LAST YEAR, A LONDON NEWSPAPER RAN A FRONT-PAGE photograph of Bill Gates riding shotgun in a golf cart with President Clinton. The caption read: “The most powerful man in the world — and his driver.” Since then, one of the most important developments in the technology industry has been Microsoft's realization that good relations with government leaders makes good business — and vice-versa. It's become almost routine for political heavyweights, especially presidential contenders touring the Northwest, to include a swing through Redmond to visit Microsoft headquarters and, hopefully, get an audience with the Chairman.

“Every single presidential candidate will make a pilgrimage to the high-tech capitals, including Redmond,” says former GOP Congressman Rick White, who represented Washington state's 1st District, which includes Microsoft, from 1994 to 1998. First in line is Democratic hopeful and former New York Knicks all-star Bill Bradley, who will be in the Seattle area next week for a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner hosted in part by Microsoft headmen.

Meanwhile, during Al Gore's recent sojourns to the Northwest, the vice president has kept to downtown Seattle, hobnobbing with local digerati at the offices of The VP has been perhaps the most aggressive candidate in soliciting high-tech support. At Amazon, he talked about the importance of free speech online and recently told CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer that he differed from Bill Bradley because “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

While Gore may have been responsible for popularizing the belabored “information superhighway” metaphor, he of course had nothing to do with creating the Internet, which was originally commissioned by the Defense Department in 1969, while Gore was still in law school. Before he could recover from that embarrassment, the Democratic front-runner gaffed again last week when he claimed that his Web site was “open source” — a fashionable technology buzz-phrase that, unfortunately for Gore, refers to software, not Web pages.

GORE HAS MADE OTHER BLUNDERS WHILE TRYING TO establish his geek cred, but none as important — to Microsoft, at least — as being part of an administration responsible for the mammoth antitrust crusade against the software giant.

“I've heard lots of negative feedback [from Microsoft] about the Clinton/Gore administration and what they understand about technology,” says White, now back with his old law firm, Perkins Coie. “Microsoft feels very viscerally that the [antitrust case] is very unfair, and the people responsible will likely bear the brunt of their frustration.” If Gore is persona non grata in Redmond, then it follows that Bradley and some Republican hopefuls may stand to benefit from Microsoft's corporate and employee largess. Microsoft executive Chris Larson is among the hosts for Bradley's dinner next week at the Bell Street Pier. And last week, company chief operating officer Bob Herbold signed a letter in support of Texas Governor George W. Bush's campaign. This comes on the heels of heavy investments by Microsoft and its executives in the congressional campaigns of several Republicans last fall. A Microsoft spokesman would not comment on what he called the private political interests of company executives, but to some, the money speaks for itself.

“Microsoft only recently got involved in political fund-raising,” explains Peter Harter, global public policy counsel for Netscape. “And for Microsoft to come out of nowhere and raise a very significant amount of money at the same time that a very significant federal law-enforcement action is taking place against them, and if they're backing candidates who may eventually appoint antitrust enforcers . . . it might lead some to think that the richest man in the world is trying to buy himself out of it.” When asked if the flip side of the equation might also be true — that a company, such as Netscape, also with a significant stake in the same antitrust trial, might support the candidacy of a member of the administration responsible for bringing the case — Harter bristled. “That's a simplistic and naive view on how politics works,” he scolded, then added with an apparent straight face: “In our view, this is a law-enforcement matter and [Netscape is] a company that is going to cooperate with law enforcement.” Harter would not comment when asked if Netscape has given money to the Gore 2000 campaign.

Much has been made of Gore's close ties to California and its 54 coveted electoral votes. (Washington state has a paltry 11.) Since 1993, the vice president has met regularly with a core of Silicon Valley executives who two years ago formally created the Technology Network political committee to represent high-tech interests in Washington, D.C. Margita Thompson, director of external affairs for TechNet (which helped arrange Gore's Amazon visit last year), says that despite the administration's antitrust action on behalf of several California-based companies threatened by Microsoft, the association tries to stay nonpartisan. “We're trying to prove to people that Silicon Valley is not just Al Gore territory,” she says. “We have to be really very careful about [the antitrust issue] because we have both sides: Microsoft and Sun and Netscape are all members.”

In truth, the antitrust case is only one part of the big public-policy picture for technology. Political interests of competing firms often overlap, as is evidenced by Microsoft's participation in the California-based Technology Network. Furthermore, besides Gore, no major candidates have yet articulated a government strategy for the new economy other than to say that they're all for it. Seattle attorney Tom Allison, whose firm, Preston Gates & Ellis, represents Microsoft, is on Bradley's local host committee, but says his support has little to do with the former senator's technology agenda. For one, Allison worked as an aide to Bradley when he was first elected in 1978. “At the end of the day, I just think Bill is more electable,” he says.

The increasingly complex political picture in the high-tech industry is likely a sign that the industry itself is growing more diverse as it matures. In earlier days, silicon politics were invariably liberal, the industry being peopled largely by young West Coast natives who could be counted on to vote Democratic. But now, companies have grown into full-blown American corporations whose interests generally are better served by Republicans than Democrats, and the stakes within the industry have grown high enough to split it into ferociously divided factions that tend to look at politicians more pragmatically than idealistically. The Microsoft antitrust-case maneuvering for political advantage is simply part of a larger battle, as high-tech-industry factions look more and more to Washington for political leverage, with less and less of a common agenda.


Reprinted from the Seattle Weekly.

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