December 99 / Thought Leader

The Zealot

Freedom of choice advocate Rick Berman preaches about DUI limits, the minimum wage and health care in the name of foodservice.

By Charles Bernstein

1299thought_hdrRick Berman likes to strike fear into the hearts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, labor unions and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In his campaign against them, Berman zeroes in on just a handful of key issues through the web of groups that he helps spin.

While he describes himself as a social liberal and an economic conservative, some label him a libertarian because of his intense dedication to freedom of choice. He holds no punches battling to give states rather than the federal government the edge in setting minimum-wage rates and blood-alcohol levels.

Berman demands absolute freedom "for adults to make choices on their own--whether the issue is bungee jumping, skydiving, smoking, red meat, sugar or alcohol."

"Rick is the consummate political strategist," says Brinker International CEO Ron McDougall, who is active in the Employment Roundtable and other Berman groups. "Rick takes an overwhelmingly complex situation and transforms it into a focused political game plan, quickly zeroing in on just the critical points. In short, he protects our interests to the hilt."

Some see Berman as a rival of the National Restaurant Association. Yet while there may have been bad feelings on both sides several years ago, Lee Culpepper, NRA's government affairs and public policy senior vice president, says, "I've worked with Rick for years, and indeed he is a lightning rod. People have strong feelings about him, but he helps the industry."

Strong feelings, indeed: "I have been personal friends with Rick Berman for 30 years," says National Safety Council Public Affairs Executive Director Chuck Hurley. "But I find most of his business views anti-safety and anti-health. Indeed, he has been a one-man wrecking crew on important issues like 0.08." Hurley, who is a MADD board member, warns that defending a higher legal blood-alcohol level is shortsighted. "A wall of liability will be coming at the chains, and with Berman's tactics they may win the battle and lose the war. After the tobacco issues are finally settled, the trial lawyers are going to focus on alcohol and come after the chains big-time."

1299thought_ssSays labor union consultant Richard Bensinger, who was AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's organizing director from 1996 to 1998. "I've debated a lot of management people, and Berman is by far the toughest one to reckon with. He is articulate, funny, dynamic, aggressive and polished--a real street fighter."

CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson doesn't think so. "Rick Berman is a vocal defender of his restaurant clients' interests," Jacobson says. "He is a tough opponent, but his criticisms often are sophomoric, crude and simple-minded and sometimes undermine his credibility, although his clients certainly appreciate his efforts."

Recently, Editor-At-Large Charles Bernstein sat down with Berman to talk about those efforts.

How does your approach differ from
the typical lobbyist one?

I have a different view of the restaurant industry than most association lobbyists. I spent 20 years on corporate staffs, 12 of those working in QSR and table-service dining. Most people in Washington don't get the opportunity to develop this insider perspective on a business they represent. A long-term exposure to the nuances of operations makes for a very different lawyer and lobbyist. As Richard Rivera told me years ago, he perceived a difference in our style from traditional lobbyists in that we always have a knife in our teeth.

Another difference is that we don't chase the smaller issues such as music licensing. Woody Allen's classic line that "80 percent of life is just showing up" has a flip side. Only 20 percent of life--and business--is really important. My agreement with clients is that our goal of exceeding expectations means just doing a few things well. In effect, our work is restricted to and focused on issues that affect shareholder value. These big issues include labor costs as they relate to health insurance and the minimum wage, achieving operator sales increases, and tax rates as they are affected in particular by payroll and excise taxes.

That knife-in-the-teeth remark indicates
a guerrilla warfare approach.

The government affairs business is changing as rapidly as communications in general. Today it is as much more about public opinion than lobbying. Getting your story told in the media is essential, and it requires more art than science. We constantly adjust our strategy, which is uncomfortable for some people. Consequently, we only retain those who thrive on change. But we remain thoroughly research-based and gather all the facts before we try to communicate anything to the media.

In which areas have you made a
real difference?

Games are usually won by a series of singles. But we have experienced a few home runs. One example is from 1995. When two prominent Princeton economists claimed a higher minimum wage would increase employment, the EPI knocked the braces out from under their research by sorting through thousands of data points. After we released our findings, the Joint Economic Committee in Congress held a special hearing to highlight our analysis, disproving Princeton's research.

Reports still persist that you and the National Restaurant Association feud with each other
on key issues. Are those reports true?

No, we do have different priorities. Yet we really complement--not compete with--the NRA. Happily, their new team under Steve Anderson is open to thinking outside the box.

How will your new Employment Roundtable develop and influence public policy?

Our second ER meeting, in early 2000, will focus on developing our own public policy options for the uninsured. There are 44 million people without health insurance for some part of the year, and this number is growing by 1 million annually. This is a volatile issue, and we need our own offense rather than just trying to play defense against another Clinton-type mandate idea. In addition, we'll be looking at the entire payroll tax "solution" to so many of society's problems. It simply has become too easy to raise employment taxes to fund social needs driven ever faster by an aging population.

Your Guest Choice Network activities have stirred up
a storm. Is that strategy working?

The fact is that other groups drive consumer behavior on meat, alcohol, fat, sugar, tobacco and caffeine with outrageous quotes, exaggeration, junk science and even violent acts. In particular, the CSPI drove a whole segment's food sales way down with its unfair criticisms of food served in Mexican restaurants. Few companies spend any serious time monitoring the lunatic fringe and developing long-term strategies to meet these challenges. Thus our clients have encouraged us to fill this void. We believe in a hard-hitting early response before it is too late. All too often, the restaurant industry falls back on a series of defensive reactions as a substitute for a strategy. Our offensive strategy is to shoot the messenger. Given the activists' plans to alarm beyond all reason, we've got to attack their credibility as spokepersons. Through painstaking research we often manage to refute their exaggerations.

You often go head to head with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. How are you faring
in your struggle to keep the blood alcohol content standard at 0.10?

Our holding the BAC line against MADD's persistent efforts to lower it has been a definite victory. Our strategy is to encourage keeping the issues on a state rather than federal level and fighting it from there. Actually, we've been on six major network TV shows opposite MADD, including three times on The Today Show, and another such debate looms soon. They have emotion on their side. Yet when they attack social drinking, their arguments become unhinged. Admittedly, the results of our debates often are in effect a tie. But given the expectations, we really win all ties. We are looking forward to another scheduled debate with MADD's current president, Carolyn Nunalee, [in December].

What have been your toughest
career challenges?

While employed as labor law director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1970s, I was diagnosed with a rare cancer and given a bleak prognosis. I wasn't sure I could stay interested in my job, and I decided to move on to help renew my focus. My good fortune was to receive an offer from Norman Brinker at Steak and Ale, where I started a government affairs program. When I launched my own consulting business 12 years later, another huge challenge emerged. I learned the difficulty of selling a service to clients whose value is difficult to quantify.

Who were your mentors?

Two people. Norman Brinker has had an enormous effect on my life through his subtle leadership and by setting the very best examples for others to follow. He established a culture and value system at Steak and Ale that rewarded aggressive goals, neatly coupled with an accommodation for failure.

My dad is another big influence. He ran gas stations and car washes in New York City, and I pumped gas, fixed flats and did minor repairs every weekend and summer from the time I was 12 years old. Working with him and listening to him provided great perspectives on building a business and also taught me a lot about myself.



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