FOUNDING MEMBER CALL WITH KATHERINE GEHL

By Samantha Frenkel-Popell on April 26, 2017

Centrist Project Founding Members throughout the 50 states were joined last week on an exclusive phone call with businesswoman and Centrist Project  Founding Board Member Katherine Gehl.

Gehl was the fourth-generation President and CEO of Gehl Foods, and oversaw the acquisition of Gehl Foods by a Chicago-based private equity firm in March of last year. Gehl has also worked at Bernstein Investment Research and Management, Mayor Richard Daley’s office, and Oracle. President Obama nominated Gehl to serve on the Board of Directors of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in 2010.  Most recently, she published an article in Fortune Magazine titled “Why Politics is Failing America.” She and her co-author, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, plan to release a full report on this topic in April.

Gehl’s diverse background in the private and public sector provides her a unique viewpoint on exactly what is so problematic about our current political climate. As a businesswoman in Chicago, she knew then-state senator Barack Obama and spent two years engaged in his campaign. However, she recounted, she became quickly disenchanted with the lack of results coming out of D.C., like the government shutdown in 2013 and the two parties inability to come together. She began working with groups like Fix the Debt to advocate for policies she thought would fix the country.

After working with these various policy groups, she came to the conclusion that it “isn’t about finding the right candidate or advocating for the right policies -- when we put people into the broken system, there’s only so much they can accomplish.” The real issue was the system itself, so she began analyzing the political industry the same way she analyzes other businesses at work. 

Her analysis led to an interesting conclusion: Washington is broken, but when you “analyze the actual system, it turns out it’s working exactly as it’s designed to work.” The system is designed and optimized to promote political parties, their industry allies, and their interests -- what Gehl refers to as the “political industrial complex.” Washington is now a full-fledged industry, and despite widespread dissatisfaction, the industry is thriving. Campaigns are longer than ever, media spend is higher, and widespread work is available. The industry is working just as it should, but isn’t working for its customers.

This, Gehl explained, is primarily because the industry is a duopoly divided into Republicans and Democrats. The barriers to entry are simply too high for any realistic competition. Looking at it from a business standpoint, though we may see elections as divisive and bitter, the actual competition is not that intense because there are only two real choices. Neither side has to deliver solutions, they “only have to get the voter to turn out to like them a tiny bit more than they like the one other choice, or hate them just a little less,” Gehl reasoned.  

She summed it up eloquently: “In any other industry, if you had only two major players and 90% of your consumers were dissatisfied, new entrants would come in to meet the consumer's’ need. [...] But there is one place where the duopoly - these two competitors - work really well together, and that’s in colluding together to rig the game and keep out new competition. And they have been doing this for decades.” Our system is rigged, and it is so dysfunctional that it “threatens our ability to deliver the American Dream.”

Long-term systemic reform efforts like nonpartisan primaries, ranked choice voting, and ending gerrymandering are all important, Gehl noted, but will take lots of time. “[What] I love the most about the Centrist Project is that… it is a ‘hack’ into the current system. We don’t actually have to change the rules of the game with the Centrist Project to make a difference.” The independents we elect will not be “beholden to the duopoly,” Gehl excitedly remarks.

Going forward, Gehl wants to take her work on the industry dynamics out to an audience consisting mostly of businesspeople and showing them how to look at the political system the way they would their own business, and inviting them to also engage in political reform efforts.

To join monthly calls with future guest speakers, become a Founding Member today.