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Webber banks on entrepreneurial spirit

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Alan Webber

Alan Webber worked in the Mayor’s Office in Portland, Ore., and later for the U.S. secretary of transportation in Washington, D.C. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Alan Webber is a new face to New Mexico politics and says he wants to approach governing in a new way.

One of five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor on June 3, Webber is an entrepreneur who moved to Santa Fe from Boston in 2003 after selling his successful Fast Company magazine. He says he would bring the business perspective that made him millions in the private sector to help find new solutions to New Mexico problems, including the lack of job growth and underperforming schools.

“I don’t look for people to blame; I look for solutions to problems that work,” Webber said in a recent interview with the Journal.

“Businesspeople have a different perspective on how you make things happen,” he said. “In my experience, we look for innovative solutions, entrepreneurial ideas. We look for patterns, things to create new synthesis.”

In a Democratic primary election race against two New Mexico state senators, the state’s attorney general and a longtime local government administrator, Webber, 65, is the only candidate without hands-on experience in New Mexico’s political environment.

But Webber says he has the right experience. He cites earlier government work, including time working for the mayor of Portland, Ore., in the 1970s, for the U.S. secretary of transportation in Washington, D.C., under then-President Jimmy Carter and later advising Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, as a lesson in how to use government resources to solve community problems.

Webber said the lessons he learned in those jobs can be applied here, regardless of his lack of his personal experience in the Legislature or New Mexico government.

“The challenge isn’t to be a mechanic; it’s to have a vision,” he said. “And I think one of the things that separates me from some of my friendly rivals in the Democratic primary is that as an entrepreneur and a businessperson, I start with a sense of vision and a big-picture set of ideas, bold ideas that can create real change.”

Former colleagues of Webber’s praise him as a pragmatic thinker who has the tools to get results in business and in government.

“Alan Webber is the most outstanding person that I’ve worked with, in terms of his skill set, his innovative approach to policy questions,” said Ron Buel, who worked with him in the Portland Mayor’s Office and later at the Willamette Week newspaper.

Economy, education

Those ideas include a proposal to create 125,000 new jobs in the state by 2020 through a variety of proposals, including hiring economic development “navigators” at the local level to tailor state economic development initiatives to individual communities.

Webber says his plan also would include a rapid expansion of the state’s solar energy industry, developing local entrepreneurship and collaboration with the state’s national labs, and dedicating new state job training funds for clean energy, high tech and other “emerging growth industries.”

Webber, like other Democrats running for governor, also has called for increasing the state’s minimum wage to at least $10.10 per hour.

Attempting to lure out-of-state corporations to New Mexico with targeted tax cuts is ineffective, he argued.

“I don’t think New Mexico prospers by becoming a cheaper version of Texas or a dirtier version of Arizona,” Webber said. “New Mexico’s future is in being the best New Mexico that we can be. And that means recognizing our unique strengths and assets and preserving them and leveraging them, so that people choose to work and live here rather than leaving the state to find their economic and family future.”

To aid the state’s education system, Webber is advocating for a tax increase on the wealthy. That plan would start with a 1 percent surtax on New Mexicans earning more than $200,000 per year, generating an estimated $50 million in revenue dedicated to education programs, according to Webber’s campaign.

Like other Democratic candidates, Webber says he supports tapping the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to generate millions in new funding for early childhood education programs.

Webber also has advocated for the legalization of recreational marijuana and use of tax revenues from retail sales to fund education and drug treatment programs.

Controversial record

Webber has drawn criticism from opponents in New Mexico who say a series of writings – some more than 40 years old – casts Webber as a far-left liberal out of touch with New Mexico issues.

That includes a proposal Webber penned in 2012 proposing that gasoline should be more expensive in the U.S. That case was made, after he retired in Santa Fe, in a 2012 op-ed article for USA Today, titled “High gas prices? Bring ‘em on.”

Webber, in the article, criticized President Barack Obama for failing to establish a national energy policy and argued that higher gas prices might spur national leaders to act in planning the country’s energy future.

“… Unlike Obama or his Republican challengers, I want higher gas prices. At least for a while,” Webber wrote. “Long enough for us to get the market signals right and to continue to wean ourselves off our fossil fuel addiction.”

Webber defended his USA Today column in a Journal interview, saying the article was an effort to create discussion about a national energy policy and was not a statement of intent to spike the cost of gas for New Mexico drivers.

“You’re not going to simply raise gas taxes on the people of New Mexico as a social experiment. That makes no sense,” Webber said. “We have to make a distinction between an op-ed column and the policy of a governor.”

More than 40 years earlier, while Webber worked for the up-and-coming Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, Webber outlined a series of proposals intended to reduce the number of cars in downtown Portland. They included hiking gasoline taxes and vehicle license fees, requiring rigid vehicle pollution and safety inspections and limiting available parking in the city’s downtown area.

Webber’s proposal also included expanding mass transportation options and making Portland streets more accessible for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Alan Webber

WEBBER: Co-founded successful magazine

Troubled associations

Webber has drawn criticism for his relationship with Goldschmidt, who went on to be the U.S. secretary of transportation and governor of Oregon. In 2004, it was revealed that Goldschmidt sexually abused a 14-year-old girl during his time as mayor, while Webber worked as a close aide.

Webber at the time of the revelation wrote on a blog that the incident amounted to a “sex scandal.” He later deleted the post. Critics said Webber’s words amounted to a dismissal of the crime committed by a former mentor.

Webber said he chose the wrong words at the time.

Webber said in the Journal interview that he had no knowledge of the ongoing sex relationship between Goldschmidt and the teen girl, who was the daughter of a fellow employee in the Mayor’s Office.

“I had known nothing about it at the time,” Webber said. “My children played at his house. And I still feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach when I even think about it. Many years later when I wrote about it, I mischaracterized it as a sex scandal, and it was a crime, and I have apologized for my writing.”

Webber also has drawn attacks from Republicans for being endorsed by Mark Rudd, a co-founder of the radical group the Weather Underground. The group set bombs in vacant government buildings around the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s in protest of the Vietnam War. Rudd, who was never charged in connection with the bombings, went on to teach at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque and for years has apologized for the group’s conduct.

Webber, responding to criticism of the Rudd endorsement, denounced the Weather Underground but welcomed support from Rudd, citing his more recent record as a teacher, Albuquerque community activist and “advocate of nonviolence.”

Successful business

After leaving government work, Webber went on to be hired as the editorial director at the Harvard Business Review. That publication became a steppingstone for Webber in 1993 to co-found his own publication, Fast Company magazine.

Focusing on business innovation, Fast Company quickly became a nationally recognized publication. Seven years after the business was launched, Webber and his co-founder, Bill Taylor, and their investors sold the magazine for about $350 million to a German publication company.

Taylor lauded Webber as a leader who drew the best out of their team.

“I think his general goal is not to impress people with how smart he is, but to invite people to show how smart they are,” he said of Webber’s leadership style. “His approach to a group setting is to try to unleash as much brainpower from everybody in the room as they can.”

Webber continued working at Fast Company for three years after the magazine was sold.

New Mexico latecomer

After leaving Fast Company, Webber – who was raised in the St. Louis area – decided to make New Mexico his home after taking a vacation to the state with his wife in 2003. Webber has two adult children who live out of state.

Webber has drawn criticism for being the latecomer to New Mexico among the candidates for governor, but he says voters are more interested in ideas than measuring which candidate has been in New Mexico the longest.

“I’m not the new kid who seeks to tell you how to change everything,” Webber said he tells voters who question his tenure in the state. “I’m here to work with you to make life better for your children and your families. … The question about the future is what people focus on, not the past.”

On the campaign trail

Despite being the newest face on the gubernatorial campaign trail, Webber placed second of the five candidates in the party pre-primary nominating convention in March and has outpaced all of his Democratic opponents in campaign fundraising.

Since October, Webber has reported raising about $928,000 to fund his election campaign, a total that was bolstered by Webber’s using $450,000 in his own money.

Webber’s closest primary opponent in terms of fundraising, Lawrence Rael, has raised $381,000. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, meanwhile, has built a campaign war chest of about $4.2 million.

Webber says his early fundraising success, about 50 percent of which came from out-of-state donors, is evidence that he can nationalize the governor’s race and raise an amount of money needed to successfully challenge Martinez in November.

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