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The Sugar Daddies of Silicon Valley

How California's Wealthy New-Tech Wonder boys Are Changing Public Policy

August 13, 2000|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | Miguel Bustillo is a Times staff writer based in Sacramento

What challenge does the world offer the Young Turks of Silicon Valley, the Wunderkinder who before age 40 achieved legendary status and wealth beyond their wildest dreams? Another start-up? Or might there be something more?

* Fresh from making their fortunes and changing the world, many tech execs are beginning to see that power is not measured in megahertz alone. There's a whole country out there beyond their cubicles and computer screens, and someone needs to run it. More and more, they want to get into the game.

* Happily absent from the political scene five years ago, California's tech barons--the mavericks behind what venture capitalist John Doerr famously dubbed "the single greatest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet"--are becoming the hot players in politics. With their piles of paper wealth and geek-chic sex appeal, they are participating in national public policy debates and fund-raising on an increasingly grand scale.

"It is a dramatic change," says eBay Senior Vice President Steve Westly, a longtime Democratic party activist who for years saw his tech colleagues look askance at government.

Motivations vary, according to the new political players themselves. For some, it's a corny but heartfelt desire to use their brains and bankrolls to make the world a better place. For others, it's strictly business, and a fear fueled by the Microsoft antitrust case that they had better play ball with the government or risk being torn to pieces by it. Although few would ever admit it, some have a superficial longing to be photographed alongside presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush to show their colleagues they really do matter.

"For some of these guys, it's an ego thing," says Tom Proulx, who authored the Quicken personal finance program while attending Stanford and then co-founded the software company Intuit. "For some of these guys--once you hit $100 million, it's like funny money. There is nothing you can't buy. So to plunk down $50,000" on politics, "the cost is very approachable."

Closer to home, California techies are engaged in full-blown romance with direct democracy. Little-known millionaires such as venture capitalist Tim Draper and entrepreneur Reed Hastings are spending their pocket money to take simple but contentious ideas straight to voters through the state's initiative process. In doing so, they're instantly becoming some of the most influential people in California on fundamental issues such as taxes and public education.

*

TECH MONEY STILL MAKES UP A FRACTION OF THE DOLLARS being spread around this election year--the chemical companies, lawyers and labor unions are not exactly getting muscled out--but it's growing, with some individuals now among the largest contributors in politics today.

Aware of the financial opportunity and public-relations value that Silicon Valley represents for them, both major political parties and their top presidential contenders are fiercely courting the titans of the New Economy. President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore saw it right away, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush has caught up quickly, benefiting from what one tech exec dubbed a "pent-up release of enthusiasm" from Republicans happy to have a candidate with a winning chance.

The leading candidates show off their tech supporters as if they were newfangled electronic accouterments. For years now, Gore has been meeting with his Goretechs, an informal cadre of Silicon Valley advisors that includes Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen and Doerr, who provided seed money for such industry stalwarts as Compaq and Sun Microsystems. Not to be out-teched, Bush often powwows with his technology council, which includes Dell Computer founder and fellow Texan Michael Dell and John Chambers, chief executive of Internet router dynamo Cisco Systems. Bush even scored a coup by luring away one of the Goretechs, CNET founder Halsey Minor.

Now the previously apolitical tech execs, who had largely been unattached to the ideology of either side, are raising the stakes by opening their sizable wallets. They are dropping large contributions of goods and money--so-called "soft money"--into party committees, which, unlike direct contributions to candidates, are not limited by federal law to $1,000. That money is placing some of the tech guys (they are almost all young white men) among the most generous donors in the land.

"It's our own mini version of the arms race," says former Indiana Atty. Gen. Jeff Modisett, who quit that post to work for Democrats at TechNet, the Silicon Valley's premier lobbying organization. "Everyone wants to show their coffers are bigger."

Modisett startled the hometown Hoosiers when he quit this year for the TechNet job. But the man who put Mike Tyson in jail for rape and won the state of Indiana a $3-billion settlement from the tobacco companies knew he was trading up. "This," he says, "is raw politics."

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