- Howard Schultz announced he was stepping down as Starbucks’ executive chairman on Monday.
- Schultz has long fueled rumors of presidential aspirations and told The New York Times his next step “could include public service.”
- Democratic strategists told Business Insider that Schultz would have an uphill climb.
- While Starbucks workers said they respect Schultz’s dedication to social issues, some who worked closely with the former CEO questioned why he would “ruin his life” by running for office.
Starbucks’ Howard Schultz has long fueled rumors regarding his presidential aspirations.
On Monday, Schultz announced he was stepping down from his role as executive chairman at the chain. Immediately, those rumors intensified.
The New York Times asked Schultz directly about a presidential run with news of his departure. Schultz said: “I intend to think about a range of options, and that could include public service. But I’m a long way from making any decisions about the future.”
While Schultz has long maintained he was not planning to run for president, rumors have followed the businessman for years. And they make sense — Schultz has long acted in a manner very similar to a political candidate, even when he was leading Starbucks.
“This is not a time for isolationism, for nationalism,” Schultz said in May, when accepting the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished Business Leadership Award.
“This is a time, as we face this crucible, for cooperation,” Schultz continued in a speech that sounds like it could have been written for a presidential candidate. “This is not a time to build walls. This is a time to build bridges.”
Experts aren’t convinced that Schultz has what it takes to win
Democrats are already considering candidates for the 2020 presidential race. Politicians such as independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York are gaining momentum.
Pollsters have been tracking Schultz’s potential for almost a year. Morning Consult, a nonpartisan polling outlet, placed Schultz at 21% favorability among Democrats, based on a national sample of 895 registered members of the party last June. Just 10% of Democrats held an unfavorable view of Schultz in the poll, while 55% of Democrats polled had never heard of the Starbucks executive.
Democratic strategists who spoke with Business Insider weren’t optimistic about his chances.
“I don’t think he’d be a particularly formidable candidate if he decides to run, even with his financial advantages,” said Jesse Lehrich, a former spokesman for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
A staffer for a Democratic senator told Business Insider that Schultz would be a viable candidate because money wouldn’t be a huge issue. However, the staffer said they were “personally skeptical that Democratic primary voters want a billionaire businessman and Obama/Trump blue collar voters want a CEO of a coffee company that’s associated with globalization and coastal elitism.”
The staffer continued: “Then again, anyone who says they know who will emerge from what will likely be a giant field is probably wrong and if he comes up with a compelling message, maybe he can resonate?”
Starbucks workers — including those who are worked closely with Schultz — aren’t convinced either
In 2017, Business Insider spoke with a half-dozen current and former employees from baristas to corporate staff who worked closely with Schultz, about rumors of his presidential run. While many respected Schultz, they were also split on his abilities as a candidate.
A member of Starbucks corporate team who worked with Schultz closely for several years said that he’d be a “phenomenal leader.”
“I only know what he’s like as a leader: consistent, leading with heart, involving other people, listening to diverse opinions,” another former Starbucks employee who also worked closely with Schultz said of him. “But I think as a politician, you really have to represent your constituency.”
Both employees who worked closely with Schultz questioned why he would give up his role at Starbucks to run for office. In the words of one former Starbucks’ corporate worker, why would he want to “essentially ruin his life?”
The same former employee theorized that Schultz’s motivation to run for president would have to come from people who are already involved in politics. According to both, Schultz’s connections with politics go deeper than many realize.
Starbucks’ current president of US retail was an aide to former President Bill Clinton from 1997 through 2000, and Schultz emailed Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election about how to “emotionally reach and touch the American people.” Clinton reportedly planned to appoint Schultz as her secretary of labor had she been elected president. If Schultz were to run for office, he would most likely turn to the Clintons for advice, according to one former employee.
Baristas have considered their boss running for president
In-store workers also said they have mixed feelings about Schultz’s rumored presidential run. Starbucks baristas have long gossiped about Schultz’s presidential aspirations, with a wide range of reactions.
“Though there have been months where I was barely scraping by in my time at Starbucks, I’ve never felt like the company genuinely doesn’t care about its partners,” one Starbucks employee who has worked in stores for more than four years told Business Insider. “That, I feel, is maybe one of the most important qualities a politician can have, caring about people even a little, and Uncle Howard (as we affectionately refer to him) seems genuine in that regard.”
Schultz has led the company in initiatives such as “Race Together” and hiring programs to reach refugees and veterans. He’s blasted President Trump’s attempt to bar refugees from entering the US, written in the Financial Times about national identity after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, and launched the two seasons of “Upstanders,” a series committed to highlighting people making a difference in their communities.
Schultz additionally helped lead Starbucks’ recent efforts to address racial bias at the chain after an incident in which two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia location. Starbucks closed 8,000 locations for an afternoon so employees could undergo racial bias training and changed store policies to open bathrooms to all, even people who do not make a purchase.
On the other end of the spectrum are employees that argue some of Starbucks’ issues — such as worker pay and paid leave — make Schultz an imperfect candidate. From their perspective, Schultz’s involvement on social issues was simply trying to raise his own profile.
“Howard Schultz is using these events to practice for his presidential run,” one Starbucks worker said in an email to Business Insider after Schultz held a company town hall to address white supremacy following violence in Charlottesville.
The other, previously mentioned in-store worker had a different perspective.
“While I can’t speak for but a few of my coworkers, I think I would vote for him,” he said. “While Starbucks doesn’t always live up to its values, the fact that it even has them in the first place is admirable. Mr. Schultz has always seemed like a man of principles.”