Politics Makes Strange Webfellows

As he sat beneath posters of reggae star Bob Marley and rocker Chuck Berry in the Redwood City (Calif.) offices of Internet start-up EMusic.com, Utah Republican Senator Robert F. Bennett looked pretty darned conspicuous in his regal red tie, blue wool suit, and stiff white-collared shirt. And things got even stranger. After a brief demonstration of digital music compression, an EMusic engineer clicked past much of the music on the company's site--songs like The Evil Powers of Rock `N' Roll by the Supersuckers. Instead, he loaded the benign Beach Boys classic Little Deuce Coupe onto a portable MP3 player and handed headphones to the senator. "See how wonderful this sounds?" the engineer said cheerfully.

"How wonderful this sounds," Bennett repeated, chuckling. But once the surfer-dude harmonies hit his eardrums, he winced slightly. "I'd rather have a little Mozart," he said.

Politicians and techies are having these weird, brief, culture-clashing one-byte stands all over Silicon Valley these days. Prodded by trade groups that wish to make high-tech agendas prominent in the minds of legislators, entrepreneurs are begrudgingly squeezing schmooze time into their schedules. Meanwhile, politicians who quietly complain that they never had to learn to slop slag for Big Steel's bucks are enduring nerdy seminars and tutorials and forcing a smile when tattooed employees in cut-offs chuckle at their "newbie" Net blunders. The resulting show could be titled "Scent of a Campaign Contribution." Or, perhaps, "Revenge of the Nerds II: This Time It's Political."

Obviously, the waters are roiling in the Presidential campaign warmup. The computer types' financial support of federal candidates doubled, to more than $8 million, in the last election. Republicans are hustling to convince all these new T-shirt millionaires that their prosperity lies to the right. "[Gore] can come out here and play with a mouse all he wants, and probably better than I can," Bennett groused. "But when the AFL-CIO is demanding trade barriers go up again as their price for supporting him, I have no doubt the Valley will realize mouse expertise is not enough."

LOVE FEST. But Democrats are working hard to keep their reputation as the party that "gets it." In addition to dozens of trips by everybody from the President on down, two dozen House "New" Democrats lined up in July for an exhausting three-day "retreat" featuring tours of Net companies and hours of CEO jawboning. And Vice-President Al Gore has been quietly huddling with high-tech execs about their upgrade plans for what might be called Fundraising v2000.0. The latest numbers show he's lagging well behind George W. Bush's fund-raising success with high tech despite all that mouse aptitude. For one thing, he's struggling mightily to overcome his "I invented the Internet" misspeak. And, as usual, most of the heavy charisma lifting is up to Tipper. At a spring fundraiser at E-Loan Inc. President Janina Pawlowski's house, on-the-scene sources report that Tipper even sat in on drums in a short set with Grateful Dead vets Mickey Hart and Bob Weir. Strange musical interactions are not confined to Republicans.

The Valley's A-list rolled out in midsummer for a love fest for Bush. Cisco Systems' John Chambers, Oracle's Ray Lane, eBay's Meg Whitman, and even former Hewlett-Packard Chief John Young and other Republicans who had briefly embraced Clinton smiled happily and tucked into their quiche and pear breakfasts as camera crews scurried around. Venture capitalist and Bush supporter Tim Draper grinned broadly at the ebullient crowd on hand for George W. But Draper has a theory on why some Valley folks initially got hijacked by Clinton: "Silicon Valley didn't use to pay any attention to politics. Then people woke up and went for the first happy face they saw." Draper likened it to the children's book where a confused baby bird asks dogs and steam shovels: "Are you my mother?"

STUMP APPEAL. Two-year-old TechNet, a nonpartisan lobbying group designed to advance Silicon Valley's agenda in Washington, deserves a lot of credit for the Valley "waking up." Former Netscape Chairman James Barksdale, Cisco's Chambers, and leading venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers have thrown considerable weight behind its efforts. TechNet has scored some victories on extending the R&D tax credit and getting tech-friendly Y2K remediation legislation passed.

It's a mistake to think the Valley moves in a clear bloc or that everybody loves TechNet, though. "We take middlemen out," says the spunky Pawlowski, a Democrat whose E-commerce company is based on cutting middlemen out of the mortgage business. She's a no-frills type who ruffled feathers when she hosted the Gores. For one thing, she nixed the original party plan foisted on her by some TechNet insiders. By the time the bills were paid for exotic caviar, floating gardenias in her pool, a $4000 face painter, and copper lame tablecloths, expenses would have eaten most of the $10,000-a-head admission price, she says, marveling: "It was supposed to be a fundraiser." She dialed back the foo-foo, although not all the way to the pillowcase-size sacks of tortilla chips from Costco that E-Loan usually buys for its parties.

Draper doesn't want to work through TechNet, either. "I'm not a big believer in lobbying. We open the door to regulation, and regulation kills spirit. It forces companies to employ someone they never had to before--the government affairs person. I think that's sickening. Now, we're creating issues that force a pro and a con. There's always a fight." But Republican Bennett says the Valley's widespread libertarian sentiment is a big mistake: "I understand. I'm sympathetic. But if you ignore government, you become a victim of the one law we always pass--the law of unintended consequences."

Democratic supporters are sometimes out of sync with the political process, too. In San Francisco during the "New Democrat" retreat, Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist John Doerr, with his John Barrymore baritone and professorial poise, delivered another brilliant rendition of his favorite subject: the Internet as an unstoppable driver of the New Economy. Cell phones were theatrically switched off, and, except for one member who sported a canary-yellow Kennebunkport camouflage sport coat and dozed rather conspicuously, the Dems hung on his every word. During questions, Doerr mildly scolded them, saying they needed to spend the money they had more wisely. For example, he said, they had voted $100 billion for highway improvements last year, but only a billion to invest in the Information Superhighway. Hackles up! (Memo to Mr. Doerr: Never diss the stump appeal of fixing potholes and fighting for highway-job pork.) Texas Representative Sylvestre Reyes respectfully reminded Doerr that his struggling, NAFTA-battered border town constituents needed their highways fixed before they could appreciate the I-way. Reyes explained later: "I want these guys to understand when they make statements about how you spend money on concrete, our world is not their world."

There'll be no early relief from the politicking. A joke going around updates the Valley's famed Moore's Law that the power of microprocessors doubles every 18 months. It's now said the number of politicians in Silicon Valley is doubling every week. Countless photo ops feature them feigning fascination with racks of servers or grinning under their umpteenth new dot.com baseball cap. It's the price the Valley pays for being, as one venture capitalist puts it, "a great big geographical bag of donations."

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