Liberal Shift Seen In Local Business Leaders, Survey Says

November 17, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

The director of Loyola College's new Center for Family, Work and Education in Columbia said a recent survey of Howard County business leaders shows a surprisingly liberal shift that he expects could eventually influence local public policy.

Joseph Procaccini studied 130 responses to the 12-question survey, which asked opinions on such issues as gun control (87 percent favored it), abortion (65 percent believe it is not morally wrong), and the availability of condoms in the public schools (78 percent support it). The survey was distributed last month to about 350 top executives selected at random.

"The bottom line is that they seem to be much more liberal progressive than people think," he said. "They're really children of the '60s and '70s taking over these businesses," and the antithesis of the "stodgy man in the gray flannel suit" stereotype.

Procaccini hopesthe survey will be a catalyst for business leaders to discuss the issues among themselves and with other community leaders. Many school and government officials, he believes, are sensitive to the views of the business community but believe it to be "the last bastion of traditional values."

The survey is a natural starting point for Loyola's new center, which opened in August. The center was created to examine adversarial relationships between the workplace, school and familyand to come up with strategies for improvement.

Toward that effort, he said, "one of the first things to do is get into the heads of the people in charge."

For example, Procaccini emphasized the potential relevance of the survey's findings on condom availability in high schools. School officials last school year rejected an effort by Howard County student leaders to introduce a contraceptive kit as part of ninth-grade sex education classes.

Procaccini said he believes that progressive-minded business leaders could eventually influence such policies.

Often considered the guardians of traditional conservative values, the business leaders' responses confirmed Procaccini'sown observations.

In his dealings with local business leaders as a management teacher and business researcher for 20 years in Howard County, Procaccini said he has noticed a shift to more liberal views.

He said some executives have even complained to him of stress caused by a conflict between their public positions on issues and their more liberal personal beliefs, he said.

The survey showed that 42 percent consider homosexuality an acceptable lifestyle, while 51 percent find it unacceptable. A decade ago, he says, a much greater numberwould have disapproved of hiring or keeping a homosexual employee.

The survey also showed that one third of respondents believe marijuana should be legalized, and that 74 percent support euthanasia in some cases.

The response to capital punishment was conservative, however -- 88 percent agreed that some criminals should be executed.

Dennis Lane, president of the Columbia Business Exchange, said he wasnot surprised by the survey results. The word "liberal" is negatively loaded, he said, and one that business leaders rarely use to definethemselves, even if it fits.

"Labels are what scare people," he said. And in the business world, "conservative" is always seen as a sign of stability.

"If you asked these same people if they were liberals or sympathized with liberal is sues, they would say 'No,' " Lanesaid. "What bank wants to lend money to a wild, 'liberal' businessman?"

But he also believes that some of the so-called liberal responses are more likely "practical" positions. Responses on the issues ofgun control and condoms, for example, might simply be practical answers to the problems of violent crime and the spread of AIDS, he said,and not reflect a political viewpoint.

Lane said he is not sure how much clout the business community -- especially the smaller businesses represented by his group -- have in county government or school administration.

"I don't know that businesses have that much influence," he said. "Does anybody call me and ask me about these things be sides (the press)? No."

But Alan Rifkin, a former legislative aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and a well-known attorney in county business circles, said county businesses play an integral part in county governance.

He disputes the suggestion that Howard County's business leaders have ever reflected traditionally conservative values.

"The biz community in the county is very socially conscious andvery progressive," which is due in large part to the fabric of Columbia and the principles of founder James Rouse, he said.

"A lot of the businesses took their social lead from Jim Rouse," who has championed the cause of creating housing for America's poor.

A Columbia resident himself, Rifkin is general counsel to the county Economic Forum, "which brings all kinds of disadvantaged groups together with the business community." Its work, he said, is "an incredible statement" about the cooperation between business and social leaders.

But another executive familiar with the views of county business leaders said she doesn't see as much liberal thinking as the survey would indicate.

"I still see a split in the business community, some people still liberal and some people still conservative," said Nancy L. Smith, corporate secretary of the Columbia-based Ryland Group Inc. And while "the business community is a group that government and private sector do look to for an opinion. . . . I don't think that the businesscommunity dictates to the (rest of the) community."

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