Business interests must make radical changes to regain political muscle

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Published in Crain’s

In the wake of the Amazon debacle, it’s clearer than ever that the business community in New York doesn’t carry all that much political weight. When you look at the rapid ascent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the destruction of the Independent Democratic Conference in the state Senate, the overwhelmingly progressive narrative used by virtually every candidate in the recent public advocate’s race, a City Council that doesn’t see pro-business institutions as particularly relevant and a mayor who now isn’t left wing enough to be accepted by many of his own people, the impact of years of inaction and misplaced political savvy has taken a toll. There is no balance of power at City Hall or in Albany. But the good thing about politics is that fortunes can shift quickly. By revamping its approach, the business community can still work its way back to political relevance and influence. But things really do have to change. Here’s how:

Know what you don’t know. Just because someone knows how to run a company, sell a product or invest capital doesn’t mean he or she knows politics. Most of the discussions that happen over breakfast at the Regency are the diametric opposite of how New York City politics works in real life. It’s natural to defer to people with power and money, but when those leaders are so divorced from political reality that they can’t make good decisions, the people around them—staff, consultants, local business groups and coalitions— need to say so, even if it costs them their jobs. Recognize how local elections are won. The days of being able to terrify politicians by threatening to write a check are ending. TV advertising matters less and less. (How many AOC voters do you think are watching anything other than Netflix and Amazon?) Grass roots and digital matter more and more. That requires campaigns to be far more proactive, aggressive and granular. Groups on the left such as Make the Road and the Democratic Socialists of America figured this out long ago. The entire campaign mentality of the business community needs to adapt to how elections today actually are run and won. Create a proactive vision. If the only message the business community sends is “we’re rich and this particular issue is good-bad for us,” no one cares. Absent a proactive vision that offers a worldview that benefits more than just the 1%, no one will ever ascribe any motives to the business community other than greed and self-interest. Those are losing arguments.

At this point, it should be abundantly clear that voters on both sides of the aisle are extremely frustrated, scared and angry. The business community needs a message that captures and addresses how people really feel. Expand the playing field. Turnout in local primaries is tiny. You can win a City Council seat with 12,000 votes. You can win a state legislative seat with only slightly more. As long as districts are gerrymandered and turnout remains low, all of the incentives for elected officials skew wildly to the left. The business community needs to start turning out voters, and it needs to support and invest in ideas and technologies that can materially increase turnout. Otherwise, the math isn’t ever going to add up. Do more with the levers you control. Not every issue needs to center on legislation. We saw from Amazon that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is clearly interested in creating jobs. The business community could accomplish a great deal just by working with his administration to make it easier for businesses to launch and operate in New York. From my vantage point as an investor in tech startups, a lot could be done just by bringing state and city agencies into the modern business world. It’s a worthwhile use of the community’s resources and whatever influence it has left. Right now, leaders in just about every sector are pretty bearish on making New York a welcoming business climate. That’s the result of failing to adapt as local politics shifted. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Radical change will mean upsetting the current power dynamic within the business community. It will mean bringing in people with different attitudes, ideas and approaches. But it also means a chance at survival, and business leaders have to take it.