If the ingredients to win the five-person race to be the Democratic candidate for governor were enthusiasm and ideas, and the ability to articulate them clearly, Alan Webber could coast to the nomination. Oh, and that he is a high-net worth fellow able to provide healthy cash infusions into his campaign does not hurt either.
That Webber is brimming with enthusiasm and ideas is what shone through in the interview New Mexico Prosperity Project had with the Santa Fe resident, successful entrepreneur (he founded and later sold Fast Company, a magazine for high-growth, high tech companies) and, among other things, the managing editor of the Harvard Business Review.
Webber, although a newcomer to elective politics in New Mexico, is practically bubbling over with insights and plans that are not characteristic of the state’s familiar candidates from more traditional political backgrounds in the state, with a more familiar litany of proposals. So who is Alan Webber? Given that he is within striking distance of winning the nomination, we felt it was important to provide this report, a combination of interview and context, prior to Tuesday’s primary election.
(A poll shows Gary King in the lead with 22 percent and Webber tied for second with Lawrence Rael at 16 percent each — but with a whopping 29 percent undecided only days before the election. We already have interviewed both King and Rael, and posted articles accordingly. We did not seek out the other two Democratic candidates who seem to be lagging far behind.)
A year ago most active Democrats here probably had never heard of Alan Webber — and of course that was true in spades with rank-and-file voters out across the state. Now, Webber’s ubiquitous television commercials have changed that. He is hoping that his innovative ideas and ability to knit regions and ideological camps together into a cooperative whole can help him oust Republican Governor Susana Martinez and govern effectively with positive outcomes.
Webber sees the incumbent, who is seeking her second four-year term, as being the wrong person for the job, and because of that, New Mexico is hurting economically more than it should. He says New Mexico was “one of only two states to actually lose jobs between April 2013 and April 2014.” This outcome not only is bad but pretty hard to achieve, according to Webber. Although his frequently aired TV commercials do not criticize the governor in such a fashion, Webber told us: “Her background is as a prosecutor — and a prosecutor prosecutes,” whereas his own background is as a “journalist, businessman, and entrepreneur.” Because the current governor sees the world through a prosecutorial lens, he observes, her administration is marked by “a lack of vision, a lack of leadership, and a lack of strategy” — whereas, “I speak the language (of leadership and strategy) and I understand the issues.”
If he were to end up in the fourth-floor capitol offices as governor, Webber would address several of the strategic economic problems facing New Mexico in these ways:
Federal spending reductions
In 1942, Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues perched on the remote mesa southwest of Santa Fe, reached only by twisty gravel roads with travelers peering down over perilous precipices into the steep canyons far below, and focused their thinking and analysis on developing the world’s first nuclear weapon. Since then, on a pie chart labeled, “New Mexico economy,” federal expenditures would be a big, important slice. In some ways, New Mexico, although an independent state and “one of the 50,” has been a “defense colony,” providing vital research, services and capabilities on behalf of national security objectives. Los Alamos National Laboratory is now a sprawling, multi-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise and so, too, is Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. Add three Air Force bases and the nation’s largest military reservation, White Sands Missile Range, and the federal government has seen a legitimate reason to funnel billions into the state.
However, now that Washington’s cumulative debt is more than $17 trillion, and the interest payments alone are worrisome and growing, members of congress seem less likely to keep this healthy cash flow going. Indeed the reductions already have begun, and private-sector contractors, as well as lab employees, have felt the pinch. Progressives (formerly known as liberals) and tea party budget hawks alike now look askance at the once-sacrosanct nuclear weapons labs budgets. They, and even middle-of-the road types, have a different view on this than once not only because of debt worries but because of a growing sentiment to ease back on the costly, and entangling, nature of Pax Americana, which began about the time of the Manhattan Project. This means storm clouds on the state’s economic horizon, even aside from other familiar downturns such as the housing sector.
What would Webber do? Two things, he says: Work closely with the (mostly Democratic) congressional delegation, to help protect against unthoughtful and Draconian cuts to the labs’ budgets. And, he says, Los Alamos and Sandia “ought to be a source of ideas to create economic activity – turning ideas into commercialization.” Protecting the state lab budgets is something longtime Senators Pete Domenici, R, and Jeff Bingaman, D, took on as their mantra for decades. Current members of the delegation do not shrink from the need, but seem to recognize the glory days of lab may be past. What’s not to like about the “swords to plowshare” premise that Webber would like to promote? It does sound appealing. Domenici and Bingaman were keen on this going back to the first “technology transfer” federal legislation, the Stevenson-Wylder Act of 1980. Thirty-five years on, there are some success stories but, over all, this seems to perpetually be an idea whose time will soon come (but never actually does). The notion that nuclear weaponry has commercial spinoffs is a head-scratcher to some, but even if ideas were to be put forth, nuke researchers at government labs do not often tend to be of an entrepreneurial bent, and business people on the outside keen to commercialize are not always met with a user-friendly interface at the labs, shall we say. Yet, the time may finally be here, because the old ways are changing and if Webber were to work this intensely, maybe inertia will be replaced by a slow-building momentum toward private commercialization endeavors.
The overall N.M. economy
A good way to observe Alan Webber’s fervid idea-generating mind is to ask him what to do to get New Mexico out of the economic cellar. Ideas spill out with such staccato rapidity that it is difficult to keep up. Of course he thinks Governor Martinez is ever the prosecutor and does not “get” the world of business. He also thinks previous “New Mexico economic development” efforts have erroneously seen the state as a whole when, in reality, he says, “there is not just one economy but at least 10 economies that we need to weave together.”
The specific ideas come flying out like tennis balls from one of those automated devices on a tennis court: Listen to the already-existing national, and international, successful people with demonstrated great ideas already living here. Recognize that New Mexico is a “high-BTU energy state” and make it a leader via “a renewable economy with wind, solar and geothermal.”
In the agriculture sector, move way beyond the popular Hatch green chile leadership role and position New Mexico as a center with a growing emphasis on healthy foods.
Change what is a “water problem” (growing shortages and long-term severe drought) into a plus by marshaling interested parties toward making New Mexico a national or world leader in “managing water smartly.”
For tourism, even though New Mexico is colorful and fascinating in many ways, the state’s promos “make us look about as bland as everybody.” He would position New Mexico at the head of the mobile-device universe by fostering “hack-a-thons” to develop the coolest and best apps related to tourism. Tie this in with the TV and movie production industry here, for example, developing apps to lead the interested to location scenes in such films as “No Country for Old Men.” He is aggravated that Austin has assumed the mantle as live music capital of America, when New Mexico has a much older, broader and diverse set of musical talents of all stripes. He would work with state musicians to remedy that little Austin problem. More movies and TV productions are “ideal for New Mexico because they don’t use water” and they provide jobs to far more than the actors — such as caterers, set builders, truck drivers. In all, innovators, entrepreneurs and business people of all types “need a governor that speaks their language.”
One bit of timing may be helping Webber in his economic development messaging has to do with this assertion on his campaign website: “She (Susana Martinez) wants to bribe big out-of-state corporations to come to New Mexico by giving away our tax dollars. It won’t work. Because when the handouts run out, so do the corporations — and they take the jobs with them.” In recent days, two big national tech companies, Intel and Hewlett-Packard, both with operations in Rio Rancho, have announced they are cutting back. Intel, once the crown jewel of the “recruitment” premise (luring national corporations to put plants or offices here), is a shadow of its former self, having slowly (and often without announcement) let its workforce and contractors dwindle to less than half of the glory days. Not only that, in the ever-evolving semiconductor business, a plant that does not stay cutting edge usually ends up closing. Even a once “solar darling,” Schott Solar, that was seen — even, or especially, by progressives — as a wondrous thing, closed its operations at Mesa del Sol, shed all its jobs, and went bye-bye.
Regarding all of the above — and who knows what else? — Webber says as governor he would be “not only the CEO but the chief marketing officer” for New Mexico, communicating far and wide and tirelessly to let the outside world know what is here, but not known or misunderstood, or what could be (via innovation).
A progressive – and the oil and gas sector
It may not be normal for most business people, esp. one with presumably millions in net worth, but Webber portrays himself as an unabashed progressive — for many years known as a “liberal.” That label is anathema to many in traditional business world, whatever the economic sector. In our interview, we duly noted Webber’s prolific and productive idea-generating mind, including most particularly his ardent support for wind and solar energy (a perennial progressive favorite), but wondered how he would go over among the electorate outside the “solar voter” regions, in a general election when the voter base is much broader than in a Democratic primary (requiring appeal to, if not too many Republicans, at least the big bloc of independents). Specifically, Webber’s campaign extolls all things solar but is silent on the economic benefits of the state’s oil and gas sector, which supplies one-third of all tax revenue to state government (helping pay for schools and all other services). He does, however, on this campaign website, call for outcomes which oil and gas, in general, tends to strenuously object to: “mandated reductions” from what he calls “major carbon polluters.” Since oil and gas are carbon-based fuels, and their combustion results in CO2 emissions, Webber, in that fashion, seems to be putting oil and gas in his crosshairs as a target.
Webber was asked how he could possibly take his popular-in-the-primary “renewables” story and then, if he were to win next Tuesday’s primary, reach out to, for example, the business owners, managers and workers putting in oil rigs as fast as they can around Roswell, Artesia, Carlsbad, Lovington, and Hobbs. Although his ads and website do not say so, or perhaps say the opposite, Webber told us he is keenly aware of how this sector is the largest single source of tax revenues to state government, and thus much needed. He also says, with his business background, he would offer oil and gas “stability and predictability” with regard to logical, well-administered, consistent regulations, while, he said, Governor Martinez’ administration is actually somewhat of a danger to the sector because it does not understand these principles, and thus is likely to be erratic and/or to not have sufficient, well-trained, regulators, to check out the well sites and such. “Business people don’t like unpredictability,” he said.
Webber says when he first announced for governor and labeled himself as a “pro-jobs progressive” he got a lot of blowback from conservatives and Republicans who expressed skepticism there could be such a creature. He says he wrote a long email to these skeptics saying, yes, one can be both pro-economic growth and a “progressive.” He says he ardently supports rights without regard to race, creed, color, national origin or sexual orientation, but at the same time thinks well-thought-out economic growth is highly beneficial. He says, “I’m not much for (political) labels. Once you use a label you don’t have to listen anymore.” (Although it is a fact that he labels himself, in that the first sentence on the biography section of his campaign website says: “Alan Webber is a progressive Democrat running for Governor of New Mexico.”
Webber and his advisors may have felt, early on, that “progressive” self-labeling would be necessary to win the Democratic primary, where progressives often do well. Highly organized get-out-the-vote groups such as teachers’ unions and environmental groups tend to be progressive-minded and can affect Democratic primary outcomes. If Webber does not win the primary, it might be because, in a low-turnout primary in an “off-year” election, such as this, younger and more progressive-oriented voters do not vote nearly as reliably as older, more conservative Democrats. This fact would seem to favor the generally more centrist, and conservative in style, Gary King, the attorney general and one of Webber’s opponents. A loss might also be because the Webber TV commercials, the first Democratic ones on the air, and most all of his messaging, do not nearly reflect the pro-jobs nuances he articulated in his interview with New Mexico Prosperity Project. Likely, someone concluded that a 30-second spot was no time for nuance, and that they had to go whole hog for the big progressive bloc — but if that message loses him support among the not-so-progressive older voting bloc, well…If Gary King holds on to his tenuous lead and Webber does not win the prize next Tuesday, it might also demonstrate that personal connections and networks, established over many years, can trump the efforts of a deep-pocketed relative newcomer, however intelligent and sincere.
On the other hand, there is the fact that Webber could, and did, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (many of them his own) on early TV, which can be a major influencer. Even for voters who may not be so “progressive,” perhaps enough will decide, “What the heck? I am embarrassed, or tired of New Mexico always seeming to be on the bottom. This new guy seems smart, energetic, and — well, new, so what’ve we got to lose? — maybe we’ll just give him a try.”
If that were to be the case, Webber then would have to adroitly pivot from the primary-winning “progressive” messaging to a broader, and more nuanced, story that would resonate from Hobbs to Las Vegas (whose Democratic mayor has all but endorsed Governor Martinez), and capture votes from, if not outright conservatives, at least moderate Democrats and independents.
Webber was born in Missouri, graduated from Amherst, and later worked in Portland, OR, (for the mayor), Washington, D.C. (for the secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation), and in Boston (for Governor Michael Dukakis’ administration and as the managing editor of the Harvard Business Review, which he says is known as “the West Point of capitalism”). He has the wherewithal to take on a project as demanding (in terms of both energy and dollars) as a governor’s race because of the big-league success of the business magazine he founded over the reservations of more cautious minds.