Whether you like him or not, Donald Trump brings something to politics that has become increasingly rare: the perspective of a private business owner.
The president-elect knows what it’s like to wrestle with taxes and costly layers of regulation. Given his background, he knows what aspects of government need to be streamlined or made more affordable.
Despite Trump’s election, it probably won’t convince small business owners to follow his example by seeking local or regional political positions, which in Northeastern Minnesota are dominated by persons who haven’t led private firms. Seeking public office has never been easy for entrepreneurs, and there’s little to suggest that will change, except for seasoned executives like Trump, whose massive wealth allows them to leave the helm for extended periods, local observers say. Statistics provide support: Of the 74 newly elected persons sworn into Congress in 2015, only a dozen had launched or managed their own company.
Locally, Chris Dahlberg of Duluth is an exception. He has served on the Duluth City Council and St. Louis County Board. He also campaigned for the Minnesota Legislature and the U.S. Senate but was not elected.
“It’s a sacrifice, depending on what the position is,” said Dahlberg, a Duluth attorney who runs his own law firm. Holding public office is easier if you serve on a public body near your business office, he said, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to serve if the public body meets 160 miles away in St. Paul, home of the Minnesota Legislature.
This month, he stepped down as county board commissioner after representing western Duluth for eight years. Serving in that post, with the county courthouse just a few blocks from his practice, wasn’t as intrusive as other political jobs might have been.
“I’ve been able to keep operating my law office,” he said, but his business is established. That’s not the case, however, for many small business owners. Their lack of input, some believe, is leaving business perspectives underrepresented on public governing bodies. That’s particularly evident in Northeastern Minnesota, said Mike Hickey, Minnesota state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
“The area is very blue, and it’s very discouraging,” he said, referencing the North’s predominantly DFL legislative delegations.
There’s a common belief that being in the public spotlight – targeted for news coverage by the traditional media and being in the crosshairs on social media – is the factor that convinces many business owners to avoid the constant attention that goes hand in hand with holding public office. Hickey, however, said a variety of other factors are equally influential.
“Serving in the legislature is a tremendous sacrifice for any small business owner. It’s really a grind. We do see small business owners who are older and who have had a successful run with their business. But when young, it’s hard to get your business off the ground, failure rates are high and you’d be gone quite a bit,” he said.
Meanwhile, holding public office is also difficult for employees of large corporations.
“Large companies don’t seem to value having their people serve because they’re away for too long,” Hickey added.
Neill Atkins, who served on the Duluth City Council for 18 years, worked as an investment advisor for a large firm when his public service began. The company didn’t object, he said, but it didn’t relieve him from aggressive production requirements. Making matters worse, constituents would call him at work to discuss municipal issues, often at length. Eventually, he had his calls screened, but constituents broke through that filter by contending they were clients.
“I basically had to quit one company because my production wasn’t where the company wanted it to be,” he said. Subsequently, Atkins became an independent broker. He then encountered constituents who began stopping by his small office seeking face-to-face time to discuss political issues.
“I was unable to advance my career as much as colleagues who had joined the profession at the same time,” he said, because of the time commitment required to serve constituents.
Dahlberg ran for Minnesota Legislature in 1996, opposing DFL incumbent Mike Jaros, but his life was very different back then.
“I was a single guy at the time,” he said. Today, operating a law office and raising a 12-year-old daughter, it would be impossible to spend several months a year in St. Paul.
“I’d have to live out of a suitcase,” he said, driving to St. Paul weekly and living in a hotel the better part of each week. “That’s a problem for business people. It’s tough to leave a business for that long and be down there. A businessperson constantly has to go out and cultivate future business. If you’re not doing it today, you’re really behind tomorrow. It’s almost impossible.”
As a result, he noted, state senators and representatives tend to emerge from the public sector or non-profit arena.
“I don’t say that to be demeaning of them, but public employees usually get some sort of leave of absence, and it doesn’t hurt them so much financially,” Dahlberg said. “Even if you increased the salary, it would be difficult to go down to St. Paul because you pretty much have to abandon your business. It has almost created a professional class of legislator. It’s not a citizen legislature where people go down there for a short while and come back.”
The exception, Hickey said, tends to be metro-area business owners who are physically close enough to their firms to keep a hand in the business while lawmakers are in session.
In recent years, there has been a similar change of make-up at Duluth City Hall. Former mayors Gary Doty, Herb Bergson and Don Ness had backgrounds primarily in government or working for non-profit organizations. The same can be said of Duluth city councilors during the past decade.
“Unless a business owner is very successful and can afford to take the scorn of the public, that’s the only time they should be entering public office,” said Atkins, who also warned about personal financial losses. After running for mayor in 1995, he spent the next decade paying off campaign debts that exceeded contributions.