Interview by David Klement
If the local business community is unhappy with its political leadership, it’s up to them to stop whining and do something about it.
That’s the blunt advice from the person responsible for leading Florida’s business community in these troubled times. Mark Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, says there’s no silver bullet for developing the kind of elected leaders who can bring Sarasota’s contentious factions together around a common vision. The leaders you seek are all around you, running successful companies, he says. But too many of them are too time-stressed to consider political leadership, or are discouraged from doing so by negative campaign tactics and invasive financial disclosure laws. That must change, he says, if the business community expects to create a political environment that is more positive toward business activity.
Wilson was in town to deliver the closing talk in the yearlong series, “The Next Five Years,” sponsored by USF Sarasota-Manatee and Biz941, appropriately entitled, “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” Before his speech, he talked with David Klement, director of the USF Institute for Public Policy and Leadership.
Q. Do you perceive a leadership vacuum, especially in the business community?
A. It used to be in America that involvement in civic activity was part of daily life. People joined bowling leagues, participated in PTA and Rotary, led Boy and Girl Scout troops, simply because it was the right thing to do for their country. Ten years ago, companies would loan executives to help the United Way, the Chamber of Commerce. Those days are gone. With cell phones, BlackBerrys and text messaging, all kinds of pressures, money has become no longer the most important currency; our new currency is time. In Florida we have a highly political process in how we make policy. We have 160 legislators who serve eight years. There is a disincentive to think long-term and act long-term. So the opportunities and challenges of leadership require the ideas and the time of business leaders. We need the leaders in Sarasota and Manatee, people who built successful businesses, to spend time helping local government figure out how to make smart decisions, to spend time at their Chamber of Commerce, at their universities, to help them figure it out. Yes, we have a leadership void. We’re going into a period of time, looking at our economy, where we’ve got to get this right.
Q : Is it time for a new class of leaders, perhaps from the non-development, non-real estate field, maybe younger people, to step up to lead?
A. We don’t know yet if demographics are making a difference. It’s very much an individual experience. It doesn’t matter what color, age or agenda. Some people care very deeply about state and community. If you accept lowest common denominator thinking, which is only do what everyone thinks is popular, that doesn’t make good policy. A relatively small number of people who tend to care deeply about the community and look to the future can see what this region will look like in 20 years. Those are the kind of people who are calling us to learn how to make Florida better.
Q.: How can we convince more qualified business leaders to run for public office?
A. There are two issues. Part of the leadership void is fewer and fewer leaders are deciding to run for office. Most people in public office, once they get elected, start thinking about is getting re-elected. As community leaders,[businesspeople] need to take our responsibility as citizens on a daily basis. If people don’t know their state senator on a personal basis, it’s their responsibility, not the senator’s. If your state senator hasn’t been in your business and does not understand what you need, that is not the state senator’s fault, that’s the business owner’s fault.
Q. Do Florida’s strict financial disclosure laws discourage qualified candidates?
A. It’s a good example of right problem, wrong solution. We had a gift ban law a few years ago that says you can’t buy a cup of coffee for a legislator. Yet I can have a state legislator over for dinner and give them a $100,000 contribution. Sometimes the government does things for the way it looks, and doesn’t really solve the underlying problem. When we look at things like financial disclosure, if you take the community’s top five business leaders, chances are they make a lot of money, they took a lot of risks and paid millions of dollars in taxes. And if they ran for public office as a matter of public service, chances are someone will run a negative campaign against them. If you’re a successful leader and you decided to run for public office for a job paying $31,000, why would someone subject themselves to the negative campaign? The resolution is simple: Either we eliminate disclosure laws or we find leaders who are willing to stand up to the [negativity]. And in recent years we are finding community leaders who are willing to do so. Two good examples are Sen. Don Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach and Sen. J.D. Alexander of Winter Haven. They don’t need these jobs. They are willing to do this despite the personal attacks on them for being successful.
Q. What are your thoughts on the quality of leaders in office now?
A. We have good people in government. But we have a system of government that is broken. Florida for 30 years has been a cheap place to live. You could get a $30,000 job in tourism, agriculture or construction, and you were guaranteed the ability to own a home and to live within 60 miles of a beach. What happened was our economy changed. Now nice beaches are not enough to compete with other states and other countries. Now we’re going to go through a period of four to six to eight years when we’re going to have to expect a whole lot more from our state and community leaders. It’s very difficult to talk about the quality or character of any particular leader. They’re operating in a system where we have term limits, two-hour news cycles instead of 24-hour news cycles, media frenzy pushing everyone into immediate crisis management: What is this going to look like in the press? What is this going to look like on blogs?
Q. Is one of the problems term limits?
A. Absolutely. Of 150 legislators in Tallahassee, 42 percent have two or less years’ experience. Term limits might sound like a popular idea—throw the bums out—but unfortunately it causes short-term thinking.
Q. Sarasota voted in March on a proposed charter amendment to approve an elected mayor form of city government. Do you have an opinion on that form of government? NEEDS UPDATING ON MARCH 10
A. That is an intensely local situation. It depends on what do your community leaders want over the next 10 to 15 years, and how important your mayor is to helping to lead that. I hope the business community and community leaders in Sarasota are looking out far enough into the future, 15 to 30 years, at the kind of Sarasota you need, making tough decisions about education, making tough decisions about transportation.
I don’t want to be the guy from Tallahassee telling Sarasota the best way to run its government. Jacksonville is a phenomenal example of a community with a very strong mayor, who had a vision for their community that is completely in sync with the business community. They’ve done several initiatives where the government put in some dollars and the business community put in some dollars and they’ve created some great projects—the downtown Riverwalk, a phenomenal transit project. But I want to be clear about one thing: They had a common vision and a common expectation, and a leadership with relentless pursuit who said we’re together going to get this done.