One of the top Democratic firms in the country is privately urging top officials in the party to leave Starbucks out of the burgeoning feud with the company’s former CEO and presidential aspirant, Howard Schultz.
Officials at SKDKnickerbocker, a progressive public affairs and consulting firm, have been reaching out to Democratic operatives in the last week expressing fear the animus directed at Schultz over his proposed independent presidential bid was having a spillover effect on the coffee conglomerate he used to lead.
One operative on the receiving end of the outreach said that the firm, which lists Starbucks as a client, offered to put a top Starbucks executive on the phone to discuss concerns over the politicization of their company in response to a prospective Schultz campaign.
“They really wanna make sure that Democrats and liberals aren’t going after Starbucks and are stressing that it’s not fair to the company,” said the operative, who relayed details about the conversation on condition of anonymity.
A top official at SKDK, which is squarely Democratic in its politics, confirmed that they were making such overtures. But the official stressed that while SKDK was pushing back on attacks against Starbucks—including the possibility of a national boycott—they felt that going after Schultz and his record running company was fair game.
“The company today isn’t run by Schultz, hasn't been run by Schultz [as he's considered running for president], he is not even on the board,” said the SKDK official, who spoke about private conversations on condition of anonymity. “So trying to punish Schultz through Starbucks is unfair when this company has done a huge amount of good and social impact. When you conflate the two you are making an assumption that the company is involved in politics when they’re not.”
Schultz, who stepped down as Starbucks’ executive chairman in June, has said that he will ultimately decide on a presidential bid in the coming months. But already, his consideration of a run has put his old company in the political crosshairs.
Though there has been no organized effort to date, calls for a national boycott have bubbled online, leading to fears within SKDK that Starbucks’ workers may be economically harmed by the anti-Schultz backlash. Last week, Kevin Johnson, the current CEO of Starbucks, released a message to employees in which he acknowledged that Schultz has raised questions about the political affiliations of the company he used to run. “As a company,” Johnson wrote, “we don’t get involved in national political campaigns.”
The prospective Schultz candidacy has caused its own set of problems for SKDK too. The consulting firm has helped Starbucks navigate tricky social and political issues in the past, from minimum wage hikes, to veteran and refugee hiring, to race relation PR efforts.
The company remains a client. But one of SKDK’s top officials, Bill Burton, left to go work for Schultz as he explored a run, forcing the firm to clarify that it was uninvolved in that specific effort and would continue to do everything in its power to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020.
Whether the firm can maintain that line in the event of Schultz actually running is not entirely clear to other Democrats.
Opposition research firms affiliated with the party have already begun digging in on Howard Schultz' record. And the operative who received outreach from SKDK noted that any effort to defeat a Schultz candidacy would have to entail extensive investigation of his time at Starbucks as well as how the company was operating currently. Though Schultz may have left the company, he retains the title of chairman emeritus and his stake in Starbucks is estimated to be more than $2 billion.
“He may not be on the board,” the operative said, “but he is a large beneficiary of their success.”