Howard and Me
By Jean Godden
I got to know Howard Schultz -- on a professional level -- decades ago.
As most Seattleites know, Schultz arrived here in 1981 and went to work for Starbucks, then a modest purveyor of quality coffee beans. After disagreeing with Starbucks founders over whether to open espresso bars, he resigned. Later Schultz rounded up investors and in 1987 bought Starbucks, keeping the name and the mermaid. The rest is a Horatio Alger story.
In those days, I was writing slice-of-life columns for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (later the Seattle Times). I had just become aware of the city's coffee craze. I could see my co-workers skipping out midmorning to buy a $2 lattes. Imagine paying more than 50 cents for a cup of java.
I kept reporting on the city's taste for premium caffeine, which quickly grew into a raging coffee pandemic. I wrote one column about attending a three-part class on coffee lore held at a Starbucks on University Way. Date on the column was August 4, 1983, and, at the time, Starbucks had only five stores (premium coffees, spices and teas) and no coffee bars.
My first one-on-one encounter with the coffee mogul came in 1991. I had written about the chain's decision to stop carrying one premium tea. I learned about the cut-back from an incensed customer. When I called Starbucks to ask why, I was given a brisk brushoff.
Naturally I wrote about the chain's high-handed response. Early the next morning I got a blistering phone call. It was Howard Schultz himself. He said the exotic tea had not sold well and how dare I question a business decision.
For the next dozen years, I wrote the occasional item about coffee, about Starbucks and about Howard Schultz. I reported that he showed up regularly at the Madison Park Starbucks after pick-up basketball games.
By default, I owned the coffee beat to such an extent that I got calls from national news outlets like CBS and USA Today. They'd ask, "What's new in coffee?" I 'd tell them stories like the one about a drive-through in rural Snohomish County where loggers and farmers were arguing over the merits of Arabica versus Robusta.
My next encounter with Schulz came in 2003 after I quit my job to run for a seat on the Seattle City Council. As a neophyte, I had zero experience running for office or raising money. Eventually, I came to the "Schultz" name in my rolodex and, getting up the courage, I called to ask for his support.
Despite past unpleasantness, Schultz said he'd support my campaign if I promised not to back the latte tax, an initiative on the September ballot. He sent a check for $650, the most I could accept from a single donor.
The latte tax, which I'd thought a poor idea, lost two to one. Later, thanks to public records requests, we learned Schultz never voted in 2003, not even against the latte tax. As it turns out, Schultz's overall voting record is weaker than tinned coffee.
Despite this citizenship deficit, Schultz now is exploring the idea of running for president. Although he calls himself "a lifelong Democrat," he says he would run as an independent. This plan ignores the fact that Schultz risks siphoning votes from the Democratic nominee and perhaps ensuring Donald Trump's reelection.
Schultz claims to have received many expressions of support, but he also has drawn home-town demonstrations and encountered strong opposition. Washington's Democratic Chair Tina Podlodowski said, "Just. Don't." She told him he ought to run as a Democrat, invited him to talk over coffee and even said, "I'll buy." Gov. Jay Inslee, himself contemplating a presidential run as Democrat, told Schultz to "come into the pool and compete as a Democrat. Or don't run."
It's true Schultz has gained acclaim for enlightened employee policies, although in fact he owes much credit to earlier union negotiations. There are other strikes against him. One large black mark is his 2006 sale of the Seattle Supersonics basketball team to an Oklahoma group that waited only two years to ship the team to Oklahoma City. It was an outcome Schultz should have anticipated and one for which he has apologized -- belatedly.
One positive outcome for this budding campaign would be if Schultz, during his nationwide book tour, came to the conclusion that, as an independent, he could only serve as a spoiler. It would be far better if he decided to do the statesmanlike thing and throw his weight and wealth towards someone who can actually win.
Jean....from what I understand and hear from associates for him to the green theme so popular now with the Demo's. Maybe coming from the business side of things he finds it next to impossible to pay for what they are proposing.