Howard Schultz's 'Third Place'

Starbucks guru greeted by uneasy liberals in Seattle

Howard Schultz
Howard Schultz / Getty Images
February 1, 2019

SEATTLE—Before the sold out crowd at the Moore Theater got to see Howard Schultz, they were instructed to fix their eyes on the screen at center stage.

The slick campaign-style video certainly gives the appearance of a candidate, splicing Schultz's rags-to-riches story with images of veterans, LGBT activists, and children. Phrases like "all inclusive," "country over party," and "the power of we" were used.

Schultz was ostensibly at the theater to sell books, but the conversation never veered too far off the former Starbucks chairman and CEO's announcement a week ago that he is considering running for president as a centrist independent.

A group of protesters were sequestered off across the street, imploring Schultz to "pick a party" and "compost your campaign." Another sign read, "Grande ego. Venti mistake."

Liberals are less than happy about Schultz's prospective third party candidacy, worried the lifelong Democrat will siphon away anti-Trump votes in 2020. They're calling for boycotts. He has already been heckled on his book tour.

At the original Starbucks store on Pike Place earlier in the day there were no protesters, just a steady flow of tourists.

"No we haven't seen anything like that," said the Starbucks employee greeter. "The company sent out a thing saying to expect [protests] but we haven't seen anything."

Starbucks instructed its baristas on how to handle "aggressive" liberal customers upset at Schultz's potential third party run. The most aggressive customers at Pike Place Market were the third graders on a field trip crowding the counter waiting for their Frappuccinos (with extra whipped cream).

Schultz's political platform is a lot like his signed message on the wall of the first store, which he expanded into a global empire with roughly 29,000 locations.

"This is where it all began … My dream to build a company that fosters respect and dignity."

"Onward with love," he signs the note.

He speaks of the "Third Place." It's not home, not work, "but community." Starbucks was the "Third Place," a coffee shop to gather into the 21st century rather than, perhaps, a local church.

"He's a really great guy, I personally support him," the employee said, quietly. "The company is like, 'No, you're not allowed to say that.'"

The crowd at the Moore Theater was mixed. One man wore a Sonics hat, an act of silent protest in its own right given Schultz's disastrous ownership, which he again apologized for. The event seemed more controlled than the one in New York that was disrupted. Smooth mellow jazz played before the program began. Security was tight. Schultz only took four pre-selected questions from the audience.

"I don't know, I have mixed feelings," said one attendee. "I like him as a person."

The night was filled with both timely and untimely applause from the universally liberal crowd. Monica Guzman, editor of the Evergrey Seattle newsletter moderated the event, noting 92 percent of Seattle voted against Donald Trump.

"Only two cities were higher," she said.

The crowd approached Schultz with unease. Why not run in the Democratic primary?

Schultz insisted he would be no spoiler. "No one would want to see Donald Trump fired more than you," he said, to loud applause. But Schultz repeatedly made it clear he thinks the only way to defeat Trump is via an independent run.

Schultz said he has been looking at "real science" for the better part of a year to determine whether he has a shot at winning on a third party. He believes there are "millions" of GOP voters up for grabs. His top strategist is ex-Republican Steve Schmidt.

"Can we imagine the possibility, if there was a centrist independent on the ballot?" Schultz asked. "Everyone's vote and everyone's voice would actually matter."

The evening was full of clichéd corporate mantras one would expect from, well, a CEO of one of the largest companies in the world. When asked to define leadership, Schultz said, leadership "sits on the foundation of the currency of trust."

Starbucks coffee was served in the lobby, naturally. Volunteers handed out cards with motivational corporate speak in the fashion of handwritten notes from Schultz himself. "Don't be a bystander," one read. "Establish your core purpose and reason for being, for all to see," read another. "And live by it."

The event even had a hashtag: #ReImagineUs.

The rhetoric soared. Schultz talked of himself igniting a "national movement." He compared himself to George Washington. But, Schultz assured the audience, he has a "deep sense of humility." "I'm not a messiah," he said.

"Can you imagine for the first time in history since George Washington that an independent person could actually win?" Schultz said. "And what that would mean? The message we would send to Congress to elected officials who are interested in their own ideology, their own self-interest, their own self preservation."

A Schultz victory, he said, would send the message: "The people have spoken. We want disruptive change in our system."

Schultz hit most of the liberal marks. "This is not normal." "We're not a country that builds walls, we're a country that builds bridges." He confessed to his own "unconscious bias."

Perhaps the loudest applause of the night came when Guzman asked, "Why don't you just run as a Democrat?"

There are differences. Schultz bemoaned "revenge politics" and the "punitive conversation for anyone who has made it in America." He defended his story growing up in housing projects in Brooklyn to becoming a self-made billionaire, now considered "immoral" among the left, which questions a "system that allows billionaires to exist."

"The Democratic Party as it stands today is espousing almost every day very progressive policies that I think are unrealistic and not affordable, and really a false promise," he said.

That said, Schultz said he is optimistic about the nation coming together.

"I think we can agree to disagree without having such a toxic, angry conversation," he said.

One of Guzman's final questions was, "What if we can't all belong?"

"What if this puzzle of belonging is just a lot harder than someone running for president as an independent," she said. "What if the third place, what if the belonging is just … what if we're too polarized, too divided?"

"I agree with your assessment that there is a level of division," Schultz said. "But sitting here today, I don't want to accept that."

When Schultz listed his complaints about the high price tag of the liberal agenda, the crowd cheered at the words "free health care," "free college," and a "government job for everybody."

"The reality of those three policies that are being kind of floated by the progressive, far left of the Democratic Party and members of the party who are running for president, that's $40-plus trillion," Schultz said. "We are currently sitting as a country with a national debt approaching $22 trillion."

"Pay your taxes," one man sniped.

"How do we pay for that?" Schultz asked the crowd.

"F-ckers like you," a woman said.