By James Irwin
Mark Warner, B.A. ’77, failed in his first two attempts at being an entrepreneur. Broke, and living out of his car at age 25, he was told of a new investment opportunity: cell phones.
“A buddy of mine said this was going to change the world,” the U.S. senator from Virginia said at an event at GW Tuesday night. “I told a bunch of my law school friends they should invest in this. And they said, ‘Warner, you are so crazy. Go get a real job. Who is ever going to want a cell phone?’”
It turned out, just about everybody wanted one.
“In what is kind of a unique American story, I got a third chance,” Sen. Warner said.
The Columbian College graduate made the most of it. Sen. Warner, who turned those early failures into a long, prosperous career in venture capital and public service, spoke and fielded questions for more than 50 minutes in the Marvin Center Amphitheater, at a discussion hosted by the GW College Democrats. The class of 1977 valedictorian talked of his time at GW, his failures and successes in business, and a range of current issues — including deficit reduction, foreign affairs and bipartisanship.
“I didn’t know he had failed so much in his private sector career and was struggling to make ends meet,” said Columbian College junior Omeed Firouzi, president of the GW College Democrats. “It was interesting to hear somebody like him had failed and was able to remake himself into a successful guy.”
Sen. Warner endured early hardship in business. Shortly after completing law school, he took his entire life savings and dumped it into an energy company that went belly-up. He later failed at real estate. But he also got a taste of meaningful success, landing his first internship on Capitol Hill as a GW freshman (he biked to work every morning wearing a “nasty green corduroy suit” and sorted mail). He later worked for pioneers Ella Grasso, the first female governor of Connecticut, and Doug Wilder, the first African-American governor of Virginia.
After succeeding in telecommunications, he ran for political office in 1996, attempting to unseat longtime U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va. (no relation). To emphasize the difference between the two candidates, the challenger's campaign team created "Mark, not John" bumper stickers.
"I was in Danville, Virginia, handing out those bumper stickers," Sen. Warner said. "Someone comes by and asks, ‘Is that a Biblical reference?’"
Sen. Warner lost that tightly contested election by five points — "I got the silver medal," he joked. In 2001, he was elected governor of Virginia, and in 2008, he ran for Senate again, defeating Jim Gilmore by a wide margin, leveraging his business success to capture two-thirds of the popular vote.
“You hear a lot of people who say there are so many Democrats who don’t have experience in the private sector but he does have that experience, so he can negate a lot of those criticisms,” Mr. Firouzi said.
Sen. Warner answered audience questions Tuesday night ranging from Syria (“a huge, moral, sectarian, ethical issue — the kind of thing that makes Iraq look simple”) to energy (“I believe in an all-of-the-above principle; we’re not going to move off fossil fuels overnight”) and his willingness to debate his own party on topics like entitlement reform.
“I get frustrated at times with the folks on our side who say, ‘I just can’t believe the intellectual dishonesty of Republicans on climate change,’ and then turn around and say, ‘We should never touch Medicare or Social Security,’” Sen. Warner said. “The numbers on Social Security involve a 22 percent cut in benefits sometime between 2029 and 2032. That’s just math.”
Politics, Sen. Warner said, can be “a weird business,” especially in an era of stark partisanship. He made headlines for eschewing party loyalty to engage on a deficit deal in 2011 and for receiving a re-election endorsement last month from his predecessor, John Warner, a five-term Republican senator.
Along the way, the man who biked from Foggy Bottom to Capitol Hill has found his moral compass an apt barometer for public office.
“Even if you disagree with someone you have to find some common ground,” Sen. Warner said. “Politics sometimes forces us to our corners. My mentality was always: Don’t sacrifice your principles, but try and get things done.”