

But such griping doesn't faze the new recruits. "If I lose," says Minnick, "the only costs will be a year of my time and whatever of my own money I put into the campaign." That's not too big a price or risk for executives familiar with the uncertainties of business. If they succeed, the return on their investment could be significant--for them and a resuscitated Democratic Party.

The Democrats' Business Slate

Democratic Party senatorial candidates with business backgrounds




Founder of JBI/Sports Ventures, a sports-management firm


James M. Inhofe


South Carolina


CEO of Island Harbor Development, a real estate company, and a former textile executive


Strom Thurmond




Former CEO of TJ International, a construction-supply business


Larry E. Craig




Former president and CEO, Central National Group Insurance. Now governor of Nebraska


Open seat


North Carolina


Ex-chairman of the U.S. unit of Glaxo and former vice-chairman of Squibb, both pharmaceutical companies


Jesse A. Helms




Founder of MRW Enterprises and Columbia Capital, which specializes in wireless communications


John W. Warner

(no relation)

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