Women Business Leaders Take Center Stage in Campaigns

istock_000005778419xsmall1.jpgby Erin Abrams (New York City)

Lately, several high profile women business leaders have reemerged onto the political scene, bringing their charismatic personalities and knowledge of the economy to the campaign trail.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, has become a familiar face on Sunday morning political talk shows as a surrogate for John McCain’s presidential campaign. Though she was asked to step down by the Board of HP in 2005 after amid concerns about the controversial merger with Compaq, Ms. Fiorina, 53, is a proven fighter who didn’t stay out of the public eye for long.

Indeed, political pundits have even discussed the possibility that John McCain might select Ms. Fiorina as his vice presidential nominee, though that looks like an increasingly long shot these days, with Hillary Clinton moving farther from center stage for the Democrats and Barack Obama’s selection of Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his VP pick.

While some on the right would welcome a female VP as a great way to help McCain scoop up disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, others say that Fiorina lacks the political experience or acumen to hold the office, even if she would bring significant business experience to the ticket. Indeed, McCain has been courting women business leaders as a powerful group of swing voters. Last month in Wisconsin, McCain held a forum with women business leaders from around the region.

Even if she is not selected as McCain’s VP, however, there is no denying that she has become an important voice within his campaign for advice on the economy and has played a major role in cultivating business leaders as donors. Ms. Fiorina, who received her BA at Stanford and went to law school at UCLA before rising through the ranks at AT&T and heading up HP, could bring some helpful bona fides to the McCain campaign on the economy, an important issue that the Arizona senator has been struggling to show his expertise on. Fiorina might even be considered for cabinet positions such as Secretary of Treasury or Secretary of Commerce if McCain is elected president.

NBC political analyst Larry Gerston explained some of the buzz around Ms. Fiorina when he said, “As a female she could blunt some of the movement in the Democratic party which has reached out to females in recent years. We’ve all heard of the gender gap (between the parties). Now you’ve got the opportunity to cut into it.”

However, Mr. Gerston identified some drawbacks to putting a woman on a Republican ticket. To some people, her gender is a positive, but to other Republicans — the traditionalists — view it as a negative,” Gerston said. “They are quite frankly not on the forefront of change. Your vice presidential candidate must compliment the ticket. Few people vote for a presidential candidate because of the V.P. But it’s more likely for someone to vote against the president because of their V.P. That’s why McCain has to be very strategic with this.”

Ms. Fiorina represents a growing trend among women business leaders who leave corporate America to pursue challenges in politics. Several prominent former women CEOs have moved out of the private sector and announced or suggested public ambitions.

Another high profile example of this trend is Meg Whitman, former CEO of Ebay. Ms. Whitman stepped down from her highly successful tenure at Ebay in 2007. A well-known donor to the Republican party, Ms. Whitman has long been active behind the scenes in California politics. Rumors of a run for governor of California have been swirling since she stepped down.

Though these prominent women business leaders identify with the Republican party, the Obama campaign is also reaching out to women business leaders, and has brought in some high-powered campaign talent to help win over that core constituency. For example, the Obama campaign has brought onboard Ann M. Fudge, former chair and CEO of global advertising giant Young & Rubicam Brands. Ms. Fudge, whose name often appears on lists of the most prominent African-American women in business, earned her BA from Simmons College and her MBA from Harvard. She rose through the ranks at General Mills and then Krafts Foods before becoming CEO of Y&R in 2003. Now, she has turned her considerable experience in marketing and brand management towards promoting the candidacy of Senator Obama.

In fact, Ms. Fudge and Ms. Fiorina recently squared off as surrogates for their respective campaigns on June 9, 2008 in Arizona, where they both served on a panel at the National Association of Women Business Owners’ annual conference.

The Obama campaign is hoping that the Senator’s 100% approval rating from women’s groups like NOW and Planned Parenthood, along with his early endorsement from women’s group NARAL, along with his emphasis on women’ economic issues will lure voters, particularly long-time Democrats and former Clinton supporters who are now on the fence.

Finally, prominent Obama campaign surrogates have been pushing an economy and business centered message as well. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, well known in that state for her bipartisan efforts to engineer major tax cuts for business, including lifting the personal property tax on business machinery. Governor Sebelius will be center state on Tuesday, August 26, 2008 at the Democratic Convention in Denver.

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, this will certainly be an interesting election year, in which the interests and contributions of women in business will play a major role.

0 Response

  1. So much respect for Carly Fiorina. Sometimes I think that what one learns in the boardroom and in business could really help the inefficient bureaucracy in Washington. Its nice to see that women can make the same business to politics transition as men.