Charlie Weaver Leverages Political Savvy to Advance Business Agenda
Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership

Charlie Weaver Leverages Political Savvy to Advance Business Agenda

The Minnesota Business Partnership’s executive director is tackling a workforce shortage, achievement gap and business competition threats.

Charlie Weaver’s political education began when he was in grade school and his father, Charles, was serving as a state legislator from Anoka.

Weaver ultimately followed his father’s path in two key respects—earning a law degree and serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives. His early immersion in public policy debates and exposure to political deal-making helps explain his longevity at the helm of the Minnesota Business Partnership.

The organization, whose mission is “ensuring that the state’s economy remains strong and globally competitive,” is composed of the CEOs and senior executives of Minnesota’s largest employers. The Partnership weighs in on public policies affecting education, health care, and jobs and the economy.

Weaver was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s chief of staff when he accepted the Partnership’s executive director job. Now 60, Weaver has entered his 15th year in this pivotal position in Minnesota’s public policy arena. In his IDS Center office in downtown Minneapolis, Weaver talked with TCB about the gamut of challenges facing Minnesota and the policy solutions that the Partnership supports. The following are excerpts of the interview, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Q  You were elected to the Minnesota House in 1988. What have been the biggest changes in Minnesota’s business climate when you contrast 2018 and 1988?
Social media has had a profound societal impact and as a result it’s affected all businesses. Globalization has also increased because of social media and the internet. The worldwide business community is smaller than it has ever been. Our companies compete globally. It used to be, when I was elected to the Legislature, our biggest competitors were Sioux Falls or Milwaukee. Now it’s Ireland or Australia.

Our politics are obviously different. It’s harder to reach across the aisle today than it was then. When I was elected, it was a much more collegial environment. The passions weren’t any weaker. But we used to be able to debate on the House floor, walk off the floor and go have a beer with the people we were arguing with. Now that’s seen as a weakness, it’s seen as a compromise. That has had a significant negative impact on politics in general and it has also affected the ability to work with the business community.

Q  The Minnesota Business Partnership represents the state’s largest employers. What are their greatest challenges?
No. 1 is talent. The one thing that keeps them up at night is: Will the talent be available in Minnesota to grow and expand those companies here? It’s a significant challenge. A lot of our workforce is retiring and the pool of workers is shallower. And that really gets to the challenge of the achievement gap and the problems posed by it. We also need immigrants in this state to successfully compete and provide talent for our companies to continue to prosper here.

Q  President Trump has taken a hard line on immigration. Many of your members have employees who are immigrants, ranging from highly educated people working in STEM positions to lower-skill employees in agriculture processing. As Minnesota faces a worker shortage, what policy priorities do you have on immigration?
We need open borders. We need immigrants in this state. It’s all across the spectrum. It’s the doctors who come in and work at the Mayo Clinic to the person who is working in a slaughterhouse for Hormel to the construction workers for Mortenson and Ryan. An immigration policy that promotes legal immigration and getting to a place where those who are here illegally can get to legal status is really important.

Q  President Trump went to Washington as a disrupter. Based on what he has done in his first year in office, what are actions of Trump that many of your members support? What are actions they find troubling?
Well, mission accomplished on the disrupter. [Laughs.] He did that. Two issues that we find troubling are immigration and trade. Open and free economies across borders to trade goods is vitally important, and it is particularly important to Minnesota companies like 3M, Graco, Polaris, Cargill, CHS and Land O’ Lakes. They are amazing companies that really depend on trade—not just with Canada and Mexico, but across the globe to be successful. Ecolab, Pentair and Medtronic are all companies that rely for a significant portion of their revenues on free trade. When President Trump talks about walking away from NAFTA or what he did in walking away from the Trans-Pacific trade agreement [TPP], that’s troubling. Ultimately it hurts Minnesotans and it results in fewer jobs.

The second part is immigration. Given the challenge of increasing our workforce from within Minnesota, we need immigrants. We need their talent, skill, brainpower and hard work. So anything that would limit that, whether it is building a wall or just arbitrarily kicking them out of the country, would be devastating to Minnesota’s economy.

In terms of what he’s done well, I think the tax bill will result in more jobs for Minnesota, and more investment, capital expenditures and growth for Minnesota companies. The overall goal, which is let’s keep the United States competitive, is a worthy one.

 Photography by Travis Anderson

Q  Education is a core topic for the Partnership. What policy innovations would ensure that Minnesota has the qualified workforce it needs?
Minnesota is the second worst in the country in terms of the economic disparity gap and we are worst in the country when it comes to the [racial] achievement gap, and they are linked, obviously. Frankly, you’ve got two systems here. Most of Minnesota’s public education system is very good. It’s one of the reasons that great companies grew up in Minnesota. General Mills, 3M and Target were able to recruit talent here because we’ve got a terrific public education system.

That is not the case in many cities that companies try to lure their executives to, so it is a big plus. The challenge is in our core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In our view, what we need to do to address the achievement gap is set high standards and stick to them. Make sure that parents understand them and measure the kids against those standards. So our testing in Minnesota is really important, and that we have one test statewide that compares apples to apples.

Q  Please elaborate on your perspective on testing and standards.
One of our concerns is that more of our students are being told, “You don’t have to take that test.” And that is a big problem because it is the only way that parents will know how their kids are doing. Test students and report those results to parents, teachers and schools, so parents know how their students are doing. Then give parents choices. Give them opportunities to move their students to schools where they can be successful, no matter what kind of school that is.

Test scores at schools should be shared publicly. By publishing the information, parents will know where the good schools are. Then give them the opportunity to send their kids to schools that work. In Florida, they give schools an A, B, C, D or F, they rank schools based on how kids are doing on testing. When Gov. Pawlenty was in office, he had a rating system that was published in the newspaper every year that told school by school how kids are doing. We’ve gotten away from that and we’ve frankly lowered the standards in Minnesota. We used to require that students could read and do math at a 10th-grade level before they could get a diploma. The Legislature got rid of that requirement, which was a big mistake. There is no requirement for the students to demonstrate any competency to get a high school diploma, which affects our employers.

Q  What other interventions might be needed to support some families? If you are in an affluent two-parent family living in a suburb and you have money to send your children to enrichment programs it’s quite different than if you are in a low-income, single-parent family in Minneapolis or St. Paul.
It’s enormously important. Recently I was at Banyan, a community school in the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis [where 60 percent of the households have an income below $35,000], that focuses on exactly what you’re talking about. It engages the parents, making sure the parents and Banyan travel together down the path with their student. They measure like crazy and use data like crazy to inform parents about how their students are doing. There is no doubt that the solution to the education challenge involves the family, the community and the school. And it frankly involves employers.

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When we can come together, then you have success. On the other hand, I want to emphasize that poverty is not an excuse for failure. We proved that in Minneapolis at Harvest Prep. Or at Hiawatha Academies. These are enormously successful charter schools, public schools that take anybody who comes through the door. The students are 90 percent on free and reduced lunch, and in some cases 100 percent children of color, and they succeed. While certainly there are lots of factors that go into success at school, we can do it. We certainly shouldn’t be worse than schools in Chicago or Washington, D.C., or Detroit or New Orleans, and right now we are, in terms of raw-data test scores.

Q  Your organization has advocated giving families in the lowest-performing schools a stronger role in driving improvement. What are some of those strategies?
No options are off the table from our perspective. What works in one district may be different from the other. One thing we’ll be talking about at the Legislature this session affects parents with students in schools that have been failing for two years. In other words, in these schools the students are not even close to reading or doing math at grade level. Those parents should have the ability to change that administration. They should be able to go: “This school is failing our children two years in a row, we demand a change.” Other states have looked at this approach and we think we should look at it here.

Q  Do you favor mayoral control of school districts in urban districts?
It depends on the district. You’d need the right mayor who is willing to dive into that. But it’s proven successful in Chicago and Washington, D.C. With the right players in place, that’s something we support. Right now, frankly, in Minneapolis, the school board is controlled by the unions. The same is true in St. Paul. So often our systems, especially our failing systems, spend all of their time worried about the adults and not enough time worried about students.

Q  Is your organization going to push for any major tax changes during the 2018 legislative session? Would they primarily consist of adjustments related to federal tax law changes?
Clearly, the Minnesota response to the federal tax bill will probably be the biggest topic at the 2018 Legislature for everybody. Our overarching principle is going to be “Do no harm.” As [legislators] think about responding to this federal tax bill, don’t make Minnesota an outlier from a tax perspective as we try to compete with other states and other countries.

Q  During the 2017 legislative session, the Partnership supported a “preemption” statute, which would have blocked Minneapolis and St. Paul from establishing their own employment laws, including on wages. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the “preemption” bill, and the city of Minneapolis prevailed in court and is implementing a minimum wage that is higher than the state’s minimum wage. Why is a patchwork of local workplace mandates such a big concern?
It’s just an enormous burden for both large and small businesses. For small companies, it can cost them their livelihoods. Just on the question of the patchwork, it makes no sense to have different labor laws in every city in Minnesota. Ultimately, it’s going to cost people their jobs because there is a significant cost to the companies.

Q  The push for a higher minimum wage and other work benefits is linked to a relatively high cost of living in Minnesota’s urban centers, including housing. What do you think needs to occur to lift more people into jobs that pay enough to support a family? How do we increase the number of solidly middle class jobs vs. people relying on multiple part-time, low-wage service jobs?
Give students a good education. The foundation for a good job is a good education. It allows people to earn a living that can support a family. It allows them to have a home, it allows them to take care of their family. We also focus on retraining. We better pay attention to retraining people who are still in the years in which they can actively work. We need to keep them in the workforce in some capacity.

Q  How does the Partnership view retraining mid-career people? Many people are living longer and they don’t have defined-benefit retirement plans and need to work longer. Who should pay for the retraining—a combination of the state, employers and individuals?
Yes, it’s a partnership. Certainly state involvement is going to be important. I would give the Dayton administration credit that they’ve improved their retraining program and made it smarter and more effective. Now many of our members are actively engaged with the community college and state college system.

Q  Minnesota has a low unemployment rate and a relatively low GDP growth rate (1.3 percent in 2016). Do you think Minnesota should have stronger economic growth? What factors are limiting the expansion in Minnesota’s economy?
We’re just now getting to the tipping point where talent will limit expansion. When I think about the challenges going forward, certainly the regulatory and tax environment is something you can’t ignore. In this hyper-competitive global economy, we can’t ignore the consequences of a high tax rate and being in the top five in a variety of taxes nationally. And the regulatory environment here has an effect on our ability to grow and retain companies. Those are factors, plus the demographic shift.

Until the past year, we had a net loss of Minnesotans who were leaving the state and going to work in other states.  We need to figure out how to attract and retain millennials and bring young people back here. 3M was cited as one of the best companies in the country for attracting millennials. General Mills, Best Buy and Target are really good at that, as are some other companies. So I think we are on the path toward doing a better job. The quality of life here—music, good food, good transit—are factors that matter to millennials. They don’t want a car. That’s one of the reasons we supported the transportation bill last year. A healthy, robust transportation system is important to attracting talent, and we’re making progress there.

Q  Last session, a Republican-controlled Legislature and a DFL governor ultimately agreed to increase transportation spending by allocating some existing sales tax revenues to transportation. They also reached a deal on a bonding bill to fund roads and bridges. What kind of grade would you give the condition of our road and bridge system?
I’d give it a B. Commissioner Charlie Zelle has done a very good job of bringing more efficiencies and more strategic thinking to MnDOT. The success last session resulted from the fact that we went to Democrats and Republicans arm-in-arm with the trades, the unions. We went into their offices together and said, “This is important to the labor community and the business community.” It’s one of those issues where we can unite. That’s why you saw a bipartisan solution at the end that included both roads and transit. It was hard work, but there are many opportunities for business to work with labor on transportation and other issues.

Q  On the health care front, President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have not replaced ObamaCare. What are your priorities on health care for the 2018 Minnesota legislative session?
Our goal is a patient-centered, consumer-based model. No. 1, you should reward the medical community for prevention as much as for procedures. Minnesota actually leads the country in that. The model has got to change, otherwise we aren’t going to get at the cost factor. And the challenge with all this health care reform is that it frequently ignores costs. Minnesota has been one of the better states in terms of trying to attack that.

Regarding the Medicaid aspect of federal reform, we cannot leave those who are disadvantaged behind. The result cannot be fewer people with insurance or penalizing the disabled. Those are contributing parts of our society, and we need them. As Hubert Humphrey said, we’ve got to take care of people at the dawn of their lives and the end of their lives. We’ve been innovative and smart here in Minnesota and we just need to continue to be leaders.

Q  At the Minnesota Business Partnership’s annual meeting in September, beyond the serious speakers, you had a theme of “Fake News.” You showcased humorous videos featuring notables such as Richard Davis, Doug Baker and former Gov. Pawlenty. Why do you think humor is important at that event?
It’s important to take the issues seriously, but not ourselves too seriously. That’s been a brand of the Partnership. We talk a lot about serious issues, but it’s really important that we all retain a sense of humor. These issues are important, but family and faith and other things are a lot more important. It’s so easy sometimes—whether you are a politician like I used to be or a business leader—to take yourself so seriously. It’s such a mistake. Life is short. Do your best.

Q  You referred to yourself in the past tense as the “politician that I used to be.” Do you have any interest in running for statewide office?
Like a lot of people, I would love to be governor. I just am not willing to make the sacrifice to get there. I love public policy issues. But I really love working with the men and women who lead these great companies in the state. I am blessed with the best job in the state because I get to scratch my political itch through working with legislators and the governor. On the other hand, I get to be around some of the greatest CEOs in the world.

Q  Do you still view yourself as a Republican?
I’m conservative. Yeah. But I am a Republican like my dad was a Republican. I am a pragmatic Republican. I’m a Main Street Republican. I’m an Anoka Republican.

Q  There are not many people who can be funny when giving a speech or presentation. When did you discover that you could make people laugh? How does it affect the way you do your job, working with some of the most powerful people in the state?
My father was really good at that. My father, Charles, was a guy who was a Republican back in the ’70s, but a close friend of DFLer [former governor] Wendy Anderson. He worked very well across the aisle and passed some remarkable legislation. He had a great sense of humor and used it very effectively. I saw how that really helped him when he would testify or take votes.

He was also chair of the Met Council and when he went out to one of the suburbs or cities, it was not a friendly environment. So he would disarm people with a wry sense of humor. I learned from the best. I don’t know if I’m good at it or not. The most effective humor is to make fun of yourself and for me that means I have a lot of material.

Liz Fedor is the Trending editor of Twin Cities Business.

Note: This feature appears in the April 2018 edition of Twin Cities Business.