Freshman lawmakers give J&J CEO Alex Gorsky another unwanted turn in the public spotlight

Over the last 46 years, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics has hosted a gathering of newly elected members of the House — from both parties — in something of a crash course on their role in Congress.

John Carroll at the US-China Biopharma Innovation and Investment Summit in Shanghai on October 23, 2018; Credit: Endpoints News, PharmCube

Bioregnum Opinion Column by John Carroll

The sessions are closed. The itinerary is kept quiet. And it’s anything but controversial — until this year.

This year’s class of lawmakers includes a couple of outspoken Democratic reformers who put a spotlight on the CEOs who came in to mix and mingle and offer their views. Prominent among that set was J&J chief Alex Gorsky, who’s been in the headlines before regarding his role as a Fortune 500 chief interested in keeping friendly lines of communications open in Washington DC.

Outspoken progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted this in a Tweet late last week.

# of Corporate CEOs we’ve listened to here: 4

# of Labor leaders: 0

There evidently was also a sprinkling of corporate lobbyists in the group that didn’t sit well with Ocasio-Cortez. And the sparring drew the attention of the Washington Post.

Gorsky came on board with GM CEO Mary Barra and Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg for a “discussion with business leaders,” which drew the rebuke from the freshman representative.

We don’t know what they said, but you can be sure that Gorsky wasn’t expecting to be pushed into the spotlight.

But that has happened to him before with Donald Trump in the White House during a particularly contentious era in American politics. Gorsky initially rejected calls to step down from a prestigious industry advisory group that Trump had formed, only to reverse himself soon after during the intense controversy around Trump’s comments regarding a violent protest by right-wing fringe groups in Charlottesville, VA in the summer of 2017.

That showdown led Merck CEO Ken Frazier to step down and publicly rebuke the president in a rare move for a Big Pharma exec.

At that time the industry was lobbying intensely for corporate tax reform, which ended up paying off handsomely for the big outfits like J&J. This time around Gorsky and the rest of the industry have good reason to get as much bipartisan support as they can to fight back against unwanted drug price reforms, like Trump’s plan to import overseas drug prices for Medicare.

But that’s a game best played outside the bright lights attracted by a controversy.

Image: Alex Gorsky. AP IMAGES

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