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An Entrepreneur In The Oval Office?

Mark Warner made millions in wireless, was elected governor of Virginia, and left office with his pro-business bona fides intact despite having raised taxes. Now he's testing his sales pitch on all of America.
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Mark Warner is not officially running for President--not yet. But make no mistake, the former Virginia governor is in the hunt for the 2008 Democratic nomination. Since leaving the statehouse in Richmond in January, the 51-year-old Warner has been making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire and his political action committee raised more than $9 million through July. Adding to that war chest is Warner's personal wealth--estimated at $200 million--earned by brokering deals between bidders for new federal cellular licenses. As governor, Warner focused on balancing Virginia's budget and cutting red tape. Though Warner raised taxes and vetoed a repeal of Virginia's estate tax, business groups tended to give him high marks for promoting business growth, particularly in depressed rural areas. Writer Jeremy Kahn sat down with Warner to ask him about the relationship between government and small businesses.

How as governor did you try to balance the interests of small business versus big business?

When we moved most commodity purchases such as paper and stationery to a state Internet purchasing portal, we definitely got some pushback from local businesses that lost out. Also, nothing drove me crazier than going into a small town and seeing state offices spread all over town with no notion of shared space, no notion of economies of scale. So we hired professional real estate management people to come and look at our real estate portfolio. Now that caused a lot of heartache. Nothing like the local landlord who happens to be the local big donor to the local state legislator being madder than heck. But, you know, you have to be a good steward.

You took some flack from the larger small-business groups for raising taxes. I was wondering how you defend that decision.

The only business group that actually stepped up against us was the National Federation of Independent Business, whereas the state and local chambers of commerce actually endorsed our tax reform plan. Matter of fact, we would not have been successful if we hadn't had the virtual unanimous support of the business community on tax reform. And what was at stake was we had a structural deficit. It wasn't an ideological issue here: The revenue lines and the expenditure lines weren't ever going to meet. We made preserving our triple A bond rating a rallying cry that, beyond businesses, Virginians kind of understood. I don't think people are as reflexively antitax as they are feeling that their tax dollars aren't well spent.

Is there a challenge out there that affects entrepreneurship that is not being talked about and that you think government should be talking about?

In our immigration debate right now we are losing sight of the notion of the very important value of legal immigration to this country--you know, more H1B visas and more student visas. To continue to attract the best and the brightest from around the world is critical to the creation of intellectual capital. If you look at how many foreign-born entrepreneurs there are in this country, I mean it is a huge number. That ought to be encouraged.

What about regulation? I know as governor you signed a law that gave small businesses a break on red tape. Could that be done at the federal level?

I would put myself in the deregulatory category with the caveat that there are areas where we still need government setting the standards. We're still waiting for electronic medical records standards to be set for the health care industry, which could save us 6 to 8 percent of our health care costs. And I think the chemical industry would actually welcome regulation on what the safety standards should be for chemical plants.

You haven't declared yet but you certainly seem to be exploring the idea of running for President. So what would an entrepreneurial presidency look like?

Well, I think it would be refreshing. It would be somebody who would be willing to look at new ideas regardless of who they came from. Take energy policy. We have looked at energy policy mainly from the standpoint of a threat. We have global warming. But rarely has there been someone who has connected the dots between national security and American job creation. If we did coal gasification and carbon sequestration right, not only could that create American jobs, what amazing leverage that would give us with China, which is on the path to become a bigger user of coal than we are. We might even save the planet along the way. So hopefully an entrepreneur would bring an approach that would look past the traditional silos of government.

Read Jeremy Kahn's extended interview with Mark Warner at www.inc.com/keyword/oct06.

Last updated: Oct 1, 2006




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