Deep down, Sen. Mark Warner says, he still feels a lot like a businessman — and that was a side of himself he showed to about 200 College of William and Mary students on a two-day swing through the Peninsula this week.
Telling them he wanted to talk about Russia and about the state of American capitalism, the former cell phone executive turned governor and then Senator, trotted out a line familiar to his staff: "I've been a businessman longer than than I've been a politician."
And that's given him a perspective that he's not sure enough of the nation's leaders are thinking about.
"Something has happened to capitalism, everything has accelerated so fast," he told the students at a Monday afternoon session. "We ought to have a capital market that wants to get long-term value."
And, he added, the nation needs to do some hard thinking about the nearly one-third of Americans who aren't working at permanent full time jobs, but who — probably like many of the students — would be working in the gig economy, or as contractors or consultants or piecing together part-time jobs to make a living.
Things his dad counted on, during a roughly four decade career with one company — a retirement plan, disability benefits, unemployment insurance, health coverage — are harder to get without that old-fashioned style of work.
That's why he outlined, both for the students and a meeting of the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, his hopes for some pilot programs he's argued for on Capitol Hill, to see if there's a way to create benefits that travel with a person from job to job.
"I know I'm getting a little wonky," he told the chamber gathering in the midst of a long discourse on how interstate competition, insurance pools and a more modest set of benefits targeted for young people could improve Obamacare.
Warner's two days on the Peninsula kicked off a week of driving across the state — from Richmond to Appomattox to Roanoke and on up the Shenandoah Valley to Charlottesville — taking advantage of a brief Senate recess.
He's been in the news a lot, as vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, talking about Russian interference with the 2016 election and the bipartisan effort he expects the committee to pursue to get to the bottom of that.
"This is not because Vladimir Putin is pro-Republican, it's about Vladimir Putin being anti-American," he told the chamber, echoing comments to the W&M students.
The Russians "really didn't like Hillary Clinton," Warner said, adding that Putin blames her for encouraging protests in Russia, for the embarrassing Panama Papers release of documents that, among other things, tracked Russian corruption and for the controversy over the doping of Russian athletes
Russian interference, an expansion of efforts they'd already used in Bulgaria, Hungary and Montenegro, so worried the Dutch in their elections earlier this year that officials decided to hand count ballots, while the director of Germany's intelligence community has reported the entire Bundestag (the national legislature) has been hacked, Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the students.
"He wants to be able to go to his people and say 'look what a mess democracy is.'" Warner said.
Warner said the 17 U.S. agencies involved with intelligence agree that Russian operatives hacked into Democratic and Republican party networks since at least the spring of last year and used what they'd gathered to disrupt the election.
Focus on technology
American policymakers need to focus on protecting critical cyber infrastructure, while lawmakers and business need to take a hard look at whether the algorithms that highlight web or social media posts are too easily exploited by those like the Russian hackers so active in last year's election, he said
But for a man who made his fortune in the cell phone business, in large part by ignoring conventional wisdom about the market for what were then new devices, he had a tough time keeping away from talking business.
Satellites, particularly the idea of encouraging development of smaller, commercial ones — a business he believes the Peninsula is well placed to exploit — are a recent theme.
On the one hand, American satellites are exquisite pieces of advanced technology, a keystone of military and intelligence strategy, he told the students.
But on the other: "they're kind of like big fat cows floating up in the sky. It's kind of like nobody in the military community ever saw a James Bond movie where the bad guys trying to take over the world shoot lasers to blow up a satellite."
China has recently done exactly that, sending up a satellite for the sole purpose of showing it could shoot it down.
Warner told the W&M students that America's current technical prowess makes it vulnerable at times, as the Russian hacking shows.
Where to invest
And, at the same time, he worries that the nation is short-shrifting investment in the future.
"When I looked at investing in a business, I looked at the people, at plant and equipment and at where they're positioned in the market," he told a gathering of the Peninsula Chamber of Commerce the next day. "I wanted to invest in a business that invests in its people, that invests in its infrastructure and maintaining ts competitive position."
But that's not what the federal government is doing, with only 6 percent of its budget slated for infrastructure, education and research and development, he added.
"The economy has changed, but I feel like both parties are wistful for something in past," said Warner on Tuesday, traveling between the fifth and sixth events of his two day Peninsula visit. Republicans have turned to economic nationalism, seeing trade and immigration policies as a way to protect jobs, while Democrats seem to yearn for the days of bigger government and lots of income redistribution.
"But I think there are opportunities," he said. "There are opportunities for Virginia. There's an opportunity for the whole nation, for people to still feel that they can get a fair shake."
Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.