Last week, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was veering towards mayhem, Jim Rogers, the brash CEO of Duke Energy was heaping praise on a certain – some might say unlikely – presidential candidate.
“Herman Cain is my kind of guy,” Rogers proclaimed. “Not that I’m voting for him. But he’s my kind of guy for one reason: He got out there and made it happen.”
Last week, before allegations of sexual harassment against Cain had surfaced, we were sitting in the power panoramic of Rogers’ 48th-floor conference room. It was a kind of opulent Exhibit A for the Occupy crowd.
“Do you know what I mean? He didn’t sit on the sidelines, and he didn’t whine. He didn’t think he was entitled to anything. He went out and made things happen.”
That’s hardly the sentiment you’d expect from a guy whose fortunes – at least civic – are so deeply aligned these days with Democrats. Talk about off-script: for the past year, Rogers has cast himself as the DNC’s surrogate sugardaddy, the man from whom big money flows. Away from his day job – which includes spearheading the merger of Duke and Raleigh-based Progress Energy to create the nation’s largest electrical utility, Rogers has been working overtime. As co-chair of the DNC’s Host Committee, Rogers is canvassing the country, pressing potential donors for money in hopes of raising at least $36.6 million to host the party’s national convention in Charlotte.
And by his own admission, the task hasn’t been easy – with new DNC restrictions to the host committee that prohibit corporate contributions and cap individual donations at
$1 million $100,000.
Yet DNC fundraising aside, our politics are always deeply personal – which partly explains Rogers’ man-crush on a guy who, until recently, was better known in pizza circles than political ones. It’s simple: Rogers, a self-proclaimed moderate Democrat whose compensation totaled $8.8 million last year, views Cain as a soul mate and foot soldier in the battle against income redistribution.
“The bottom line is I’ve been a CEO for 23 years, and I’ve made a lot of money during that 23 years in this role,” Rogers said. “But the reality is I wasn’t ordained into this role. I mean, I started with nothing.”
No need to queue violins here. Rogers is far too prickly – and too cocky for that matter – to want sympathy, even if he’s not above reciting a few highlights from his own hard-knocks biography.
“I paid my way through college. Had two kids in college. Dropped out of law school after a year because I ran out of money. Had another child. Worked for a year. Came back, finished law school. Bottom line is I started with nothing. And I’m the first generation in my family to go to college.”
He sums up the narrative with a rhetorical question. “Now that I’ve worked this hard, 60 and 70 hours a week, to create this much wealth, am I happy to see people who want to redistribute it to people who have never sacrificed the way I sacrificed? Absolutely not.”
Of course, Rogers’ concern over what he calls “massive income redistribution” might strike many as overblown – or even unjustified in light of facts. The Congressional Budget Office says the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s income over the last three decades. As reported in a New York Times article:
“In its report, the budget office found that from 1979 to 2007, average inflation-adjusted after-tax income grew by 275 percent for the 1 percent of the population with the highest income. For others in the top 20 percent of the population, average real after-tax household income grew by 65 percent. By contrast, the budget office said, for the poorest fifth of the population, average real after-tax household income rose 18 percent. And for the three-fifths of people in the middle of the income scale, the growth in such household income was just under 40 percent.”
But Rogers is convinced that our nation’s Achilles rests in its collective “entitlement” psyche. “There is a whole entitlement culture,” he says. “Nobody in this society is entitled to anything unless they get out and earn it,” he says. “If you’re from a rich family, and they can send you to an Ivy league school, or whether you are poor and struggling to get ahead, nobody is entitled to anything. They are entitled to what they can get by sacrificing, by working, by learning.”
So where does this leave Rogers with the POTUS, criticized by Republicans as being a champion of social welfare and income redistribution? Rogers strives hard for diplomacy on the question.
“Look, I’m not smart enough to advise the president on what his message ought to be,” Rogers says. “ I think that he has to be careful. He’s got the nomination, so he doesn’t have to play to his base. He’s got to focus on making independents excited and motivated to support him. And independents kind of voice my point of view. They don’t want to see redistribution of wealth. Yeah, I can see independents paying more in terms of taxes. But the people that occupy Wall street, they are really into massive distribution of wealth, into taking it from people and giving it to people who haven’t really earned a thing.”
One thing Rogers will say is that is he’s less than thrilled with President Obama’s brow-beating Big Business – particularly Charlotte’s banks that are closely tied to the region’s wealth. Rogers wants to tap into big-bank executives. Of late, Rogers says, Obama’s dealings with Banktown might be summed up this way : “Beat me up, and then come ask me for money.”
Even if it’s posturing, the harsh rhetoric is only hurting him in this town, Rogers says. As he puts it: “If you verbally beat the hell out of somebody and then you go back to them and say `I didn’t really mean it, can I have some money for my campaign,’ I mean people may get that on a very sophisticated level, but on a gut level they don’t find that very appealing.
“The president needs to focus on getting this economy going, getting jobs going. And there are a lot other ways to do that other than redistributing wealth in a massive way, as proposed by the Occupy Wall Street crowd.
“The majority of the people in this country who have anything is because they worked hard and got lucky, in some cases. But in most cases, hard work and drive put you in a position to move ahead.”
Cain’s assessment of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been more harsh.
“Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” Cain told the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago.
In the end, Rogers’ says he is simply hoping for more common sense, “middle of the road” thinking from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“The truth of the matter is that the Far Right and the Far Left scare me to death,” he said. “Whether it’s Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party; both of them are scary to me because what’s made our country great – and what’s made this country a great environment for business – is that both parties were moderates and the number of moderates in either the Republican and Democratic parties has diminished. They can’t seem to come together and do the things that are important for this country during this dire straits we’re in.
“We need to get back to focus not on more government or less government, but smart government.”
Herman Cain – er, scratch that…Barack Obama couldn’t have said it better.