Charlie Weaver got a sense of the new world order when he found himself begging Republicans in the U.S. Senate and House to vote for TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation trade agreement. Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, saw the power of Donald Trump’s populist campaign promises of economic isolationism and immigration restrictions. So did the 120 chief executives from every major Minnesota economic sector who make up the partnership’s members. They lost badly on TPP. With Trump elected and about to assume the presidency, anti-corporate sentiment lingers. In that atmosphere, Weaver discussed how Minnesota’s business leaders will have to exert their influence in novel ways.
Q: What is your members’ biggest fear with trade?
A: The biggest fear is that you’d start a trade war. You’d start imposing tariffs. You’d tear up NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], which is what he [Trump] proposed during the campaign. He’s already said he’s walking away from TPP, which doesn’t make sense. It would hurt Minnesota companies. All of this and immigration would cost us jobs. There’s no doubt about it.
Q: Attacking trade and immigration were such rallying points for Trump in winning the election. What are you actively doing to get him to change those things that he said he was going to do?
A: We are working along with the Business Roundtable in D.C., the Financial Services Roundtable and various trade associations, as well as legislators from the various states who rely heavily on trade. We will all be weighing in on this. The way that Trump can pivot here is his tax plan. If he can be successful in lowering the corporate tax rate and repatriating all this money that a lot of companies have overseas, that is going to be a jump start for this economy, and I think will create the kind of jobs that he’s promised in the Rust Belt.
Q: What can you do if you’re a CEO at a time when truth and empirical data are not necessarily winning the day?
A: No. 1, we need to do a better job of laying out the facts. If there’s one thing the business community may be guilty of, it’s that we don’t do a good enough job of talking about issues, whether it’s immigration or trade or foreign relations. We’ve been reticent to talk about the impact of those things on jobs because it’s such an incendiary environment. Today’s environment is more protectionist than any time in my lifetime probably. That’s one of the reasons Trump got elected. He talked about that. People are scared. Their way of living has changed. So we need to do a better job on trade, for example, of talking about the fact that every billion dollars in exports supports about 6,000 American jobs.
Q: Is it more important today than at any time in your members’ tenures for them to exert themselves on public policy?
A: Yes. Over the last 10 years, our members, the CEOs, have become far more involved in government affairs and in issues like trade policy and immigration than they ever thought they would. The business community needs to double down on getting active on these issues. And certainly growth is an issue. Cargill’s a great example: Will Cargill be able to grow if we don’t engage in TPP and we throw out NAFTA? There are smaller companies: Graco does a ton of work in Asia. It’s a great company in northeast Minneapolis.
Q: How realistic is it to think that the jobs the state lost in the manufacturing sector can come back as they were?
A: It’s probably unrealistic to expect the level of jobs that we had at one point. That doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is not going to be successful. He will, mostly because of regulatory changes, rather than tariffs. But even if the revenue were the same and even if production was the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago on the Iron Range, you still wouldn’t have as many jobs because of technological advances. One thing Trump can do — and he doesn’t have to go through Congress — is tear up all of those executive orders [from the Obama administration] and issue new ones. The regulatory stranglehold that the Obama administration had on a lot of industries is clearly going to be loosened.
Q: Let’s shift to immigration. Explain why immigrants are so important in Minnesota.
A: When people think of immigrants, they think of farmworkers or someone working for Jennie-O turkey. But since [the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks], there’s also companies like Mayo Clinic that have had difficulty getting the kind of talent that they need. Doctors, physicians, medical experts — people who before 9/11 could come to this country and work. That pipeline has really been tightened since 9/11. There are two different issues around immigration. One is the terrorist side of it. We really need to be careful and smart about who we let in. And then there’s the basic workers. Let’s get a path to make them legal.
Q: How can we back off the hateful speech about immigrants that the campaign created?
A: You condemn that rhetoric publicly. I think business leaders have done it. You really can’t have a thoughtful discussion until the rhetoric stops. The gravitas of the presidency tends to cause the new occupants to be more cautious with their language. I think we’re seeing some of that out of the president-elect. We need to encourage him to tone it down.