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Silicon Valley Plugs In Silicon Valley Plugs In

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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Silicon Valley Plugs In

After Donating Millions In The 2008 Campaign, Is California's Tech Mecca Primed To Become An Incubator For Candidates?

Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial spirit has given us personal computers, iPods and Google. What the sun-drenched tech capital hasn't produced is a political heavyweight -- a fact that California gubernatorial hopefuls Meg Whitman (R) and Steve Poizner (R) are hoping to change next year.

Before Whitman, former eBay CEO, and Poizner, a former tech executive turned state insurance commissioner, the only tech whizzes to jump into statewide politics were engineer and former Rep. Ed Zschau (R), who lost his bid for Senate in 1986, and former eBay executive Steve Westly (D), who served as state controller for four years but lost his 2006 bid for governor.

 

Whitman and Poizner are treading on unfamiliar ground, to be sure. But are they blazing a trail for more Valley crossovers or are they merely two more footnotes in the Valley's thin political history?

One thing is for certain: Silicon Valley has begun to throw its immense wealth around.

Residents of the roughly 150 ZIP codes south of San Francisco generally considered to make up Silicon Valley accounted for $19.6 million (11 percent) of the $176.6 million that Californians donated to presidential candidates in the 2008 primaries and general election, according to calculations by NationalJournal.com using data from the Federal Election Commission. Of the top 50 donor ZIP codes in the country, two were in Silicon Valley -- not quite on par with the Upper East Side or Beverly Hills, but two more than in 2004.

 

Leafy suburbs like Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Woodside have rained money on Democrats in particular: Silicon Valley donors gave Barack Obama $12 million during the primary and general election campaigns, compared to less than $2 million for John McCain.

"Starting with the first Bush administration, Silicon Valley was mostly ignored by national Republican candidates, and starting with Bill Clinton and Al Gore and then most recently Obama, there's been a real focus on Silicon Valley as a source of fundraising," said Zschau, who left the House after his failed Senate bid and now teaches at Princeton. "The Republican Party has not taken advantage of the wealth and the intellectual capabilities of this region as well as the Democrats have."

Silicon Valley companies have also taken a keen interest in policy -- net neutrality, privacy rights and loosening visa restrictions for foreign workers, to name a few issues. Google and other tech giants are beefing up their lobbying presence in Washington. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina (who is contemplating her own run for the Senate next year) was an economic adviser to the McCain campaign, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt counseled the Obama transition team on tech policy.

Some observers -- perhaps most eagerly the campaigns themselves -- argue that Whitman's and Poizner's candidacies are logical outgrowths of this advocacy.

 

"Meg talks about the notion that the sleeping giant is starting to awaken in California politics," said Mitch Zak, a spokesman for the Whitman campaign. "She thinks there is a correlation between the growth and maturity of these Valley companies as they begin to develop a bigger appreciation for the impact of government regulations on a business' ability to succeed."

With two Silicon Valley candidates in the race come added pressures, and Poizner and Whitman are fighting over who gets to be "the" Silicon Valley candidate. Whitman's camp hammers home her connection to eBay, a blue-chip Internet brand far better known than Poizner's former company SnapTrack Inc., which developed GPS for cell phones (he sold it to Qualcomm for $1 billion in 2000). Poizner spokesman Kevin Spillane fires back that his candidate is "an engineer and a builder" while Whitman has "more of a marketing background."

The candidates may fight over the Silicon Valley imprimatur, but Bob Mulholland, a campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party, doesn't see two tech entrepreneurs at the vanguard of a political awakening; he sees two more billionaires trying to buy their way into office.

"There's a history of people in California with a lot of money who make the mistake that because they were important in their boardroom, they will be important to the voters of California: 'I'm important, I'm wealthy, people will like me, people will elect me,'" Mulholland said.

The list of deep-pocketed political neophytes spending big bucks gunning for statewide office is long: Michael Huffington (Senate, 1994, $28 million), Al Checchi (governor, 1998, $40 million), Darrell Issa (Senate, 1998, $12 million), Bill Simon (governor, 2002, $36 million) and Westly (governor, 2006, $42 million). They all lost.

The charges of political inexperience and vote-buying could stick. Whitman has never held elected office, and she has a thin voting record. Poizner spent $14 million in his race for state insurance commissioner and $7 million in a failed bid for the State Assembly in 2004. Both have already written checks for more than $4 million to their campaigns, with more on the way.

However you classify them, Whitman and Poizner have come out swinging for education, an issue close to Silicon Valley's heart (tech moguls in 1999 and 2000 spent more than $50 million to pass a proposition that made it easier for schools to raise money through bond measures). With many Valley companies hungry for talent and stymied by tight visa restrictions, both candidates want to increase teacher pay and open more charter schools. Poizner may have the edge in that debate: He taught high school history for a year before running for the State Assembly, and he co-founded the California Charter Schools Association.

Silicon Valley still has a long way to go to match the number of high-profile entertainers-turned-politicians that Hollywood has cranked out, from former President Ronald Reagan to current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Westly argued that California's dire straits -- the state faces a $42 billion budget deficit -- will draw more techies into the political arena and encourage the electorate to give them a closer look in 2010 and beyond.

"People associate Silicon Valley with innovation, the future and being forward-looking," Westly told NationalJournal.com. "It's a place that's seen as bipartisan. There's an expression here: 'Just do it.' I think people in this state are looking for problem solvers, and I think that gives Silicon Valley candidates an added luster."

Marc Lavallee contributed to this report.

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