Don Brunell's Montana upbringing in a small town near Butte, in a household where his father was both mayor and a union official and his family owned a small business, provided him a unique preparation to guide Washington's largest business advocacy organization.
He early came to understood business, politics and labor from the inside, allowing him to put himself in the shoes of those on the other side of issues. His first job, as a journalist, helped him develop the abilities to observe and communicate, and a stint in the early '70s as press aide to a Montana congressman added to his understanding of the inner workings of politics.
His belief in roots and relationships comes naturally for a man who grew up in a house on the same block where his great grandparents and grandparents lived and where he and his brother went door to door collecting 75-cent monthly payments from customers of the family's Walkerville Garbage Service.
And the roots and the early job background were important assets for success in his role with the Association of Washington Business, helping chart the strategy for business in a state where Democrats always occupied the governor's mansion and usually controlled the legislature during his years at the helm.
I visited over coffee with Brunell to get his reflections on his 28-year career with AWB, which he joined as a vice president and head lobbyist in 1985 at a time when the organization was in disarray politically and at a low point in terms of support from businesses themselves. He was named president two years later.
He will move out of his office on December 20, the day after AWB closes for the Christmas holidays, he said, explaining "It would break me up to move out while all of those in the office, half of whom have been with me for more than 10 years, were looking on." And he learned this week that the board has decided to name the AWB building in his honor.
But he's been staying away from the office as much as possible in recent weeks to allow his successor, Kris Johnson, who joined AWB three years ago as vice president of operations after 15 years of leadership roles at various chambers of commerce, to settle into his new role, which was announced in early October.
As a member of his board from soon after he took the helm of AWB in 1987 through the 1990s, I watched him from the inside deal successfully with the often conflicting political pressures within the organization, composed mostly of small businesses but ultimately guided by the largest companies.
But he handled those struggles within the business community with the same deftness with which he dealt with politicians. His philosophy on conflicts? "I try not to second guess or comment on motives; rather just deal with the issues, realizing there are differences."
And as the most visible face of business in a usually Democrat-controlled political environment, Brunell frequently found himself in the cross hairs when one of the governors was riled over the business stance on a particular issue.
"Most of the times, the calls from the governors came at night after I was home," he recalled. "One night, Booth (Gardner) was furious and I can't remember what the issue was. Our youngest son was about 6 at the time and answered the phone. Booth introduced himself and asked Dan if he could talk to me. Dan put the phone on the table and yelled: 'Dad, some guy names BOOF wants to talk to ya!' By the time I got the phone, Booth was laughing so hard that he asked me to stop by in the morning to talk about whatever the issue was."
Brunell had special praise for Gardner's successor, Mike Lowry, with whom he had a close relationship despite the fact that many in the business community, especially small business people, viewed Lowry as the hated enemy.
"Lowry would call me at home madder than a wet hen about something, particularly during the 1993 session, and some nights and I just held the phone out at the end of my arm until he had finished yelling at me." Brunell recalled with a chuckle.
"So after he blew off steam, I'd go up to his office and we'd look at one another and then we'd figure out what to do," he said, adding"Lowry could blow his stack at you one day and be smiling the next. He never personalized anything, and if he said something, you could bank on it, and if he changed his mind, he'd tell you he had changed his mind."
"All of the governors are different, but they wouldcall and we always had the ability to work through things," he said. "Sometimes we'd agree to disagree and move on. We were always able to avoid personalizing differences."
Brunell, intended to be a teacher but after graduating from the University of Montana, he joined the Army Special Forces, then wound up in journalism as a reporter, first for the Montana Standard in Butte then the Daily Missoulian.
Thus he never made it into teaching ranks himself, but is proud that five of his six children are teachers, "and their spouses are teachers."
And education has remained a key involvement for Brunell. In addition to spending a week each summer as a teacher at BusinessWeek, AWB's signature summer business-education program for high school students, Brunell was instrumental in bringing the program to Poland three years ago. And each year he has personally been involved with the high school students there.
And with he and his wife, Jeri, who also grew up in Montana's legendary mining country, having 14 grandchildren, he's kept kids as an important focus, in addition to education.
He brought AWB together with unions, trial attorneys, doctors and defense attorneys in 1995 to organize Kids' Chance, a scholarship program for spouses and children of workers permanently disable or killed on the job and has served as the organization's treasurer since its founding, with a $220,000 seed grant from Walmart.
And 25 years ago, AWB launched the Holiday Kids' Tree Project, with a massive tree placed in the Capitol Rotunda each Christmas season where donations are taken to help needy families in rural Washington through firefighters and emergency responders "who have the best knowledge of those in need in their areas."
I asked Brunell for his thoughts on the political scene he leaves behind. He's optimistic about the future at the state level, suggesting he sees more movement toward the political center, "which is where you have to govern from."
"But Washington, DC, is real troubling for me," he added. "I was a congressional aide during Watergate, but still things got done and the parties could work together on important issues. They knew each other and spent time together."
"Today, everything back there is centered on fundraising. It never stops. It is way too partisan and there is way too much money spent by wealthy groups stumping for causes," he added. "If you run for office today, count on being dragged through the mud and disgraced. Politics has always been a contact sport, but there has to be a set of rules of civility.
"Also the American people are tired of being manipulated and lied to," he concluded.
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