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THE CUTTING EDGE | DIGITAL NATION

This Time, High Tech Adores George Bush

November 09, 1998|GARY CHAPMAN

What might a George W. Bush presidency look like for the high-tech industry? A number of industry leaders must be pondering that question now after the Texas governor's landslide victory last week.

Bush was already a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 before last week. His overwhelming reelection victory, with 69% of the vote, and with deep support among Latinos and African Americans, will almost certainly firm up his status in the Republican Party. And most high-tech leaders in Texas are already on his bandwagon.

Some people outside of Texas still don't realize how thoroughly high tech has changed the state. Texas is still regarded by many people on both coasts as a place of tumblin' tumbleweeds, good ol' boys and an economy based on cattle, oil and gas. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Fortune magazine last week named Austin the No. 1 city for business in the country because of its high-tech sector. The city was on the cover of Newsweek, too, as a place challenging Silicon Valley for preeminence in technology. The current downturn in chip manufacturing, which four years ago would have been a body slam to Austin, now barely registers in the region's economy. The energy in Austin's high-tech industry has shifted to hundreds--up to 700 at last count--of small start-up software firms, most of them focused on cutting-edge Internet applications and e-commerce.

Dell Computer, of course, is one of the chief motors of the economy here, growing at many times the rate of its market as a whole. Michael Dell, at age 33, is richer than Bill Gates was at that age, and he's now the richest man in Texas, with a personal wealth somewhere between $11 billion and $13 billion. Central Texas is dotted with other "Dellionaires."

Houston has mighty Compaq Computer, the world's largest PC manufacturer, which in the last year has gobbled up Digital Equipment Corp. (once the second-largest computer company itself) and Tandem Computers.

Dallas has its "telecom corridor" and is a leading producer of computer games, and San Antonio is home of SBC Corp., which owns Southwestern Bell, Pacific Bell, parts of the telephone market in New England and one-fourth of Telmex in Mexico. SBC has also made a bid for Ameritech that, if approved by the Federal Communications Commission, will make SBC the biggest phone company in the world, with more than 60% of the telephones west of the Mississippi.

There are also rumors circulating that WorldCom-MCI--the Godzilla of the telecom business--may relocate its headquarters to San Antonio soon, a move that would transform the technology-sleepy city into the world's biggest hub of telecommunications.

The high-tech industry here, like the rest of Texas, has had a love affair with George W. Bush. He's the most popular governor in the state's history. Critics have tried to make the case that he hasn't done anything significant--that was the attack line of his Democratic Party challenger, Garry Mauro--but Bush's lack of an ambitious agenda seemed to be exactly what appealed to high-tech leaders. They gushed over Bush's line that "government should do only a few things and do those well."

In his first term and in this year's campaign, he stressed basic skills in K-12 education and tax reform, which are the top priorities of the high-tech sector as well.

Bush has surprised a lot of people here, including me. When he ran against Ann Richards in 1994, the Democratic governor tried to paint him as an empty suit, politically inexperienced, weightless and trading on his famous name. None of this worked, and it turned out to be wildly inaccurate too.

Bush is one of the canniest politicians in the country, astonishingly skilled, extremely smart and with a big dose of charisma. He lights up a room wherever he goes. He also speaks passable Spanish, a great asset in the Southwest.

He has hired and deployed a senior staff that is remarkably intelligent, diligent, experienced and completely incorruptible, all qualities that surprised Bush's opponents. It has chagrined many Democrats here that holdovers from the Richards administration who now work for Bush report that their jobs are a lot more rewarding and fun under this governor.

Bush has tended to stay away from technology issues, which may be why tech leaders like him so much. He did sign into law, in 1995, a massive reform of telecommunications that included the state's Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, the nation's largest investment program in wiring schools, libraries and medical facilities--$1.5 billion over 10 years. He convened a Science and Technology Task Force, which has tended to limit its advice to how to improve the state's high-tech work force, the industry's biggest concern.

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