Whether they raise cash in battleground states or bring a manager's touch to a campaign, these company builders have breached the inner circle of U.S. politics.
George Stephanopoulos and James Carville may have become famous for helping an obscure Arkansas governor win the White House, but it was Eli J. Segal, a Boston-based entrepreneur who owned several puzzle and game companies, to whom Bill Clinton entrusted his campaign's management, in 1992. And, true to form, Segal ran the Clinton machine much like a start-up: solving problems quickly, raising money aggressively, and marketing the hell out of the Man From Hope. After the election, Clinton tapped Segal to launch AmeriCorps, a public-private partnership that organized volunteer initiatives--and that, like many of Clinton's programs, covered a lot of ground on a lean budget.
This year, several campaigns are relying on entrepreneurs to play key roles, from campaign manager to battleground-state fundraiser. What do the entrepreneurs bring to these campaigns, and what do they get out of the brush with big-time politics? Here's a look at eight business owners in the arena.
Mitt Romney's New Hampshire finance committee co-chair
President, State Street Discount
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
In the political realm, New Hampshire is known for two things: its status as the first state in the nation to hold presidential primaries and its voters' aversion to taxes of all kinds, a legacy of the state's "Live free or die" ethos. As a prominent leader of the state's well-established antitax coalition, then, Gary Levy is a player in local politics--and a go-to guy for Republican presidential candidates. His political views stem from the fact that he runs an appliance and electronics retail operation his parents opened, in 1955, after they moved north from Massachusetts in part to get away from--you guessed it--high taxes.
When then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen proposed a statewide sales tax, in 2001, Levy organized business owners to demonstrate at the statehouse, bought print ads, and hired an economist to back up his claims that the sales tax would harm many of the state's small businesses. His efforts paid off: The proposal died, and Shaheen was defeated in her U.S. Senate race the following year. (She is running again in 2008.) Today, Levy, whose business employs 50 people, says the sales-tax fight was an epiphany. "If you work and live in a community, you have an obligation to be involved in the public realm, to be involved and give back, or not complain when bad things happen that affect your business," he says.
As the co-chair of Mitt Romney's state finance committee, Levy has helped the former Massachusetts governor raise $255,200 from Granite State donors as of the third quarter of 2007, the most of any candidate in either party and more than double the runner-up Republican, John McCain. Engaging politically active Republicans in New Hampshire is critical for Romney. Though he trails in the national polls, if Romney can win in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he is ahead, the victories would move him to the front of the pack. And he has enough money to remain in the mix even if he loses the subsequent primaries to Rudy Giuliani, who leads in national polls.
Bill Richardson's campaign manager
Co-founder and co-owner, Southwestern Title & Escrow
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Known around Sante Fe as "New Mexico's Karl Rove," Dave Contarino is the entrepreneur with the most powerful role in any of the presidential campaigns. As campaign manager for Governor Bill Richardson, Contarino makes all the big decisions--where to raise money, where to spend it, where to send the candidate, and what the governor will say when he gets there. The two men have become inseparable, and Richardson has called his campaign manager "my most senior and most trusted aide."
Contarino, who founded an Albuquerque title and escrow business with his wife, Linda, in 1994, says he brings the pragmatic, competitive spirit he nurtured in business to the campaign. "When you're a small-business person, you become facile with running budgets and that kind of thing," he says. "We couldn't afford a bookkeeper when we started, but I probably know more about budgets than some political people."
Still, Contarino and his campaign have faced questions about their effectiveness. Though Richardson is a gifted campaigner and a popular governor, he has struggled to gain any kind of electoral toehold and trails the Clinton-Obama-Edwards triumvirate by a wide margin. Some pundits have speculated that Richardson is actually running for vice president, a notion he has strongly rejected. Whether he gets even that far depends on Contarino's ability to get the campaign on track.
Barack Obama's liaison to the gay community
In 2005, Stampp Corbin sold RetroBox, a company that helps corporations recycle and dispose of outdated computer equipment. Though he had been politically active enough to serve as an outside adviser to the Small Business Administration under President Bill Clinton, he had no particular interest in turning to politics. But that all changed when the husband of a former schoolmate--he attended the same Chicago high school as Michelle Obama--decided to run for President. "When the opportunity came, given my relationship to the Obamas, I wanted to get involved," says Corbin, who signed on as the senator's liaison to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, or GLBT, community.
Today Corbin oversees all aspects of the campaign's GLBT efforts, from outreach and messaging to policy positions. That job got unexpectedly complicated last fall when Obama invited Donnie McClurkin, a pastor who had repeatedly made anti-gay remarks, to sing at a campaign concert. In political circles, this was seen as a gaffe, as all the Democratic candidates have been courting the GLBT community.
Rather than try to downplay the controversy, Corbin attempted to put a positive spin on it by suggesting that his candidate was uniquely positioned to bring together gays and African Americans, two of the Democrats' core constituencies that have sometimes been at odds. "A great many African Americans share Pastor McClurkin's beliefs," Corbin said in a joint statement that he issued and that was signed by African American religious leaders and pro-Obama gay rights activists. "It is clear that Barack Obama is the only candidate who has made bringing these two often disparate groups together a goal."
In an interview with The Advocate, a gay newsmagazine, Obama himself reiterated this message: "Part of what I have done in my campaign and in my career is be willing to go to churches and talk to ministers and tell them exactly what I think. And go straight at some of these issues of homophobia that exist in the church in a way that no other candidate has done. I believe that's important." Will voters buy this logic? That remains to be seen.
Barack Obama's most prominent New Hampshire fundraiser
President and CEO, Stonyfield Farm
Londonderry, New Hampshire
Gary Hirshberg's endorsement wasn't supposed to be up for grabs. A self-described social entrepreneur and political junkie, Hirshberg is also a Democratic fundraising giant in the earliest primary state, so his support is coveted. When former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack entered the race for President, in November 2006, Hirshberg agreed to back him. But when the news broke last February that Vilsack was dropping out, Hirshberg received phone calls within a day from every remaining candidate--except Hillary Clinton, whose electability he had already doubted publicly.
Hirshberg, who held a fundraiser for Obama in his home, says he chose the Illinois senator over his rivals because he has an "ability to give an ear to all sides." News of the endorsement made The Boston Globe and U.S. News & World Report's politics blog, which declared that Obama had won "the yogurt primary."
So far, Hirshberg has advised Obama to tout his support for sustainability as a national security issue. By depending more on local natural resources, Hirshberg argues, the U.S. will be less dependent on foreign oil. Having built his organic dairy into a leading business in the state, Hirshberg is well positioned to use his reputation and financial resources to marshal donations for Obama. More important, Hirshberg is, in campaign parlance, a verifier--someone whose support may well persuade others to pull the lever for his candidate, as well as someone who can act as a powerful proxy when the candidate isn't around. Of course, there's a limit to how much he can sway New Hampshire voters. It is worth remembering that Hirshberg backed Howard Dean in 2004.
Rudy Giuliani's Florida supporter
President and chair, Accredited Surety and Casualty
Winter Park, Florida
No state has been more crucial to presidential candidates in recent cycles than Florida, in both the primaries and the general election. And winning there is even more important to a moderate Republican like Rudy Giuliani, who hopes to draw on the state's large number of New York transplants to put him over the top--and thus give him padding against any primary losses he faces in the more conservative states.
All that means a lot is riding on Deborah Jallad's efforts to turn out cash and voters in the Sunshine State for the former New York City mayor. As co-chair of Florida Business Leaders for Rudy, Jallad has to line up business owners and executives to support the Giuliani campaign, primarily through copious donations. Her husband, Johnny, is also active in the campaign, serving as Giuliani's finance chair for central Florida. Last fall, the couple brought the candidate to Orlando for a breakfast meeting with women business owners and brought in $100,000 through a fundraiser at their home.
Jallad was barely a teenager when she started answering phones at her father's company, Accredited Surety and Casualty, which she took over, in 1993. At the time, Accredited insured bail bonds in eight states and had a staff of 11. Since then, the business has expanded into notary bonds and other noncontract commercial surety and is licensed in all 50 states. Revenue is five times what it was 15 years ago, and the head count stands at 50. It is the only woman-run business of its type in the country.
Given her line of work--and Giuliani's law-and-order reputation--Jallad says backing the former mayor was a no-brainer. She also likes the fact that he has executive experience and has overseen a budget. "He's proven himself as a good financial manager in the way he ran New York City," Jallad says.
John Edwards's deputy campaign manager
Former chairman and CEO, Govolution
These days, you'd never guess that Jonathan Prince was ever anything other than a political operative. Intensely on-message, he's a critical component of the John Edwards machine, running much of the campaign's day-to-day operation. But seven years ago, Prince left a job at the White House to co-found a start-up called Govolution. The business, which handles financial transactions online for federal, state, and local government agencies, was acquired by a larger payment processor in 2005.
Even while running Govolution, Prince remained active in politics. In 2002, he signed on with Edwards. The following year, he became the candidate's deputy campaign manager for strategy and policy; in that capacity, he helped refine Edwards's positions on a variety of issues. This time around, Prince is the campaign's second in command, part of an inner circle that includes Elizabeth Edwards and Joe Trippi, the strategist who ran Howard Dean's campaign in 2004. Insiders say Prince is a master at spin; he remains in constant contact with reporters and bloggers, pushing back on negative stories published about Edwards. According to a reporter on the campaign trail, Prince is also adept at dishing on the other candidates.
Hillary Clinton's New York City fundraiser
Founder and CEO, Red Apple Group
New York City
Though he runs one of the largest privately held companies in the country, with 7,800 employees and more than $3.8 billion in revenue, John Catsimatidis is perhaps best known as New York's grocer. He opened his first supermarket in 1969 and expanded the business rapidly, through organic growth and acquisition. Today, his company, Red Apple Group, maintains interests in businesses as varied as real estate and aircraft leasing, but it is still best known for operating Gristede's, one of the largest grocery chains in New York City.
One of Hillary Clinton's strengths as a candidate has always been fundraising, and Catsimatidis played a key role in helping her open the money spigot in New York. Soon after she announced her presidential bid, Catsimatidis--who calls Hillary and Bill Clinton "two of the smartest people I've ever met"--put together an exclusive reception at his Fifth Avenue home. The haul that evening: $175,000.
In addition to fundraising for Clinton, Catsimatidis may run for mayor of New York City in 2009, and like City Hall's current boss, Mike Bloomberg, he refuses to hew to party labels. If he runs, it will be as a Republican, he says. And if Clinton fails to win her party's nomination? Perhaps with an eye down the road, Catsimatidis has also donated money to Rudy Giuliani.
Joe Biden's director of online communications
Co-founder, Real Fans Sports Network
After selling his company, Real Fans Sports Network, to AOL, in 1997, Carbone tried his hand at a few other Web-related ventures. Then, in 2003, he got into politics, joining the Draft Wesley Clark campaign. He went on to run the former general's Internet operation. The work was nonstop, and, as in the heady dot-com days, so was the innovation. "We were trying to bring new things into play, but we had to move fast," Carbone says. "We didn't have time for product launches and review periods."
Clark, of course, didn't make it out of the primaries. But Carbone's work won plaudits. Soon after the 2004 election, Biden, the Delaware senator, snatched him up. Today, working out of campaign headquarters, Carbone oversees voter outreach online, coordinates internal technological development, and helps hire vendors. Even so, a cool website hasn't been able to propel Biden to a higher ranking in the polls, in part because, this time around, all the campaigns are aggressive online. "Every candidate has a department with multiple people," Carbone says. "No one's surprising anyone."