Twilight of the Power Broker
I met recently with a potential client at an airport steakhouse. His commercial real estate proposal was circling the drain and he needed help. His company’s project promised to transform a strapped and shrinking municipality into an economic powerhouse. The mayor and most of council had initially hailed them as saviors but, after some public outcry, would no longer even return their phone calls. A looming council vote would decide the fate of the project.
“You seem to know exactly what we need.” he said, leaning across the table and looking me right in the eye, “but who do you know on council?” It was a veiled question, and one I’ve heard expressed many ways that boils down to: have you got a power broker to make this problem go away?
For developers, the temptation to engage a local power broker on behalf of a project is overwhelming. Usually a former politician and pillar of the community, the power broker by definition is influential and politically connected. With a quick phone call he can arrange lunch with the mayor, his squash partner, or convince the Chamber of Commerce (where he sits on the Board) to give a ringing endorsement. He knows all of the town pooh-bahs and can whisper just the right things in their ears to win their support. He has all of the local reporters on speed dial and can deliver media coverage that will win over the hearts and minds of the undecided. He has that combination of political experience, old-school connections and media savvy that can instantly turn public opinion and sway council in favour of anything.
In the popular imagination, he is a kind of magician, practiced in the dark arts of political and public influence. And he is a dying breed, which is a good thing.
The first reason for the waning power of the local power broker is that he thrived in the shadows, when political decisions could be made in back-rooms and behind closed doors. For modern governments, openness, transparency and accountability are the new norm. Gone are the days of secretive, top-down decision-making. Today’s politicians want to hear directly from residents. And they want to be able to show how that public input is directly reflected in their decision-making.
Sure, this does not cut off the power broker’s access to politicians. Their Rolodex is still their most effective tool. But access does not equal influence. Being able to schedule a meeting with the mayor is a far cry from directly influencing the mayor’s vote on an issue. And that is, in part, because we live in an age of open government. In the old days, public officials were perceived as powerful and distant, part of a governing machinery run by bigshots and kingmakers.
That’s no longer the case. Through Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and Instagram feeds, local politicians are more accessible than ever before. Constituents from all backgrounds and political stripes can express their opinion directly and be heard, with dramatic repercussions on how decisions are made. Today, no power broker can match the political heft of a well-organized and vocal public. This holds true whether you are a project proponent or an opponent.
This brings us back to the potential client, who instead hired a local power broker to work their magic and push the project through. I watched the council proceedings, which had to be moved to a local church to accommodate more than 200 protesters. Sitting in the front pew was the company president, a lawyer and the power broker. To their back was a standing room-only crowd of angry residents. In front of them, perched where the altar would have been, were the crowd’s elected representatives. Just two months earlier, a majority of them had publicly praised the project. Today they were stone-faced as the power broker took to the microphone, sweating through his shirt to deliver his clients’ appeal. But there was no hope. The power broker’s magic was gone, his influence eclipsed by an assertive, empowered and politically sophisticated public whose strength had relegated him to the shadows.
Kevin Powers is managing principal of Project Advocacy Inc., a subsidiary of Campbell Strategies, and is focused on helping project developers facing public and government opposition.