Democratic Senate candidate Shenna Bellows was recently quoted in the Portland Press Herald saying, “We are caught in a conflict between working people and large corporations. The question of this election is: Which side are you on?”
Bellows presents a false choice, and her rhetoric pre-empts a more thoughtful conversation about the role of corporate money in politics and the expansion of workers’ rights – the very conversation she seeks to advance.
It’s easy to paint all large corporations as greed-obsessed, Congress-manipulating evildoers, but the picture is decidedly more nuanced when one takes the time to actually engage, build relationships and find common ground.
Since leaving electoral politics, I’ve consulted for some of the largest businesses and industries in the United States, including big banks, big telecom and, currently, “big oil.”
I’ve also supported some of the smallest local nonprofits, including organizations devoted to creating more outdoor recreation options for kids and increased economic opportunity in rural communities.
No matter their employer or salary, the people I’ve worked with get up each day and try to do the right thing. They’re people who – just like their friends and neighbors – attempt to create better lives for their kids and engage in their communities.
That’s not to say that big business gets it right all the time. It doesn’t. In fact, some certainly invite the public lashing they receive. And during those missteps and excesses, public opprobrium is not only justified but also can be instrumental in changing corporate behavior at a single entity or across an entire industry.
But we must avoid convicting all big businesses for the bad actions of a few. The fact is the majority of large corporations operate quietly, responsibly, providing products and services that people use every day while also giving back to the communities where they operate.
Businesses provide stable and predictable local tax revenues, helping reduce the burden of property taxes on residents while still allowing local governments to deliver high-quality public services, including schools, parks and public safety.
Businesses create jobs. And jobs, in turn, help families pay for groceries and mortgages, obtain health insurance, put kids through college, support local nonprofits and eventually retire on the dividends other businesses generated in their pension plans or 401(k)s. Businesses also contribute to the fabric of local communities by sponsoring public concerts, Little League teams, art installations, open spaces and any number of community events, causes and organizations. These public-private partnerships are a mainstay of communities nationwide.
And while small businesses do many of these same things, big businesses can typically leverage more resources because of their greater access to human and financial capital. Put another way, big businesses can do more good precisely because they do so well.
Would Bellows have us believe that we’re in a conflict with General Dynamics, parent company of Bath Iron Works? Are we in a conflict with Delhaize, the global food retailer that owns Hannaford? Are we in a conflict with L.L. Bean or Maine’s paper mills? Clearly not.
In fact, I’m confident the vast majority of Mainers see these businesses as critical local job creators and respected members of their communities. Yet each of these businesses is unquestionably a “large corporation” or a part of one.
If Bellows takes issue with particular bad corporate actors, believes there’s too much corporate money in politics or wants to discuss employment-related public policies – paid sick time, executive pay, a living wage – then by all means let’s have those discussions. But simply damning all large corporations and pitting working people against them is intellectually lazy, as well as poor politics.
Bellows’ rhetoric neither accrues to her political advantage – since it’s clearly not intended to appeal to centrist voters of either party who support her opponent en masse – nor does it advance the political prospects of the Democratic Party as a whole. Instead, it validates the worst stereotypes that “liberal” Democrats neither understand nor support private enterprise, big or small.
Sure, there is political expediency in attacking a straw man during electoral campaigns. Gov. LePage has made it a stock in trade with his endless attacks on hordes of fictional welfare cheats. And certainly Bellows’ rhetoric taps a vein of anti-corporate populism fomented in the throes of the Great Recession that persists in the extremes of both parties. But one wonders how Bellows squares her anti-big business stance with her current 350-mile Walk for Maine Jobs and the Economy.
Some on the left will surely read this column and confidently pronounce that I’m doing the bidding of my “corporate masters.” But nothing could be further from the truth. I’m proud to be a “corporate Democrat,” and I wish more Democrats were, too.
Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Boston and Portland offices of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington. He can be contacted at: