Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden often talks up the fact that he's spent his career in business, not politics, and that his management work will benefit Minnesota in Congress.
Democrats want to talk about that work, too, but for very different reasons. They hope to paint McFadden as someone who cares more about shareholders than workers.
New to politics, McFadden doesn't have a set record for voters to recognize. So supporters and opponents are scrambling now to define him for voters and be first to answer the question: Who is this guy?
McFadden, 49, is an investment banker and most recently co-CEO of the Minneapolis-based company Lazard Middle Market. "Investment banking" conjures up images of gleaming Manhattan towers, multi-billion dollar deals and high pressure trading floors.
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McFadden, though, says that's not what his firm or its predecessor, Goldsmith Agio Helms, were about.
"As a professional, what I did was advise small and mid-sized businesses in almost every industry imaginable," McFadden said.
McFadden's focus was on helping businesses find new owners. And unlike the banks that do the biggest deals, the middle market investment banking world that McFadden is a part of is based in the Midwest, where the clients are often smaller, family-owned businesses.
By all accounts, McFadden was talented at the job and he says the work was rewarding in its own right.
"You're typically working with the owner, a lot of times it's the entrepreneur, the person that started it," he said. "There's a ton of energy there. They've created something."
It's also lucrative work.
Investment banks make money by charging fees if the companies they're working with are successfully sold.
It's not just about finding buyers, but also coming up with a price by helping the seller understand how much the company is worth, said Mary Kathleen Flynn, editor of the trade publication Mergers and Acquisitions.
"The investment banker is there as a consigliere in a lot of ways," she said. "They're an adviser and trying to help the seller evaluate what they have and make the best case to the buyer for why they should buy it."
Often the buyers were private equity firms, investment funds that buy companies with the intent of selling them again a few years later.
McFadden rose quickly first at Goldsmith Agio Helms, where he became co-CEO in 2007.
Later that year, the global investment bank Lazard Freres offered to buy Goldsmith Agio.
While details of the sale are private, it's clear the deal helped make McFadden a wealthy man, worth between $15 and $57 million, according to disclosure reports filed with the U.S. Senate.
And the web of relationships McFadden made on the job has benefited his campaign, whose donors lean heavily toward the finance industry.
Democrats and their allies have sought to turn McFadden's success in the business world into a political liability.
While they haven't aired any ads yet, liberal groups such as the Alliance for a Better Minnesota have been highlighting to reporters some of the deals Goldsmith and Lazard were involved in.
One of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota's examples involves a Minnesota children's clothing company called Kid Duds that Goldsmith Agio helped sell in 1995.
The new owners moved production to Mexico and laid off workers in Minnesota.
"If you're going to take credit for being a businessperson then you need to take credit for all of what your job was and all of the consequences of what you did," said Carrie Lucking, ABM's executive director. "That means you have to be responsible for the fact that workers lost their jobs and the priority was the corporate bottom line."
It's an attack that mirrors the way Democrats successfully defined Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign. The McFadden campaign is nervous enough about the comparison that it held a special briefing for reporters last month to explain how McFadden's work was unlike Romney's.
Romney's firm, Bain Capital, owned the companies where the layoffs took place. McFadden's firm, on the other hand, was an adviser and didn't own or control the companies where workers were laid off.
"We don't make any operational decisions. We would never advise a business to lay off employees," McFadden said. "That's not the scope of our engagement, that's not our experience set."
McFadden's campaign provided MPR News with the standard contract language Lazard typically used with clients. It's explicit that the bank has no role making hiring or firing decisions.
Many middle market investment bankers often spend time helping clients identify where they can take out costs, said Flynn, the Mergers and Acquisitions editor. "The strategy is to show buyers paths to higher cash flows and earnings. So it's really in the investment banker's interest to do this because it helps the buyer get comfortable paying the maximum price."
Multiple former Goldsmith Agio and Lazard employees interviewed by MPR News said the firm had no role in layoffs, which, if they took place, typically happened after the deal had closed.
McFadden "was not a private equity guy whose goal was to suck every penny out of a company," said Yoeli Barag, who worked on deals with McFadden from Lazard's Los Angeles office. "Mike's goal was to represent entrepreneurs taking care of their families and securing their businesses."
Some of the companies his firms have worked with were on the brink of bankruptcy, McFadden said. "In that scenario, everybody loses their jobs. It's bad for employees, it's bad for shareholders, it's bad for suppliers, it's bad for customers."
McFadden doesn't deny that some companies laid off workers after Goldsmith Agio or Lazard managed the sale but adds that the bankers weren't the bad guys and that they were often in the position of trying to save a troubled business.
Lucking, though, says Democrats will keep McFadden's career on the table throughout the campaign season. "That's the mentality and the attitude that he'll use if he's voting on the floor of the U.S. Senate if he's sent there."
Democrats are the ones out of touch, McFadden countered. "They don't understand the economy. They have no idea what I do, and it's unfortunate."