Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that influential friends of Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, “have been pressing him to join the Democratic primary, thinking the time is right for someone who’s not a political lifer.” The news spread quickly, and by Monday it hit the top of Drudge Report, with a photograph of Schultz smiling above the screaming headline: “STARBUCKS CEO URGED TO CHALLENGE HILLARY!”
Cue the Drudge siren.
The news coincides with widespread reports that Joe Biden is also considering a White House bid, a sign of the inevitable interest to diversify the Democratic ticket, where Hillary Clinton continues to poll far ahead of her competition. Schultz, with his private sector bona fides, millennial sensibilities, and deep pockets, would certainly present a formidable challenge. But does Schultz even have any interest in making the transition from Seattle to Washington? In late April, when we last met for our recent feature on Starbucks, he could not have been any more explicit in quashing rumors of a 2016 run. “I have no desire to be in an elected position in government,” he told me. “That’s not what I’m trying to do.”
Whispers of Schultz’s presidential aspirations have long dogged the 62-year-old coffeehouse chief. Undoubtedly, he has a near-perfect résumé for the job: his humble roots in the Bay View projects of Brooklyn; his rise at Starbucks, where he sent the company soaring from 11 stores in 1987 to around 22,000 today; and his return to the helm in 2008, in the midst of the recession, restoring the behemoth’s struggling health and bringing it back to new heights. He’s engaged with a slew of philanthropic missions and an array of public-facing issues, launching high-profile efforts in education, veteran affairs, racial equality, and gay rights, among others. No wonder Time magazine featured Schultz on its cover earlier this year, teasing that his 2016 candidacy was the only box he had left to check.
Still, even in that story from February, Schultz indicated he was not interested in running and that he would wait regardless to “see what Hillary does.” By the time we reconnected months later, in April, Clinton had just announced her presidential bid. So I asked Schultz once again, now that Hillary is running, does that mean he’s ruling out a run? “I was never running for president,” he responded stoically.
That means you’re never going to run? “I have no desire to be in an elected position in government,” he said. “That’s not what I’m trying to do. And I really do believe that I can do much more as a private citizen, to effect change, than if I was in Washington.” He made no attempt to be coy about or obfuscate his intentions. Though he spent a minute complaining about senator Mitch McConnell’s handling of Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as attorney general, he was quick to broaden his sentiments toward more comfortable talking points regarding how he wants to use the Starbucks platform to influence societal change. “I don’t think I could ever do that on any level sitting in Washington trying to fight the current status quo of dysfunction and polarization,” he told me. “That’s not for me, and not how I want to spend my time.”
Of course, Schultz could change his mind, or perhaps his “potent friends,” as Dowd refers to them, could persuade him to run. David Geffen, for one, has been urging Schultz to jump in the race since 2008 (and let’s not forget Geffen was a potent source for Dowd’s reporting during Clinton’s last White House run).
It’s important to note, however, that Schultz has spent much of the last year not only knocking down rumors of a campaign run, but also trying to prove that change isn’t likely to come from Washington. Despite Dowd’s assertion that Schultz has “honed a message about making government work again,” for the most part, the opposite is actually the case: Generally, Schultz has argued that Washington is too broken to get anything done, and that solutions must come from the private sector. That’s why he launched a $250 million education initiative to provide tuition to Starbucks employees for an online college program, and why he helped launch a corporate coalition to hire 100,000 youths by 2018. “What should the role be for a for-profit, public company in a world in which…Washington does not provide much of what we need?” Schultz said recently defining the question that has preoccupied him lately.
Having spent significant time interviewing Schultz and tagging along with him to events in New York, Seattle, and Atlanta, I can understand his appeal. He’s a natural at commanding a room, and is able to speak from the heart about a range of sensitive issues without it seeming disingenuous or forced. Regardless of his politics, there’s no doubt Schultz would make a compelling addition to the 2016 race. I’m just not sure he’s done yet cementing his legacy at Starbucks.