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Tech's elite pony up

Political contributions by the technology elite are rising, as Silicon Valley wakes up to politics.

Political contributions by the technology elite are on the rise, another sign that Silicon Valley is waking up to the world of politics.

High-tech heavyweights are climbing the political contribution ladder, according to a new report compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics and published by Mother Jones magazine.

The list details the country's top 400 See special report: 
Silicon Valley plays politics political contributors, who gave a combined $36 million in individual contributions, political action committee funds, and soft money--money given to political parties for "party building"--between January 1, 1997 and June 30, 1998.

Political observers attribute the increased political spending by high-tech executives to the maturation of the industry, a handful of important Congressional bills this session, and the inception of Technology Network, the bipartisan organization founded last year to mobilize Silicon Valley.

"It's an indication of a maturing industry," said TechNet spokesman Sean Garrett. "There are a lot of policy makers who are trying to understand the new economy and that have developed relationships with the industry. They won't do us much good if they're not in office anymore."

TechNet co-founder L. John Doerr, of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, topped the technology list. Unranked last year, Doerr and his wife came in at No. 40 by contributing $163,563, mostly to Democrats.

Class-action litigator William Lerach, a partner at the law firm of Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach LLP, registered on the list at No. 47; Lerach was No. 126 last year.

"The battle between Doerr and Lerach is apparently heating up," said Kerry Louerman, investigative editor of Mother Jones.

TechNet was founded in part to fend off California's Proposition 211, a failed ballot initiative that would have made it easier for shareholders to sue companies, especially volatile technology startups, for poor stock market performance. Lerach most recently filed a similar class-action lawsuit against publisher Ziff-Davis.

Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers and his wife weigh in at No. 77 on the list, Netscape's Jim Barksdale and his wife are at No. 175, and CNET chief executive Halsey Minor and his wife came in at No. 201. (CNET: The Computer Network publishes News.com).

Top tech contributors, 1 Jan. 1997-30 June 1998
Name Firm Donations Rank
(Last)
John and
Ann Doerr
Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers $163,563 40
(NR)
William Lerach Milberg, Weiss Bershad, Hynes & Lerach $143,750 47 (126)
Sandy and Jeanie Robertson Robertson, Stephens
& Company
$133,500 56
(21)
William and Sally Hambrecht Hambrecht
& Quist
$124,000 70 (242)
John T. and Constance Chambers Cisco Systems $119,200 T77 (NR)
Edward McVaney J.D. Edwards
& Company
$117,500 79
(NR)
Roger McNamee Integral Capital Partners $72,000 168 (NR)
James & Sally Barksdale Netscape Communications $69,000 T175 (NR)
Melvyn Weiss Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach $62,250 196 (27)
Halsey and Deborah Lee Minor CNET: The Computer Network $61,402 201 (NR)
Bud Colligan Accel Partners $51,495 257 (NR)
Joseph Lacob Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers $42,500 320 (NR)
Jerry Yang Yahoo $35,691 399 (NR)
Scott Cook Intuit $35,500 T400 (NR)
Source:Center for Responsive Politics, Mother Jones
NR = not ranked

The list also includes several executives from investment banks and venture capital firms that have been instrumental in launching many Internet and high-tech startups. Many of them did not contribute enough to be listed on last year's chart.

In another example, on Friday David Packard, the son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, gave $500,000 to Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Republican candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in California.

In the past two years, many Silicon Valley executives have jumped into the political fray almost as fast as their companies have turned out new products.

"I think the computer industry was very much criticized by lawmakers for not giving more generously when they could afford to," Jennifer Shecter, researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics.

Computer industry contributions increased to $5 million from $2.8 million for the comparable period in 1993-94, the last so-called "off year," or non-presidential, election cycle, she said.

Shecter describes the high-tech-Washington relationship as a symbiotic one. "The computer industry needs Congress to pass their legislation and Congress needs the industry to fund their campaign war chests."

Mother Jones' Louerman said TechNet's influence on the list is apparent and several high-tech bills in Congress served to galvanize the industry.

Silicon Valley was successful in getting Congress to pass a three-year ban on Internet taxes, an increase in the number of highly skilled foreign workers allowed into the country each year on H-1B visas, and securities litigation reform legislation, an outgrowth of its Prop. 211 battles.

"Regulation, or the threat of regulation, is one of the best incentives for an industry to start playing the game of politics," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to furthering technology in the electoral process.

For years the high-tech industry, with a decidedly Libertarian bent, eschewed politics and dabbling with inside-the-Beltway affairs, an idea that Alexander now describes as "quaint."

"A few years ago [industry] leaders seemed to thumb their noses at politics," Alexander said. "What they probably have learned is that they have no choice.

"I think the Justice Department's case against Microsoft has probably served as a pretty loud wake up call for the technology industry. You can try to ignore them but they're not going to ignore you," she said.

Most observers said Silicon Valley is doing what any maturing industry does--protect itself, and its profits, from excessive regulation and unfavorable laws.

Alexander said: "The technology industry is growing up and the natural reaction of any industry as it gets bigger is to protect their bottom line."

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