John Mica abruptly stops the interview to answer his iPhone, customarily greeting Patricia, his wife since 1972. The Florida congressman and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has been anxious to touch base with Patricia all morning. He’s got bad news. His best friend Russell Bobo is seriously ill. Mica and Bobo became close in the mid-1960s when the two men attended college together at the University of Florida – where Mica majored in education and was a member of the Delta Chi fraternity. Today, Mica learns Bobo has pancreatic cancer. He’s in Baltimore, undergoing treatment as Mica and his wife speak.
“We’ll drop everything, go there tomorrow…spend some time with him,” he tells Patricia, herself reeling – added to this latest news, a favourite aunt has been hospitalised in Philadelphia. The couple has to make a trip there, too.
Mica, 69, in robust health himself, is not about to take this lying down. “I’ll pull out all the…I’ll spare nothing,” he says. “I’ll find out what NIH [the National Institutes of Health, the premier US government agency for medical research] has”.
But he’s still beginning to process the situation, and the shock is starting to sink in.
“This is really bothering me,” he admits to his wife. “It really floored me”.
Mica, US Representative for Florida, veteran Capitol Hill operator and ardent privatiser, is typically unabashed in expressing his opinion. Early on in his congressional career, he once called then-President Bill Clinton a “little bugger”. But he’s especially outspoken on infrastructure and privatisation.
A year into becoming chair of the committee, a seat he coveted as a ranking Republican, Mica complained he had “basically inherited a mess”. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) – the national airport security agency Mica helped set up in the wake of 9/11 – is “a little bastard child I created”. In October, Mica, a critic of the White House, panned a proposal by President Barack Obama to develop a national infrastructure bank, calling the idea “dead on arrival in the House”.
His language in Sitting on Our Assets: The Federal Government’s Misuse of Taxpayer-Owned Assets is comparatively genial, but no more conciliatory. The white paper is a full-on repudiation, faulting ‘look-a-gift-horse-inthe-mouth’ big government as a bumbling infrastructure asset-holder, while calling for “additional investment in infrastructure from the private sector by providing a better definition of public-private partnerships (PPPs) for undertaking highway, transit, port, rail, airport and other infrastructure”.
The paper estimated private investment in public infrastructure could help the government save $180 billion. Elsewhere in the report, Mica singled out the General Services Administration (GSA), the “landlord for the federal government,” and Amtrak reform (“Our Soviet-style train service,”) for criticism. He uses repetition to reinforce a blunt, uncompromising message: the federal government is doing a bad job managing US infrastructure – a really bad job. And the private sector can do better.
Mica and his wife wrap up their conversation, agreeing to meet up in the afternoon. He’s returned to the interview, sitting down on a couch in his Rayburn House Office Building room.
“Sorry,” he shrugs, crouched forward over a small table and momentarily staring out of a nearby window, “I’m just sick over this.”
PUBLIC SERVANT , PRIVATE BENEFACTOR
As a freshman congressman in 1993, Mica earned a conspicuous label as “an unrepentant entrepreneur” who considered privatisation and commercialisation “near-religious” in meaning. But while Mica the statesman is an admitted staunch friend to high finance, his tell-tale early life is that of a hard-scrabble hustler, not a high roller.
Born in Binghamton, New York, Mica had a decidedly unflashy upbringing in Miami. He was a member of his high school debate team, and worked as a necktie salesman and dish-washer to put himself through community college and later the University of Florida, where Young Republican Mica flew in the face of convention via his total lack of interest in [Florida] Gators football – practically a cardinal sin in pigskin-crazed Florida (“I’m a sports nerd,” he says. “I know absolutely nothing about sports”).
What did interest Mica was art. His uncle was a commercial artist, and Mica is a collector and frequent museum visitor. Work by surrealist painter Joan Miró and sculptor Alexander Calder sit in his office. “I’m an art nut,” he says. “It’s awesome.”
On top of that, Mica had a head for business. Armed with a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and a knack for attention to detail, Mica partnered with Robert Koch, an Orlando, Florida architect, to form MK Development, a commercial real estate concern, and also developed beachfront property.
“For me, success is producing something tangible, a product – a house, a townhouse, a condominium – and I like to see something coming up from the ground,” Mica explains. “I did a retail centre (a strip-mall on Temple Trail) and developed that. I’m not an attorney. I like to produce something tangible, rather than just talk.”
He credits his experience with MK, which he co-headed from 1975 until 1992, with helping him gain an understanding of infrastructure and its importance to economic growth.
“I really like infrastructure,” he enthuses. “It’s my background as a developer. As far as its significance, it’s number one. It’s top. And it would definitely spur job creation.”
Despite running a thriving real estate business, and serving as a member of the Florida House of Representatives, Mica was able to branch out into what was then a practically underground phenomenon: cellular technology. He joined with businessman John Dudinsky in 1985 to start MD Cellular. Together with his construction concern, MD would help turn Mica into a multi-millionaire.
Meanwhile Dudinsky, his partner in the cell phone marketing business, was also a lobbyist, supporting Paula Hawkins, the late US senator from Florida. Mica also campaigned for Hawkins, becoming her administrative assistant and eventual chief of staff and gaining him exposure to Washington, D.C.
Mica’s brother, Dan, is a former Democratic congressman from Palm Beach County, Florida). When Hawkins lost her bid for re-election in 1986, Mica joined Dudinsky as a lobbyist, eventually deciding to run for Congress in 1991.
Holding himself out as a reformer, he won 53 percent of the vote. Mica was going to Washington, and he was bringing his private sector expertise along with him.
The US in the mid-2000s began its earliest steps toward privatised infrastructure.
Mica, on course to become a stalwart ranking member, was in a unique position as a former small-scale construction magnate and high political officeholder – making him a potential Washington powerbroker for infrastructure.
“I’m a big private sector advocate,” Mica stresses. “I think the private sector can build, maintain, manage and operate infrastructure much better than the federal government.”
The would-be privatiser has campaigned to privatise air traffic control, highway construction and the much-derided TSA. To Mica, the public-private partnership (PPP) model is good for supporting and maintaining infrastructure – transportation-related infrastructure in particular. “We want to highlight PPPs in our current transportation bill, which we’re working to pass,” he says.
But for PPPs to really pan out in America, Washington has to come around to market reality. To do that, Mica, by now a well-to-do man who did not seek office to further enrich himself, is working to bridge the cognitive dissonance between government and where he made his fortune – the private sector.
“We need private money,” he blurts out, “and in talking to people on Wall Street, and to people who invest, domestically and internationally, people who have substantial money and are willing to put that money into PPPs – there has to be some definition of what a PPP is, and a suitable timeframe. Private money is not going to chase a project for a seven-, eight-, or 15-year approval time. That approval time has to be collapsed. If properly motivated, the private sector can produce transportation infrastructure faster, cheaper and more effectively than the government.”
To expedite project approval, Mica has suggested a “437-Day Plan” – which he estimates can save $50 billion. The plan would end the need for redundant government agency approval if a state law is on a par or better than a federal law. It would also allow for concurrent rather than consecutive federal government approval.
But a speedier approval time will count for nothing if Washington has no financial criteria established to help guide the process of making a project attractive enough for private investment, or if the federal government is unable to understand the risk the private sector is taking on in bidding for its business.
“We need a definition of what we can and can’t do, we have to decide if a project is eligible for participation then streamline the process,” he says. “Congress has to define and reform PPPs, because there are a host of them that could go forward.
“The choice is, ‘Do we do it with public money?’ What capital we have now, we have for maintenance, which is about all it will cover, and none for additional capacity. We can attract private capital for additional capacity,” Mica says. “But the private sector isn’t going to put in money and then walk away. They want a piece of the action. And we have to educate Congress and the public.”
Mica is willing to acknowledge that the track record for PPPs in the US, especially compared with abroad, is suspect, but is quick to circle back to his point that government help has been lacking.
He’s followed privatisation in Australia and Canada (“Canada is really moving forward,” he says), and has visited the Millau Viaduct in France, which he cites as the largest PPP in the world. However, there’s a reason America has been a difficult market to crack.
“I do find it kind of interesting, here, in the land of free enterprise, that we’re slow out of the gate. There’s PPPs worldwide, far surpassing what we’re doing, and we’re just entering our PPP era and there’s a lot of potential. But we have a way to go,” he charges. “And the US is different; we’re not going to adopt the same model.”
As far as owning up to a high number of failed PPPs Stateside, such as the “West by Northwest” project in Atlanta, Mica is defensive, and cites the $3.8 billion lease of the Indiana Toll Road as well as the $1.82 billion Chicago Skyway toll road concession as successful PPPs in the US.
“Not many actually failed,” he insists.
“A deal first of all has to stand on its own financial merit. It has to work for everybody, and if it can’t withstand a tough evaluation, or meet market reality, it’s not going to move forward.”
Above all, he claims, a prospective PPP has to be for the good of the public.
“You have to put the proper constraint on,” he says. “We have to protect the public here. No one can give up public ownership.”
Despite his apparently straightforward right-wing sentiment, Mica emphasises the non-partisan nature of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, noting his positive working relationship with California Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, to pass the current transportation bill (as of press time, the two-year bill, which had been deadlocked, had reached tentative approval on Capitol Hill before a June 30 cut-off date for the House and Senate to sign off on the deal).
“I try to not be bi-partisan,” Mica says.
“It’s a healthy hearing I held with Barbara Boxer that was unprecedented, I think. We have tried to be non-partisan from the beginning.”
Mica takes a similar stance in regard to his contentious remark that the national infrastructure bank was a nonstarter, noting their pre-existence on a state level as well as TIFIA, or Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, an under-used but suitable funding mechanism.
“Creating a bank really doesn’t do much good. You have them on the state level as it is. We looked at creating a national infrastructure bank, it would take a year to organise it,” he says. “And the federal government doesn’t build anything, state government can.”
But Mica is used to disagreement, pointing out he’s been married since 1972 and “is used to disagreeing and reaching a consensus. Moreover, Mica, a history buff, is compelled to continue advancing a pro-infrastructure platform, based on his belief in its significance.
“Anywhere in the US, transportation and infrastructure is a major issue, everybody is trying to expand work and economic opportunity,” Mica explains.
“Historically, that has always been the case, whether it has been by moving merchandise up the Nile River, inventing the transatlantic steamer, building a connecting railroad or building the US interstate – infrastructure is the genesis of a great deal of economic opportunity”.