Marshman: Who is Linda McMahon?
Editor’ s Note: This is the second of two articles on the candidates for Connecticut’ s open U.S. Senate seat: Richard Blumenthal (D) and Linda McMahon (R). The article on Mr. Blumenthal appeared in last week’ s Darien Times.
Linda McMahon, aged 62, is proud that she and her husband Vincent survived bankruptcy and in 1980 went on to found Stamford-based World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), a NYSE-listed company with $475 million in annual revenue.
Their rewards so far include a showplace in back-country Greenwich, a yacht named “Sexy Bitch” and enough left over for Ms. McMahon to announce she would spend as much as $50 million to become Connecticut’s next U.S. Senator.
Through September, she’s laid out half of that, mostly on mailings and TV commercials. If Ms. McMahon spends no more than another $15 million through Election Day, the 650,000– plus votes she’ll probably need to win will have cost her around $60 apiece. One can see why her opponent, Attorney General Blumenthal, has accused her of engaging in an auction, not an election.
(Blumenthal’s campaign fund-raising follows the guidelines of Connecticut’s voluntary public financing program: $3.1 million through September.)
In her many campaign appearances, interviews and debates Ms. McMahon has shown herself to be well-spoken, well-informed and forceful. She promises to “shake things up” in Washington and her positions on taxes, spending, regulation and size of government are such that the Republican icon Sarah Palin has publicly anointed her a “Mama Grizzly.”
Like an experienced politician, Ms. McMahon has proved adept at side-stepping topics that could lose her votes, such as naming the federal programs she would reduce or eliminate. She also has made at least one rookie mistake: stating in an on-camera interview that she would consider reducing the federally-mandated minimum wage. For Republican candidates this is like touching a third rail, and Blumenthal has pounced on it. (Ms. McMahon says she didn’t understand the question.)
The candidate’s principal theme by far, however, is job creation. As proof she cites her “real-life business experience” and WWE’s 500 jobs here in Connecticut.
The most visible of those jobs are held by the men and women who perform before paid audiences in WWE events with such titles as “SmackDown”, “WrestleMania” and “RAW.” In order to be hired they must first – through intensive regimes of diet, weight-lifting and medications such as illegal steroids – have inflated their bodies into intimidating exaggerations of human anatomy. (Since 2006, WWE has random-tested for steroids.)
Despite its name, avoids certain laws by not calling its performers “wrestlers.” Instead, they are “superstars,” who assault each other in the ring under such names as Jack Swagger, Michelle McCool, Triple H and Undertaker. (Triple H is Ms. McMahon’s son-in-law.)
Dressed in flashy costumes showing plenty of skin, and often identified with a crucifix or swastika, one superstar will throw the other to the mat, then strut around the ring until the victim suddenly head-butts him from the rear. As the crowd erupts, kicking, punching, and sexual simulation follow, punctuated with curses, grunts, groans, mouthed obscenities and cries of pain.
These brawls are filmed and edited for pay TV at $49.50 per viewing – a business so profitable that a few years ago WWE spent $1 million on Washington lobbyists to have the telecasts reclassified as suitable for family viewing.
Whether the superstars are male or female, live or on film, their fights are entirely scriped — i.e. faked — which the audiences are largely aware of but happily cheer, hiss and shout advice anyway. The McMahons are living proof of H.L. Mencken’s long-ago dictum that “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.”
Even during phony fights things can go wrong, however. Added to the stresses on their distorted bodies, ring accidents, including frequenty concussions, pose serious long-term health risks to WWE’s current and former superstars. Since Ms. McMahon announced her candidacy three of them under the age of 60 have died: a man weighing 400 pounds, a woman of 48 and a man of 29.
Did they have health insurance? Probably not. WWE has always treated its superstars as independent contractors. The company withholds no taxes from their pay but also makes no payments of its own for fringe benefits like Social Security, Workman’s Compensation, health insurance or pensions. For these the superstars alone are responsible and for decades their physical condition and the nature of their work virtually ensured that health coverage would either be extremely limited, prohibitively expensive or denied altogether.
In 2006 WWE initiated a “welness program” and now provides blanket health coverage for superstars. Meanwhile, the advantages of not paying for employee fringe benefits keep growing, and Connecticut’s Department of Labor has recently charged WWE with wrongly classifying as independent contractors — rather than as employees — almost two-thirds of its workforce: 310 individuals. Ms. McMahon says the charge is politically motivated. She may well be right. The state also may be right.
After years of success under their leadership, the McMahons’ company recently has been faltering. A lengthy article in the October 2 issue of Barron’ s makes this clear, calling WWE “a declining franchise.”
With many of its superstars aging, retired or injured (most recently the popular Undertaker) WWE has been steadily losing market share – especially in pay-per-view TV – to the mixed martial-arts events staged by UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships), whose combatants are said to be younger and more athletic.
In the quarter ending last June, the company’s revenues were down 23 percent and earnings down 50 percent. WWE’s stock price currently hovers around $13.85 with the support of a generous annual dividend of $1.44 per share (10.4 percent). This payout is unsustainable, however, since it exceeds per-share earnings. It is expected to be cut by a third, to $0.96, after the election.
Although the United States Senate these days is polarized and quarrelsome to the point of dysfunction, Linda McMahon, if she gets there, may find it something of a relief from what she leaves behind.