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Why Do So Few Businesspeople Win Top Political Office In MN?

Why Do So Few Businesspeople Win Top Political Office In MN?

Few make it from the C-suite to the seat of government.

Fargo businessman Doug Burgum, who built a successful software company that he sold to Microsoft, is the heavy favorite to be elected North Dakota’s next governor in November. Expect no such transitions soon in Minnesota, say two veteran political scientists, Larry Jacobs at the University of Minnesota and Steven Schier at Carleton College.

Burgum defeated the attorney general in the GOP gubernatorial primary. That’s rare for a businessperson. In the U.S., the Washington Post found, most governors have prior public service experience. A 2016 study by the Congressional Research Service shows that the U.S. Senate is dominated by people who’ve served in elected office or worked as attorneys.

Name recognition is the first hurdle any candidate must clear when running for statewide office, Jacobs says. “There is nothing inherent about being a business leader that positions you to jump from the board room to the political board game.” He emphasizes that it’s also challenging for a pragmatic, results-oriented businessperson to win a party endorsement because “both parties have ideological tests.”

Twin Cities Business reviewed Minnesota election results over the past 40 years for governor and U.S. senator. In that time period, Republican Rudy Boschwitz was the only businessman to win election. While Boschwitz won in 1978 and 1984, only three other businessmen were GOP or DFL general election candidates. DFLer Bob Short lost a U.S. Senate bid in 1978, while Republican Wheelock Whitney ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1982.

Paul Wellstone unseated Boschwitz in 1990, and defeated him in 1996 in a comeback bid. It took until 2014 before another businessman appeared on the ballot, when Republican Mike McFadden failed to knock off incumbent U.S. Sen. Al Franken. McFadden was co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market and took a leave from the financial management company to run for public office. “The corporation for which you work will be hung around your neck for any transgressions,” Schier notes, and McFadden was criticized for Lazard-facilitated transactions that triggered job cuts.

McFadden was an unknown to many Minnesota voters, but Schier says Boschwitz didn’t have that problem. The founder of Plywood Minnesota, Schier notes, Boschwitz had “developed name ID by being in [its] commercials.” Money is another impediment. “It is a financial sacrifice for the top tier of the business community to run,” Schier says, because they would have to forego considerable private sector income. Also, Schier notes, financial woes have hampered the Republican Party’s ability to provide campaign financing or in-kind assistance.
— Liz Fedor