Featured Leader Series: Michael Colbruno

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Michael Colbruno

Today we enter the world of politics and public affairs where yes vegan trailblazers can thrive, as Commissioner Michael Colbruno proves by example. In this Q&A, Michael sharply discusses intriguing topics around veganism and political activism. Read for valuable advocacy strategy tips!

Michael has had an extensive career in public affairs, media, government relations, legislation and economic strategy. In addition to currently serving as Vice President of the Oakland Port Commission, he is also a partner in the public affairs firm Milo Group of California. He previously served as an Oakland Planning Commissioner and Vice President of Government Affairs for Clear Channel Outdoor/Northern California, which followed years of leadership work in local and state government (as a legislative director and chief-of-staff in the San Francisco Mayor’s office, San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and California State Legislature.)

Michael is also a keen patron of arts, serving as a Board Member of the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco, the UC Theatre in Berkeley, and producing independent music performances. Michael was named the “Corporate Citizen of the Year” by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

How long have you been vegan, and what was your original impetus?

Michael: I have been a vegan for 15 years. The initial motivation was health-driven: I used to have cholesterol over 400, and not wanting the liver-damaging medication alternative, I decided to try the natural approach by removing animal fat and dairy from my diet. My cholesterol now hovers around 160 with no drugs. My other former health issues have also vanished since I became vegan – I no longer have heart risk, migraine headaches or acid reflux.

You’ve had an accomplished political career – as a long-time public official and now a partner in the public affairs firm. What is it like to be vegan in your profession?

Many people I encounter in politics and business are [quietly] vegetarian or vegan. We can achieve a critical mass of openly vegan politicians if vegans start running for office, and joining policy-making boards and commissions.

Michael: I always joke that I have four strikes against me at any business meeting, as I'm vegan, gay, liberal and atheist. Interestingly, it often seems hardest to “come out” as a vegan, as people take
it as an assault on their values. Most people now have a gay friend or relative, and are used to
conversations about religion and politics, but still don’t know how to handle veganism. I'm
always amazed at the dumb questions, which I now try to respond with by using humor. I've also found that using health and weight is a positive way to respond to queries about veganism. Women in particular are intrigued by how easy it is to control weight as a vegan. I'm always heartened when someone I've met at a business lunch contacts me a year later to tell me that I changed their life when they gave up meat and dairy.

To some people, veganism is a private lifestyle. To others, it is their very public identity; you could say a “crusade”. Where do you consider yourself on that spectrum?

Michael: I LOVE to talk about it in the right context and I am very cognizant of people's interests. If the conversation is ethics, my favorite line is "Would you eat a pig if it could talk to you?" If it's the environment, I'll discuss sustainability. If it's health and diet, I love to tell people about my 180-degree turnaround with my health. Some of my favorite moments in this regard were from my Oakland Planning Commissioner days. We were debating urban agriculture and I realized that a group of people were trying to sneak animal slaughter into the code. (There was a woman making pot pies out of rabbits whom I publicly dubbed the "Sweeney Todd of bunny rabbits".) Vegans need to get appointed to boards and commissions where these decisions are being made, and bring the vegan viewpoint to the mainstream discussion. Collectively and individually, we need to be more active in this regard.

Why aren’t there more openly vegan (or even vegetarian) politicians? In the next 5-10 years, do you predict more ethical vegans in mainstream politics?

Michael: I'm always shocked at how many people who I encounter in politics and business are vegetarian or vegan but never discuss it. Most people find it very distracting, as the first half hour of any discussion will be about your diet choices, ethics or how much water it takes to grow an almond. We will only have a critical mass of vegan politicians if vegans start running for office, and joining policy and decision-making boards and commissions.

Sweden recently introduced the idea of meat tax. Do you believe a similar measure will follow elsewhere (the U.S. parallel could be reduction of governmental subsidies)?

Michael: Subsidies for meat, eggs, cheese and other animal products border on criminal, but they will require a daunting political effort to overturn. (The Hampton Creek fight has been brilliant in taking on the egg industry. As a political strategist I can say that it has been a tactically perfect campaign.) Although I personally support meat taxes and sugar taxes, the problem is that you automatically start with 50% of folks against you, not to mention the well-funded special interests.

What is the most important advice you would give to vegan advocates (e.g messaging, marketing, organizing etc.)?

"Great messaging makes a concept sound good and desirable. Rather than more serious and academic explanations, we need a catchy, sexy phrase for broccoli and cashews."

Michael: I am a big believer in message, message, message. Everything else will follow with a good message. It works in politics. It works in business. It works with the fast food industry. Think about slogans like "Life tastes better with KFC" or "Where's the Beef?" And who doesn't know "GOT MILK?" They make unhealthy food sound good and desirable. Sometimes vegans are too serious and academic in wanting to explain the benefits of a plant-based diet. We need a catchy, sexy phrase for broccoli and cashews!

What is the best way for citizens to exercise their political power and affect change, specifically in the U.S. bi-partisan system?

Michael: I'm a big believer in change from within. It's been tried, tested and truly successful for generations. The Democratic Party has a Cannabis Caucus, Immigration Caucus, Wine Caucus and an Economic Justice Caucus, but nothing to promote a sustainable, healthy agricultural policy. All those caucuses are making important public policy changes by organizing within the power structure at every level of government. We have natural alliances with organic produce farmers, environmentalists and others. Working together with our natural allies we can build enormous political clout.

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