Fame, Fortune and an Itch to Run for Office

455


Politics may have once struck the ultrarich as a ponderous, ladder-climbing pursuit for stiffly programmed former class presidents, but President Trump has demonstrated that it can at least be tried on one’s own terms. If nothing else, the newest occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is proof positive that money, fame and an outsider’s profile can matter more than experience, basic legislative expertise and the other traditional qualifications thought to represent barriers to entry.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘My God, if Donald Trump can get elected, anybody can get elected,’ ” said Steve Westly, a former eBay executive who ran for governor of California in 2006.

Spurred by Mr. Trump’s election — or at least encouraged by it — a contingent of rich, fairly famous and largely Democratic neophytes has begun to line up for some of the most important elections of 2017 and 2018, including for governorships in Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Nevada and New Mexico, and a mayoral race in New Orleans.

Similar messages may also be heard in the coming months in New Jersey, where the comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” star Joe Piscopo is weighing a run for governor this year, and in Maine, where Adam Lee, who runs the largest car dealership in the state and is a familiar face thanks to television advertising, is mulling a 2018 bid for governor.

Mr. Trump did not invent the practice of running for office as a rich, or celebrated, amateur. Both parties have fielded such aspirants over the years. Republicans had notable success with figures like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Mr. Trump, many strategists believe, has opened a wider path for wealthy candidates who resemble localized versions of, well, Mr. Trump: unapologetic self-promoters who relish publicity and have no inhibitions about flaunting their wealth.

And adapting the “any press is good press” Trump axiom, some of them talk freely about their aspirations, answering personal emails or speaking at length on their cellphones while eschewing the protective shield of public relations consultants that surrounds conventional politicians and is often quickly erected around first-time candidates.

“I gave away $6.8 million last year, and my taxes are paid current,” said Mr. Cloobeck, 55, a major Democratic Party donor, taking a swipe at Mr. Trump’s reportedly parsimonious philanthropy and his mysterious tax returns. “That’s two things that are different between Trump and myself.”

Photo

Stephen J. Cloobeck, the former chief executive of Diamond Resorts, who appeared on “Undercover Boss,” said he hadn’t decided whether to run to be Nevada’s governor in 2018.

Credit
Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Taking a page from President Trump’s playbook, the rich, famous and newly political boast of their enormous private sector success and vast fortunes while venting fury at “career politicians.” Mr. Cloobeck attacked his state’s political establishment with a broad, Trump-like brush: “Right now in Nevada, the entire state’s in disarray.”

They may only selectively embrace the comparison, but Mr. Trump’s precedent-shattering win has served as an accelerant for the dreams of wealthy political novices across the country, a group now asking themselves the same question posed to the mirror by so many ambitious officeholders contemplating reaching for another rung up: Why not me?

Armed with an immense fortune and an easy, boastful manner, Mr. Cloobeck, whose former company promotes resort timeshares with the credo “Vacations for Life,” said he was still deciding whether to run to be Nevada’s governor in 2018. He is already testing out his anti-establishment message, slinging criticism like Mr. Trump at both parties.

Mr. Torres offers a similar indictment of New Orleans, which is suffering through a spike in murders.

“If we get the same-old, same-old politicians to take a same-old, same-old approach, I just don’t see how that benefits the people of New Orleans,” he said.

The 41-year-old star of a new CNBC real estate show, “The Deed,” Mr. Torres has made a name for himself locally by creating a crime app and a private security force for the French Quarter. Beginning an interview with a boast about his standing in the polls, he said he would spend $4 million of his own money if he runs for mayor this year and offered a Trump-like vow: “I’m not going to do things that are politically correct. I’m going to do things that are right.”

Photo

Sidney Torres IV on CNBC’s “The Deed.” He predicted that few New Orleans voters would care about his private life.

Credit
Tyler Kaufman/CNBC

Much the way Mr. Trump dismissed questions about his checkered private life, Mr. Torres, who sports a man bun, predicted few voters would care about his having had a child out of wedlock with a model or recoil at an Instagram account that is heavier on images of his Gulfstream jet than of gumbo. In fact, Mr. Torres readily volunteers that he was asked to relocate his private jet when Mr. Trump used a local hangar for a rally last year.

“I believe everybody should have the opportunity to have nice things,” he said.

Jeff Apodaca, a former Univision executive who is likely to run for governor of New Mexico, is a comparatively buttoned-up figure. Even though his father was governor in the 1970s, Mr. Apodaca said the state’s political class had failed the state’s economy. Asked if he meant Democrats as well as Republicans, Mr. Apodaca repeated the broad-brush criticism.

“They’re more worried about their political careers than the people of New Mexico,” he said.

Mr. Apodaca said he would have explored a campaign regardless of the outcome in the presidential race. But he said he believed the Democratic Party establishment had been more open to him as a candidate because of Mr. Trump’s insurgent campaign.

“I think the establishment, the people who are now encouraging me, they might have come on board a little more since Trump has won,” Mr. Apodaca said. “We have to do something different in New Mexico.”

Mr. Morgan, whose Morgan & Morgan advertising is ubiquitous across Florida, said Mr. Trump had exposed the power of a populist message and the comparative ineffectiveness of traditional political methods, like television advertising.

A champion of drug decriminalization with a penchant for unfiltered Twitter posts and artful profanity, Mr. Morgan, 60, said he was considering a run for governor in 2018 on a virtually single-issue platform of raising the minimum wage to $14 or $15 per hour, from $8.10. He said he would pledge to serve one term only and then go home.

Unburdened by the typical politician’s sense of restraint, Mr. Morgan, having just returned from a winter sojourn on the Caribbean playground for the rich, St. Barts, offered a rapid-fire preview of his campaign in a series of emails. He said Mr. Trump had done “enlightening” things in his race, described his own public profile as “huge” and repeated the pledge to serve just one term.

“Most politicians are so insincere and phony you can’t watch it,” Mr. Morgan wrote. “And most never made a payroll and don’t really understand.”

Similar messages may also be heard in the coming months in Maine, where Mr. Lee, who runs the largest car dealership in the state and is also a familiar face thanks to television advertising, is mulling a bid for governor.

Other political newcomers with identities outside the political realm are also considering governor’s races, including J. B. Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, in Illinois, and Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn University football coach, in Alabama.

It is difficult to forecast how relatively untested outsiders will fare in difficult elections, and few wealthy newcomers turn out to be political prodigies like Mr. Trump. But national Democrats have largely welcomed the emergence of deep-pocketed, well-branded candidates: Party strategists see Mr. Pritzker and Mr. Apodaca as among the most promising contenders in their states, and view Mr. Morgan and Mr. Cloobeck as formidable, albeit more unpredictable, contenders for their party’s nomination.

Mr. Morgan, Mr. Cloobeck and Mr. Apodaca all said they would expect to spend substantial sums of their own money on any campaign, and also to raise a good deal more than that through their extensive personal and business connections.

Yet the presence of Mr. Trump in the White House is not just leading some unlikely figures to envision themselves in governor’s mansions or city halls — it is also offering food for thought to a group of business executives and celebrities who may harbor their own White House fantasies.

This group includes the Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, who has sought to raise his profile and has a cadre of people around him with experience in politics and journalism. Aides to Mr. Schultz are trying to schedule a meeting between him and Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who pioneered an earlier, more costly and tightly controlled model for moguls to jump into politics.

Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner and gleeful Trump troll, gladly engaged on his own political ambitions via email, even praising Mr. Trump for recognizing that the nature of communications in campaigns had changed. (Though when asked directly if he was thinking of running for president, Mr. Cuban sounded more like a politician: “Nice try,” he wrote, adding a smiley face.)

Photo

Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor and Dallas Mavericks owner, at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., this month. He wouldn’t say whether he was thinking of running for president.

Credit
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Mr. Trump did not invent the practice of running for office as a rich amateur. Both parties have fielded wealthy newcomers over the years. Republicans of late have had somewhat more success electing business executives to high office, including Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and Senator David Perdue of Georgia.

But Mr. Trump may have established a precedent for wealthy candidates with quirky, even controversial résumés.

Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who advised Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 during his presidential campaign, said Mr. Trump had “lowered the threshold for running for president” and opened a way for other self-funded candidates up and down the ballot.

“A lot of people, particularly wealthy individuals, are going to think: If he did it, why can’t I?” Mr. Devine said, citing potential celebrity candidates in 2020 like George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey.

Yet Ace Smith, a veteran California Democratic strategist who has witnessed many a wealthy, first-time candidate lose in his state, cautions that those contemplating a run should keep in mind that Mr. Trump was unique.

“He was a seasoned veteran of the back-and-forth of politics, he knew how to get covered on TV, and he knew how social media now flows into traditional media,” Mr. Smith said.

Correction: March 28, 2017

An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the current relationship of Stephen J. Cloobeck to the company he founded, Diamond Resorts. He is its former chief executive, not its current one.

Continue reading the main story



Source link