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Interview: Howard Schultz makes case for independent run for White House

The billionaire and former Starbucks CEO talks climate change, health care, offshore drilling and gun control. Yes he knows about Ross Perot.

TAMPA — The man who turned a small Seattle coffee business into a global coffee behemoth was already clutching a double short flat white when he arrived Friday morning at Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa.

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, was in town as part of a book tour and to speak to the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. But it is his possible run for the White House as an independent that has thrust the 65-year-old billionaire firmly back into the spotlight.

Saying that America is fed up with the dysfunction in Washington D.C., Schultz is staking out a centrist platform based on reducing the nation's spending deficit and immigration reform he says will appeal to voters turned off by polarized politics from both Republicans and Democrats.

While his speeches have been light on specifics, he has raised eyebrows — and been criticized as naive — for saying he would only appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices who could be confirmed by two-thirds of the Senate and that he would refuse to sign any legislation not supported by both parties.

A lifelong Democrat, he recently blasted Democratic presidential candidates as being too socialist for America. Democrats in turn have warned that a Shultz candidacy would make it more likely for President Donald Trump to win a second term.

Schultz sat down with the Tampa Bay Times on Friday to talk about the presidency, global warming, health care, offshore drilling and gun reform. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

You haven’t yet formally filed to run for president but why are you seriously considering it?

America is facing a very fragile moment in our long history. And that fragile moment also is threaded into the fragile nature of the world. Never in my lifetime have I seen such a level of dysfunction and divisiveness and a lack of moral leadership by both sides, Democrats and Republicans, and certainly I have concerns about the person in the Oval Office. We are sitting currently with significant problems that need to be solved: an immigration problem, gun legislation, $22 trillion in national debt, millions of American families that have been left behind, who have lost faith in the promise of the country.

In my view, (we've had) just a terrible level of leadership during this current administration. But before that both parties were steeped in a level of ideology at extremes. Those extremes don't represent the vast majority of the American people. And I think the American people are longing for truth and an opportunity to come together. We've had periods in our history where we've had fractured leadership, but we've never had a period in our history in my 65 years of life like this. And so I feel very strongly that the two-party system is broken and not only needs repair but needs to be transformed. And what I'm seriously considering is running for president outside of the two-party system as a centrist independent.

Right now there's 30 percent of the American people who are registered independent and an additional 12 percent say they would affiliate themselves as an independent if there was a legitimate choice. And the choice very well could be worse than we had in 2016. That is a choice between reelecting Donald Trump or a Democrat that is representative of socialistic ideas and proposals. Both of which I think are unacceptable to me and millions of Americans. These problems can be fixed, but they can't be fixed with a level of dysfunction and polarization.

You have 79 percent of the American people saying for the last year we want a sensible common sense solution to immigration. An even higher percentage say we want a sensible common-sense solution to gun legislation. And then the national debt that no one's talking about is such a significant problem because the level of complicity of both parties in piling up this debt at a time in America where we're not going to have the resources to fund the things that we need, let alone for the next generation. And so, as someone who grew up poor in Brooklyn in the projects, as someone who's built a company that has given free college tuition, health care and ownership to every employee in a company that now is in 77 countries, I've demonstrated not only the leadership to build a global organization but the understanding that not every business decision is an economic one and that success needs to be shared.

Many political commentators are saying it is now more difficult to run from the center, that there is no base. You also faced criticism from Democrats that your candidacy would give President Trump a better chance at re-election.

I don't agree with the conclusion people are reaching on both fronts. First up, we're 18 months away, so no one knows really what's going to happen. But it's a false narrative to reach a conclusion today that for some reason I'm going to take votes away from the Democrats. Millions of lifetime Republicans do not want to reelect Donald Trump on the issue of character morality but they have nowhere to go. My theory of the case is that if I enter the race, many, many more Republicans will be willing to look very closely at the opportunity of what I'm going to offer up the country as well as Democrats. The vast majority of Americans are not represented by the ideology of the extremes but they haven't had an opportunity to vote for somebody who is representative of the central positions, of sensible common sense solutions.

In the last 30-plus years, the presidential elections have been decided basically by eight to 10 battleground states.So if you’re a Democrat in Arizona, or Republican in California, your vote really doesn’t matter because it’s predetermined those states are either red or blue. Maybe if I enter the race over 40 states, including Texas and Florida, — both of which if Donald Trump loses, he can’t get to 270 (electoral college votes) — will be in play and the entire election process changes.

What is your position on offshore drilling, something that worries a lot of Floridians?

I think we've got to be extremely sensible and very, very careful about the fragile nature of the environment. Climate change has to be at the forefront of what the next President's agenda is going to be. Anything that is going to have an adverse effect on the environment, regardless of the economic short-term realities, has to be looked at with great thoughts on this and great discipline.

In the wake of the Parkland high school shooting, gun control has been a prominent issue in Florida. What are your plans on gun control legislation?

I've been very consistent on this subject even before the tragic situation in Parkland. So first and foremost, the Second Amendment needs to be preserved and respected for what it is. For me, that means people who legally register their gun, people who have an affiliation with guns as a sport or for hunting, all that needs to be respected and preserved. But my view with regard to (assault weapons), they need to be taken out of our society. This is a perfect example for me, when you have the vast majority of Americans who have been asking and demanding that we have sensible gun laws in this country for years. And yet the Republicans and Democrats are unwilling to listen to the will of the people, the president unwilling to listen to the will of the people.

How would you tackle climate change and, specifically, should there be a carbon tax?

Interestingly, I spent the whole week in Texas,and I learned something I did not know. You would think that their the engine of growth is oil and gas, which is true. But while I was there, I learned Texas is now the leader, the number one state in the country, in wind energy. Texas has been able to maintain their commitment to oil and gas and drilling obviously, and at the same time, create economic opportunity with wind energy, as well as wind energy being clean.

I'm an entrepreneur. I created a business and in many ways an industry that did not exist. So when I'm faced with a subject like a carbon tax, I immediately go to a much broader spectrum of how do you achieve this and make it accretive to the consumer. I think there are creative ways to incentivize the marketplace and the consumer that is not punitive on the consumer.

What are your plans to address health care?

It's my firm belief that every American should have access to affordable healthcare full stop. Since the Affordable Care Act went into law, the Republicans spent eight years under (President) Obama saying, we want to eradicate the Affordable Care Act without offering any solution to replace it or to fix it. Just get rid of it. That was a Republican position. Then under President Trump, the Democrats are now offering a new idea, which is Medicare for all in which the government is going to take over health care in America. There are a number of problems with that, one of which is that over a 10-year period, it's north of $30 trillion. And then the consumer loses the opportunity to select their primary health insurance and/or their primary doctor. The United States government doesn't have $30 trillion on top of $22 trillion (deficit) to pay for it. .

The solution in my view, is to go back and recognize the Affordable Care Act, although not perfect, and premiums have risen almost two (times) since it was initiated is in place, is in many cases working for the American people. Let's go back into the Affordable Care Act and address the core issue, which is the premium issue and the fact that the American consumer is paying higher for prescription drugs than the UK. One of the reasons is because the lobbyists within the United States have done a very good job in preventing the United States government from negotiating with the drug companies on behalf of the consumer. That is a major problem and that needs to be fixed immediately. And that is the fox in the hen house.

Those premiums have to get lower, we need interstate commerce among the insurance industry, which will give more flexibility, more choice to the consumer. We need transparency in the system for prescription drugs. Then we need businesses in America to understand their moral obligation to do more for their employees. I'm not saying only Starbucks has done it. We're not perfect, but we've demonstrated we can do this thing and still make a profit.

Even in a period of record full employment, wages don’t seem to be rebounding at a pace that economists would expect. Why is that and how would you change that?

We have a significant issue of inequality in America. That gap is widening and it should be concerning for every American. The greatness of America and the promise of America can't be achieved if people lose faith in the promise of the country and don't feel like the American Dream is accessible to them.

I disagreed when President Trump lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent. I would never have done that. I would have lowered the corporate tax rate to a more modest number and then I would have provided significant incentives for businesses across the country to provide education for their employees, training for their employees, and doing other things for the communities we serve. This is an era right now where we have the beginning, and I don't want to overstate this, of a crisis of capitalism in America. I say that because there needs to be a greater understanding that businesses and business leaders have a obligation and responsibility to do more for their people and the communities we serve, to begin to help this issue of inequality in America.

When businesses are getting bailed out and getting lower tax rates, people are being left behind. That is wrong, that is un-American, that's not what we should be doing. At Starbucks, we did three things that no other company has ever done before: health care, ownership and free education. It can be done. And so businesses have a much bigger responsibility going forward, especially with the country sitting with $22 trillion of debt.

What is it that will convince you one way or another about running?

I've been traveling the country now for five weeks. I'm going to do that for the next few months. Texas last week, this week Florida, next week Colorado. The crowds are getting larger, people are interested in and excited about what I have to say. I'll make a firm decision probably by late spring, early summer. I have the courage of my convictions. I love the country. I'm profoundly concerned about where we are, and I and I think there's a real opportunity here we'll just have to see how it plays out.

Have you looked at the Ross Perot campaign (a Texas industrialist who ran as an independent in 1992 and received 18.97 percent of the popular vote)

I think Ross Perot 1992 was a very different time. The county’s never been this divided; the government’s never been this polarized; American people have never been so dissatisfied. There’s a real opportunity here.