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Techies go to Washington

With a dot-com multimillionaire, the head of a consumer electronics trade group, and other tech-savvy individuals making successful forays into politics, 2000 was the year of the cyberpolitician.

WASHINGTON--The 2000 election will be remembered not only as the closest presidential race in a century but also as one in which techies went from being entrepreneurs to politicians.

Darrell Issa, a Republican from Vista, Calif., near San Diego, was elected to the House of Representatives earlier this month. Issa also is the chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the founder of a multimillion-dollar electronics business.

Several hundred miles up the Pacific Coast, Maria Cantwell has been elected to the U.S. Senate, assuming she survives a recount scheduled to end Friday. A Democrat and former one-term member of the House, Cantwell funded her campaign with money earned as an executive at RealNetworks.

The new class of politicians comes with greater technological savvy than its predecessors, said Vince Sampson, vice president of the Washington-based Association for Competitive Technology (ACT). "It is unprecedented," he said.

Congress currently comprises former actors, surgeons, veterinarians, bankers, homemakers, ranchers and broadcasters as well as enough attorneys to mount a Florida vote challenge. But this election is believed to be the first in which technology executives--entrepreneurs who have grown a business from the ground up--will be serving.

Maria Cantwell Additionally, CEA president Gary Shapiro said he doesn't believe a sitting chairman of a trade association has ever been elected to Congress. "We are thrilled" with the victory of Issa, who is completing his second term as CEA chairman. He "understands the vast opportunities and challenges presented by the New Economy."

In 1992, Issa was president of the Mobile Electronics Association and merged it with the CEA. Among the CEA's more prominent members are America Online, Amazon.com, Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lucent Technologies and Sony.

Darrell Issa In 1980 Issa and his wife, Katharine, spent $7,000 to found a start-up electronics business, Directed Electronics, which manufactures auto security systems under the Viper brand and had 1999 sales of nearly $90 million.

Issa, who could not be reached for comment, has lobbied for a seat on the House Commerce Committee. He shouldn't have a hard time finding the hearing room if he is named to the committee, as he has testified there before on behalf of CEA.

"Darrell understands business," Shapiro said, adding Issa will give the high-tech industry "another friend in Congress."

Cantwell came late to technology, acknowledging in her campaign biography that the interest developed during her single term in the House. Defeated in the Republican landslide of 1994, Cantwell at age 37 joined Progressive Networks, later RealNetworks, as one of its first 10 employees.

RealNetworks now boasts about 1,000 employees, and Cantwell, a multimillionaire, was able to fund her own campaign in apparently defeating Republican Sen. Slade Gorton by 0.08 percent of the vote. The narrow margin triggered a recount.

A key technology issue in Washington state is local employer Microsoft and its ongoing battle with the Justice Department. Gorton was an ardent defender of Microsoft, which drew him considerable high-tech donations during the campaign.

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Tech politicians to join Congress
Vince Sampson, VP, Association for Competitive Technology
Cantwell has also defended Microsoft, however, by opposing a breakup of the company. "In the digital economy, when a product like Windows becomes prevalent, this very fact adds value to the product," she said in a May policy paper, arguing that traditional antitrust rules can no longer be strictly applied. She noted her company "successfully competed against Microsoft" yet used Windows, a sign of the "dependency on widely distributed, unified standards" in the high-tech industry.

Citing her time in the House, she said she "routinely fought ill-conceived attempts on the part of the federal government to overregulate the software industry."

Cantwell, who could not be reached for comment, is expected to seek appointment to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Another multimillionaire with strong ties to the tech community who successfully self-financed a Senate campaign was Jon Corzine, D-N.J. Corzine spent $60 million of his fortune from his days as chief executive of Goldman Sachs, an investment bank that is closely connected to the tech industry.

ACT's Sampson noted that Corzine was named "technology executive of the year" by a major tech group because of his tech pedigree. "Corzine has some grasp of the tech issues beyond 'Yes, there is an Internet,'" he said.

Issa isn't the only incoming House member with hands-on technology experience. Henry Brown, R-S.C., skipped college and took an entry-level data processing job at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain before working his way up to head its computer operations as a vice president.

Jim Langevin, D-R.I., another congressman-elect, is surrendering his job as secretary of state, where he oversaw the modernization of Rhode Island's information technology operations.

In addition, two senators-elect bring technology savvy from their previous committee assignments in the House. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., served on the Technology Subcommittee of the House Science Committtee, while Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was the chairman of the Science Committee's Space Subcommittee and once rode on a space shuttle mission.

Despite the increased technological savvy in 2000 candidates, technology issues continued to take a back seat in most races. That didn't surprise Sampson too much.

"It's tough to get your arms around (tech issues) in a conversational sense. They're not the issues that will carry someone into office," he said.

Still, he said the technology industry is pleased with the new crop of elected officials and their technology backgrounds. "They're going to serve the industry well."