The State of the State with former gubernatorial candidate Alan Webber
Originally published in Poster Boyz, October 12, 2016, by Devon Jackson.
For someone with no previous political experience, Alan Webber did way better than expected when running for governor back in 2014. Out of the five candidates in the democratic primary that year, he came in second to former state Attorney General Gary King (who went on to lose to incumbent Susana Martinez) and ahead of two state senators and a previous lieutenant governor candidate. Not bad for a white guy. A non-native white guy with no former ties to New Mexico (and who relocated here from Boston in 2003, no less).
“Failing isn’t failing—it’s failing to try,” says Webber over coffee at Capitol Coffee, a stone’s throw from the Roundhouse—only hours before the first debate between Clinton and Trump, and days before the recent special session over at the legislature (to try to do something about New Mexico’s grotesque budget deficit). “The person who gets the most votes isn’t always the person who wins.
“Running for office,” he adds, “is something everyone should do. I did it to make a difference.”
He may not have made the difference he’d been hoping to make, but after finishing with nearly 23 percent of the vote (behind King’s 35 percent), he got plenty of positive feedback. “[U.S. Senator] Tom Udall told me, ‘Don’t be discouraged. Run again,’” recalls Webber. “And [former governor] Bill Richardson called and said, ‘You ran a great race.’ Don’t stop.’”
Stop, he hasn’t seemed to. If anything, he appears to be laying the groundwork for a second run.
Aside from having founded OneNewMexico, a 505(c)3 nonprofit, whose mission is to “advance a new economic strategy for New Mexico” and “spotlight entrepreneurs and innovators who are already creating the future,” Webber has been busy giving webinars, penning op-eds and white papers, rekindling work he’d been doing for AARP before he ran for governor, and consulting—what might otherwise be known as “campaigning.”
That he only sounds a little like a politician is a good thing. He’s very personable and engaging one-on-one, and no doubt good at speechifying; the test, if he does make another run, would be how well he comes across to the hoi polloi en masse—speaking to crowds of reg’lar folk. After all, he and his wife, Frances Diemoz, an architect, urban planner, and woodworker, chose Santa Fe as their home. Santa Fe being great to and for people like Webber, but viewed as a bit precious and bubble-wrapped by the rest of the state—and an even harder sell when the Santa Fean is yet another transplanted Easterner (or Midwesterner-turned-Easterner, in Webber’s case, having been born and raised in St. Louis and later educated back East—at Amherst).
That he’s wicked smart and industrious are yet two more qualities with which New Mexicans seem to take issue. In addition to having been a D.C. policy wonk (in the Carter administration) before taking over the Harvard Business Review for over five years, in 1995 Webber also cofounded Fast Company (the fastest growing magazine in U.S. history), and worked as a speechwriter and policy advisor for several governors, including Massachusetts (and former presidential candidate) Michael Dukakis and those of Oregon and Michigan. Great prep for a run at governor anywhere—anywhere, it would seem, except for New Mexico.
No matter. “I’d look around and say, We’ve got to do better than this,” explains Webber of why he ran. “And I didn’t come away cynical.”
Besides, “Campaigning opened up the whole state to me,” he says. “What I also discovered is, if you sit down with people—from any walk of life—and you come with respect and mutual interest in the state’s future, people will engage with you.”
He also discovered other things while going around the Land of Entrapment, such as: “If everybody feels they’re different then they’re pretty much the same.” And: “Anybody can get together with anybody here. I could do that with the head of the teachers union or the business school at UNM [the Anderson School of Management].”
Those realizations and others led him toward not so much conclusions as to starting points. Which is where Webber likes to begin—not with a statement but with a question. Something he took away from a friend of his, Jim C. Collins, author of Good To Great, who “always starts with a question,” says Webber. “Because a good question is better than a good answer. And if you ask a good question you’ll get really good answers from really smart people. So I came up with the question: if New Mexico were a company trying to create a better future, what would its business model be?”
Which is the question he posed, and still poses, to New Mexicans. People’s responses then inform his work for OneNewMexico and his other writings. “We’re trying to change the conversation about the future here, and not have it be about things that are irrelevant or don’t work,” says Webber. Por ejemplo: the Governor’s right to work reform. “That was talking about things that won’t really work for people for the better.”
He then reels off a number of other people around the state, people engaged in what he believes most definitely does work: cultural entrepreneurship. There’s Ona Porter down in Albuquerque, CEO of Prosperity Works; Gordon West of Silver City, who has invented a biochar at Gila WoodNet that he hopes to produce and sell and use to revolutionize agricultural productivity; and Richard Schnieders, former CEO of Sysco who’s now a key player with MoGro, the mobile grocery store, and who’s looking into doing more with organic corn.
He’s sort of a do-gooder Democrat, but one who seems to believe—sort of—in the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. But only sort of—he doesn’t have the hard-linedness of your typical Republican or the anti-government persnicketiness of the average Libertarian. And he’s not out to shove his outsider ideas down the throats of traditional New Mexicans—who are genius at resisting change. Whether it’s beneficial to them or not.
After all, even though it has always been more of a social-movement publication than a business magazine, Fast Company is a champion of business. And under Webber’s watch, Fast Company proudly espoused the ethos that work is personal, and that business is a key component of social change. It’s an idea he pushed, and one he sees everywhere nowadays.
“People have decided that the best way to change the world is through business and work,” says Webber, who also helps with the Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse’s speakers series. “That’s one of the most effective ways of change. And it’s not an either/or choice. The truth is, all these companies that have gone on to great success, they needed public-sector help to get into business in the first place.”
But in a state lacking high-speed internet and ubiquitous cellphone service, growing a successful business or affecting social change is nigh impossible—particularly when people, politicians, don’t see them as essential or desirable. “These things are fixable,” observes Webber. “But you have to want to fix them.”
Especially in a time of crisis. And as he points out, New Mexico is in the midst of a crisis. And to paraphrase Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. (What he actually said was, right after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, while Emanuel was his chief of staff: “You never want a crisis to go to waste.”) The problem is, ironically, “We live in such a gorgeous state—clear blue skies, mountains all around, little to no traffic—how bad is the crisis?” asks Webber. “It’s right in front of your face elsewhere. But not here. So there’s little motivation to try to change things.”
So what Webber’s trying to do is get people to see how things really are, to fix what needs fixing, and embrace what’s worth embracing. “If you want the things you love in New Mexico to stay the same—history, culture—then some things are going to have to change,” he says. “Not deep things, but surface manifestations of them.
“People want what New Mexico has: authenticity,” he continues. “So why can’t we have a place that looks like the place that it is?”
New Mexico seems to attract oodles of Alan Webbers: rich guys, rich white guys (let’s not beat around the bush here or speak in code), who’ve made a killing somewhere else who move here because of its gorgeosity, who then get bored with all this beauty and frustrated by its bassackwardness and, because they’re the kind who always fancied themselves as one of the chosen few who knew how to do things and get shit done, figured they could get shit done here, too (only to run into the crushing inertia that is New Mexico, which has kept it at the bottom of so many lists—and ironically, has probably been what has allowed it to stay so beautiful and charming), but who in the bitter end don’t get shit done here. Who in time wind up on the ash-heap of rich white folks from outside New Mexico who give up (more or less) and either move away or fade away or join this or that board or run for some political office—only to lose. Like Webber did.
Webber, though, Webber, for one, is a baby boomer. They’re a different breed. They have ambition. And energy. A kind of restless energy that needs outlets, and welcomes challenges. Before he ran for governor, Webber was doing work for AARP. He and Richard Leider (author of Work Reimagined and The Power of Purpose) had been working on AARP’s new campaign, “Life Reimagined.” Which focuses on boomers and their need to keep doing—to have purpose in life. “Because boomers,” says Webber, “we think about what’s next—we’re not thinking about retiring.”
Webber probably could’ve retired years ago. After Fast Company’s investors sold off the magazine in 2000 for $360 million. Instead, he moved to Santa Fe.
And unlike the myriad proto-Webbers who’ve preceded him, Webber’s a committed New Mexican. A guy who comes from a place where not partaking in one’s community is anathema. “I’m going to live the rest of my life here,” asserts Webber. “And for me, civic engagement is crucial. It’s who I am. It’s how I was raised. And less civic engagement on the part of more people means fewer people get to decide for everyone’s future.”
That cynicism doesn’t sit well with him. Which is why he’s out there talking to as many people as he can. And always asking questions. “You make an impact by continuing to work at something,” he says. “And running for governor—that was the hardest and most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”
Then he smiles. Of course he already knows the question. “I wouldn’t rule out another run.”