Former finance exec John Delaney leaves Congress on his own terms — to run for president in 2020

Once the NYSE’s youngest CEO, Rep. John Delaney is running for president as “a different kind of Democrat”
Once the NYSE’s youngest CEO, Rep. John Delaney is running for president as “a different kind of Democrat”

John Delaney leaves Congress in a few days, but not in defeat like so many of his colleagues. The wealthy former financial executive is leaving to ramp up his campaign for president.

Yes, you read that correctly. The outgoing representative from Maryland's 6th House District seeks the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Indeed, Delaney has been the one and only declared Democratic candidate for the last 17 months. After just four years on Capitol Hill, Delaney launched his bid in July 2017 in hopes of overcoming his absence of any national base or profile whatsoever. It hasn't worked yet; despite frequent visits, Delaney received his 1 percent support among Iowa Democrats in a recent Des Moines Register poll.

Listen to this episode and more of Speakeasy on Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, or wherever you listen.

Yet Delaney offers the brains and savvy that took him from a blue-collar upbringing to becoming the youngest CEO on the New York Stock Exchange in 1995. Now 55, he also brings a checkbook that permits him to finance his campaign at least through the earliest 2020 contests. He brands himself a practical problem-solver, capable of bringing both parties together to deliver on progressive goals such as universal health care and reductions in the carbon emissions that cause climate change.

Delaney sat down with CNBC Editor-at-Large John Harwood in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at Mei-Wah, an Asian restaurant near the offices of the finance firm for midsize businesses he ran before first running for Congress in 2012. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of their conversation.

John Harwood: What is that makes you a Democrat?

John Delaney: I have a real social justice orientation. It probably comes from my roots and my faith. My wife and I are active Catholics. We identify very much with the social justice mission of the church and I think that has made me much more oriented to the Democratic Party.

I also am somewhat, even though I'm a capitalist and I've spent most of my career in the private sector as an entrepreneur starting businesses, I believe strongly that there's a role for government to prepare our citizens for the world and to create a safety net for those that are inevitably left behind.

Harwood: You say you're a capitalist. Do you get the feeling that the drift of your party is in a different direction, or not?

Delaney: Not necessarily. I actually think the Democratic Party is pretty aligned on most things. Just like any political party though, it's big and there are people who align more with the democratic socialist part of our party and while I share some of the goals that they're trying to achieve like universal health care and making sure college is affordable and things like that, I happen to believe that private economy is an amazing innovation machine.

And has really been one of the things that have absolutely distinguished our country from other countries around the world. I think it's somewhat of a false choice to have to choose between capitalism and supporting the private economy but also having government have a role in helping people's lives.

Harwood: There's a whole bunch of people thinking about running for President on your side, but you're the only one who's actually declared and done it. Why?

Delaney: I think I'm the right person for the job and have the right vision for the country, but not enough people know who I am. That's why I had to declare early. To make sure I could get out there and introduce myself to the key voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Harwood: How would you describe the shape of the field and your place in it?

Delaney: I don't really think about it in those terms, in part because I'm a different kind of Democrat. If you look at the things I've worked on in the Congress, they've been progressive, they've been big ideas that I think will really change this country and make the future better, but I've consistently worked on finding common ground to get them done.

Harwood: Was that a deliberate evocation of Bill Clinton when you said a "different kind of Democrat"? That's the phrase he used in 1991 when he was trying to redefine the Democrat party as somewhat more moderate.

Delaney: No, it's not purposeful. I didn't actually realize he had said that. People try to often label me and because I worked with the other side I was ranked as the third most bipartisan member of Congress and because of my business background they assume I'm a moderate and centrist. I am, to some extent, because I think the power in this country is really in the center.

Harwood: Do you want to be known as a pro-business Democrat?

Delaney: Listen, I'm a pro-jobs Democrat and if you want to be pro-jobs, you, to some extent, have to be pro-business. Because business creates all the jobs in this country. I think about this notion of capitalism and trying to make it more just and inclusive over time. I'm hugely supportive of the private economy, which makes me pro-business, but I actually want it to work for workers.

Harwood: Do you think the current level of regulation of Wall Street and American business is adequate?

Delaney: I think in some ways it is and in some ways it isn't. I think our efforts to put protections on our natural world in a classic sense, have been good and appropriate. But have we done enough to deal with what's happening to carbon and what's going to lead to climate change? Absolutely not. Do I think we've done things to strengthen the financial system and make it so that we can withstand another significant downturn in the economy? Absolutely, the banks are much stronger than they were.

Harwood: What do you make of the big gyrations we've seen in financial markets over the last several weeks?

Delaney: I don't read too much into it. Markets go up and down because of how people think about the future, but also how they think about how things are priced. Right?

I look more at what's happening to people. What's happening to our citizens. I mean last year the Federal Reserve said that half of our country, if presented with a $500 surprise expense — meaning they wake up, something happens to their car, their house, or their health, their health care, and they need $500 — they don't have the savings or they don't have the capacity on their credit card. That, to me, is a much more worrisome statistic than what's happened with the stock market.

Harwood: After 2020 when you hope to be president, what are the two or three most urgent things for Democrats to do?

Delaney: I think we should build infrastructure. I think we should raise the earned income tax credit, put more money in people's pockets. I think we should fix our broken immigration and criminal justice systems.

Harwood: How do we pay for the first two things that you just mentioned?

Delaney: I had a proposal to build $1 trillion of infrastructure, fully paid for, 40 Democrats, 40 Republicans, head of Freedom Caucus, head of Progressive Caucus, and I paid it for it by tying it to international tax reform. Which they did in the last tax bill, but they didn't pair it with infrastructure. How much better would that tax reform, if within it …

Harwood: That's water under the bridge.

Delaney: But you can re-reform it, and pay for infrastructure. So instead of cutting corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 21 percent, if you cut it to 25 percent, which is what the business community asked for, you could've had a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

Harwood: So you'd like to take that corporate tax rate up a few points.

Delaney: As part of launching a trillion-dollar infrastructure program? Absolutely. I'd like more earned income tax credit. What I'd like to do is reform the capital gain system; I think capital gains and ordinary income rates should be the same unless you own the asset for a very long time. So I'd like to create incentives for people to own assets for seven or 10 years, because that means they'll invest in start-ups, they'll invest in infrastructure, the kind of stuff we need that has a much longer payback.

Harwood: What should the top personal rate be?

Delaney: Where it was before this last tax bill was what?

Harwood: 39.6 percent.

Delaney: Yeah, that was fine.

Harwood: Where does strengthening the ability of workers to organize, and what workers can do once they are organized, fit into your agenda?

Delaney: I'm pro-union. I think unions are the only people who wake up every day and actually fight for workers. They just don't fight for the workers in the unions, they fight for all workers. So I want to create a dynamic where it's a level playing field and unions have the right to organize. But I also realize a lot of the economy is not unionized right now.

Harwood: Should it be?

Delaney: I don't think things should or shouldn't be. I think people should have the right to organize, and if it's make sense for them and the company, they should do it. But neither of my businesses were unionized.

Harwood: You've been at this a year and a half. You got a very nice column from George Will about your candidacy, but you're at 1 percent. What conclusions do you draw right now about the viability of this enterprise? You know that people are going to watch this and say, "Come on, he doesn't have a chance."

Delaney: We have a great chance. I've been to all 99 counties. We've got 25 people on the ground in Iowa. I've got six offices open. I've got about 40 people on the team. We're going to run a major campaign in 2019. I'm going to be all over Iowa and New Hampshire.

Harwood: You're self-financing?

Delaney: I have the ability to finance my campaign through Iowa and New Hampshire.

Harwood: Is the only measure of the success of what you're doing now if you become president?

Delaney: So when my wife and I decided to do this, which is a leap of faith by definition …

Harwood: Absolutely.

Delaney: … right, where you have to say, are we doing it for the right reasons? Do we think we have something to say? Do we see a path to viability? And the answers to all of those questions were yes. And as long as I stay true to what I believe, which is this message of unity, common purpose and actually looking at the facts, being honest with the American people about our problems, being honest about the solutions and bringing people together to get those things done — as long as I stay true to that, there's no way this could be a bad experience.