Democrats seize initiative on high-tech vote

The Democratic Party--traditional friend to the union bosses and trial lawyers--appear to be winning the race for the high-tech vote.

5 min read
Lansing, Michigan, has no aspiration to become the next Silicon Valley, but that doesn't mean it is without ambition. Although it may not create the technology, the state capital wants to join the digital revolution.

Rep. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) says the technology developed in the Valley will be used in Congress starstruck in the Valley the auto industry, in schools, and in the biomedical firms that populate her district.

"We need to be able to dovetail what is going on the West Coast with what is going on in Michigan. There are connections," Stabenow said. "I see part of my job as understanding how to make those connections, making sure the technology happens here."

As a Democrat who represents a largely industrial area with a labor constituency, Stabenow's pro-business attitude seems surprising at first. But high tech has very much become a Democratic issue, as the party has acquired a firm grasp of a transitive equation that is quickly becoming a standard of 1990s politics: Technology equals a strong economy, and a strong economy equals votes.

As headlines trumpet Silicon Valley's political coming of age, it is the Democratic Party--traditional friend to the union bosses and trial lawyers often loathed by corporate America--who are embracing high-tech leaders and their products.

New Democrat leader Rep. Cal Dooley on spreading the high-tech gospel
Which, of course, begs an obvious question: Where are the Republicans? The Grand Old Party--the party of small business, tax breaks, and less government regulation--appears, for the time being, to have lost the high-tech vote.

"Clinton and Gore, to their credit, have done a very good job of developing and promoting their relationships in the technology community," said Dan Schnur, who is heading up the Republican arm of Tech Net, Silicon Valley's new lobbying organization. "Our challenge is to take the existing level of support in the Republican community and coordinate it in order to maximize it."

The Democrats and the Silicon Valley leaders that support them--namely venture capitalist John Doerr--have stolen the show. This week, Tech Net (Doerr's brainchild) sponsored eight members of the New Democrat Network, a political action committee for moderate Democrats, on a star-studded tour of Net and biotechnology firms. Fast Company, a business technology magazine, quipped that a possible democratic ticket might read: "Gore and Doerr in 2004." And the New Yorker painted a flattering portrait of Doerr as the ultimate networker, calling him "midwife to the personal computer revolution," and asking just how long he would continue to build companies, not government policy.

But this is not only a media phenomenon. The Democrats are showing their support for high tech in concrete policies. Clinton aide Ira Magaziner is marketing an e-commerce plan that would please even the staunchest libertarian Republican. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) coauthored the Internet Tax Freedom Act that would forbid state and local taxes on the Net.

Schnur and other Republicans maintain that while the Democrats have claimed the lead in the race to win Silicon Valley votes, the Republicans are the natural ally for high tech.

"Ideologically, we have an advantage: We are the party of entrepreneurs, small business, lessening the tax burden," Schnur said. "We've got a much more natural message. We don't have trial lawyers and union bosses."

But the New Democrats pose a serious challenge to that assumption. New Democrat leader Rep. Cal Dooley (D-California) says that his organization is designed to turn that stereotype on its head.

"As New Democrats, we're not turning our back on labor, but we also understand that high tech and the emerging economy is dependent on trade, better education, a regulatory environment that fosters more influx of investment capital, and a regulatory regime that doesn't put up structural impediments to adoption of products," he said. "We are building a portfolio of issues that are very important to the party, the country, and certainly to the industry."

Indeed, while much of the hype about technology-related economic development focuses on either coast, a rising number of cities in between are realizing that they can recreate much of that growth by applying technology to what they already do.

Kansas City, Missouri, is one of them. The Silicon Valley plays politics Midwestern metropolis wants to be the best place in America to do business, electronically.

Through a program called SmartCities, Kansas City hopes to draw new jobs by encouraging city businesses to incorporate technology into their daily work. One of the program's first projects was to install desktop videoconferencing in local architect and construction offices so that they could collaborate on plans from different locations.

"We are not on the invention side of things. What we would like to be in Kansas City is early adopters of technology for earning economic advantage," said Bob Marcusse, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council, which sponsors the program. "We don't have a mountain range and we are not on the ocean, so we have to gain competitive advantage by being productive."

Other concerns voiced by the eight New Democrats who toured the Valley this week provide further evidence that high-tech issues are very much on the minds of businesses in Middle America. In addition to such topics as encryption and securities litigation, issues like foreign work visas were a center of attention.

At least for now, the Democrats have wrested control of the rhetoric. The only question is whether their early start will set them out far enough in front to swing the Valley vote in 1998 and more importantly, 2000.

Democratic activists, for their part, are not taking anything for granted.

"For now, the Democrats are doing better," said Simon Rosenberg, the New Democrat Network leader and former Clinton aide. "That is not a done deal. If we don't continue to offer the vision for the robust growth, we could lose the Valley vote over time. Our business is like their business. We have to keep performing."

But at least one analyst believes that if the Republicans don't begin to focus on the Valley soon, it may be too late. Jim Pinkerton, a former Bush aide and syndicated conservative columnist, says that unlike the Democrats, who have both Clinton and Gore, the Republicans have no "ambassador" to the high-tech industry. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he says, is too busy watching his back to look to the road ahead. And that may hurt Republicans in the long run.

"High tech is a glamorous and trend-setting industry. In the eyes of 14-, even 24-year-olds, Bill Gates is cooler than Bill Clinton. There is cash, caché, and the wave of the future in the Valley. Polling tells us that victory goes to the side with the captures the imagination."

He may be right. Bob Decheine, the communications director for Rep. Bill Luther (D-Minnesota), also a New Democrat, says that bringing technology to his district is of utmost importance to constituents.

"I think there really is a sense that something special is going on in the Valley?but what happens out there is kind of old news. Now, Gates and Apple are in the history books. People here are applying the technologies to develop a broader approach to manufacturing and consumer goods. We're using computers to build things." End .gif

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