What is it with plutocrats and voting? Or to put it more precisely: What is it with plutocrats and not voting?
Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who thinks he might want to run for president, is the latest business big shot to enter high-level politics without having taken the time to exercise the fundamental franchise of a participant in a democracy – casting a ballot.
The tally comes to us from columnist Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times, who expertly mined local election records to determine that Schultz voted in just 11 of 38 elections dating back to 2005.
The record is damning. Although Schultz has voted in every presidential election and the November midterms, Westneat reports, he skipped the 2014 midterms, when Republicans gained control of the Senate, and 2006, the year of a Democratic congressional wave.
He skipped most Seattle city elections for mayor and city council, including in 2005, “right when he was petitioning City Hall for money to rebuild a basketball arena for the Sonics, which he co-owned,” according to Westneat.
“In fact, he sat out all the municipal elections in the period he owned the Sonics – 2001, 2003 and 2005.” He even skipped an election with a ballot measure directed at him, a 2006 initiative to bar public subsidies for sports arenas. (It passed.)
“This isn’t the worst voting record I’ve seen in a political candidate,” Westneat writes. “But neither does it suggest someone actively involved in ballot-box democracy over the years.”
Schultz joins the hall of shame of business leaders whose voting records demonstrate their uninterest in the democratic process. Up until now, the stars of that hall were Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard who ran for the GOP nomination for president in 2016; and Meg Whitman, the former head of EBay who ran for California governor in 2010.
Even before Fiorina’s Senate campaign against Democrat Barbara Boxer could get up a head of steam, it was rattled by the revelation that she had failed to cast a ballot in 75 percent of the California elections for which she was an eligible voter.
She missed presidential primaries in 2000 and 2004 and the primary and general elections in 2006, including a Senate reelection run by Democrat Dianne Feinstein. She skipped the primary and general elections in 2002, a gubernatorial election year, as well as the historic recall vote that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor’s seat.
Fiorina offered an explanation via an op-ed in the Orange County Register that should have taken home the trophy for sophistry. “Admittedly, I have not always been engaged in the electoral process, and I should have been,” she pleaded. “For many years I felt disconnected from the decisions made in Washington and, to be honest, really didn’t think my vote mattered because I didn’t have a direct line of sight from my vote to a result.”
Eventually, she wrote, the scales fell from her eyes. “Throughout my career, beginning as a secretary and eventually becoming a CEO, I saw how government impacted business. I learned more as a member of advisory boards at the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA . I now understand, in a very real way, that the decisions made by the Senate impact every family and every business, of any size, in America.”
As I reported at the time, Fiorina was lying. She wasn’t disconnected from politics, as she claimed; she merely participated through the cash register. During her reign at Hewlett-Packard (1999-2005), according to public records, the company spent $4.7 million to lobby Congress and donated more than $390,000 to political candidates through its political action committee. Fiorina and her husband, Frank, a former AT&T executive, made more than $100,000 in political donations personally since 2000.
Fiorina “understood all too well that in politics, money talks,” I wrote. “Why bother to vote when you can get what you need with greenbacks?”
Whitman displayed the same attitude. During her gubernatorial race, the Sacramento Bee reported that Whitman had missed half of the elections between 2002 and 2007, the year when she first registered as a Republican, including the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis that brought Schwarzenegger to the governor’s mansion, which The Times described as “one of the most high-turnout elections in state history.”
Whitman issued a statement describing her voting record as “inexcusable,” and allowing that she had “taken responsibility for my mistake.” She didn’t say how she was taking responsibility, however. She stayed in the race, in which she got absolutely trampled by Jerry Brown.
Schultz appears to be an adherent of the Fiorina school of letting his wallet do his political talking. From 2004-18, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Starbucks spent $10.3 million on political lobbying. Since 1994 the company has donated $1.1 million to political candidates at the federal level, mostly to Democrats.
It’s proper to note that the campaigns of all three of these ballot box-shy would-be politicians developed into train wrecks, at least in part because they had no evident sense of what actual voters cared about.
In her Senate campaign, Fiorina exploited her experience as a cancer survivor to attack the Affordable Care Act, which was designed to bring to people in the individual insurance market the coverage that she relied on to pay for her treatment. While running for the presidential nomination, she lied about Planned Parenthood, which provides health services to millions of low- and moderate-income women, and refused to apologize when her lies were exposed.
Whitman’s campaign was based on her pledges to fire 40,000 state workers and eliminate the state capital gains tax, which cost her plenty, personally. She also promised to send young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children – “dreamers” – back to their countries of origin, even though many had acquired college diplomas in the interim and were poised to make real contributions to the state of California.
Then there’s Schultz, whose campaign platform consists thus far of dismissing proposals to raise taxes on billionaires like himself and expand Medicare for all. He has shown his class by tweeting a right-wing column that called Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “fauxcahontas” and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) “shrill.” (Both are seeking the Democratic nomination for president.)
He brags about being a self-made man, though he acknowledges having been raised in public housing. And of course, he made himself a billionaire with the help of an army of low-wage baristas at his stores.
Schultz hasn’t responded to the disclosure of his voting record. But as Westneat observes, he called himself out presciently, when he unveiled a voter-registration drive at Starbucks stores in 2016: “More Americans should participate in all elections, even those for city councils and school boards,” he wrote then.
Michael Hiltzik is a Los Angeles Times columnist.