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In New Economy, Old Government Up for Vote

Congress: In Silicon Valley, the heart of the nation's high-tech boom, a House race challenges the traditional role played by Washington.


SAN JOSE — Each says he is a fan of the high-tech companies that have propelled this region--and the United States--to an Information Age of exploding wealth and financial dominance.

But as they slug it out in one of the nation's most contested races for Congress, Republican Jim Cunneen and Democrat Mike Honda are stirring a debate that will rage long after November and echo far beyond Silicon Valley.

Looming over the clash between two state assemblymen is one far-reaching question: Does a new kind of economy demand a new kind of government?

Cunneen, 39, says it does: "Elections are about the future; they're not about the past," says the former high-tech executive who emphasizes the importance of personal initiative in creating today's boom times.

But Honda, 59, still backs an ambitious federal role in the fight for social justice and other goals: "We have to make sure we don't forget about our other responsibilities," the former science teacher says.

The scramble to represent California's independent-minded 15th Congressional District is one of a handful of contests that will determine which party controls the House. On the surface, it is like other races around the country, with jousting over health care, education, guns and other matters of concern to voters everywhere.

But ultimately, it is a contest to represent the new high-tech economy, a skirmish over future priorities--a contrast in style, substance and approach to Washington.

"You really are testing out this theory for the first time--that the new economy is going to drive elections," says Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Onetime Democratic Region in Transition

The laboratory is a sprawling district of leafy suburbs, concrete-and-glass industrial parks, mountains and valleys rolling through much of Santa Clara County, including South San Jose, along with a piece of Santa Cruz County stretching to the Pacific.

Democrats enjoy an 8-percentage-point edge in voter registration, a key reason why many believe that Honda leads the race, although a new GOP poll points to a tossup. In the last three elections, the district's voters crossed party lines to send Republican Tom Campbell to the House, an expression of independence that may become typical for new economy voters. For 20 years before that, they chose Democrat Norman Y. Mineta, now the U.S. Commerce secretary and a Honda mentor.

Many of the district's voters combine conservative, free-market economics with a keep-government-out-of-the-bedroom approach to social issues, research suggests. Already, new-economy enclaves, where many earn their living at high-tech companies, are emerging in parts of Southern California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Washington, New York, Texas and Florida, says Kevin Spillane, a Republican consultant who is advising Cunneen.

Silicon Valley, he adds, is the cutting-edge prototype: "It is ground zero for the socially moderate, fiscally conservative, independent-minded voter." It is a group of voters he says is growing.

At the top of the high-tech ladder, meanwhile, top executives are rethinking their traditional disdain for politics, an important shift that is bringing new voices and money into the electoral arena. While Honda enjoys the support of organized labor and other loyal Democratic interests, Cunneen has rallied to his side a who's who of high-tech heavies, including chief executives from Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., National Semiconductor Corp., Intel Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., EBay and other area companies.

Yet Honda may be winning the money race. He has raised some $1.7 million, in addition to almost $400,000 in media support from the Democratic Party, according to officials in his campaign. Cunneen has raised about $1.2 million, plus $500,000 worth of TV ads and direct mail, paid for by the Republican Party.

The high-stakes battle for the 15th District was sparked a year ago, when Campbell chose to vacate his seat to challenge Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Cunneen, who had established himself as a pro-technology moderate during three terms in the state Assembly, jumped into the race early. Tall, friendly and telegenic, he seemed on the verge of sailing into the open seat.

But as the December filing deadline approached, leading Democrats weighed in heavily. Two days before Honda was scheduled to visit Japan, Vice President Al Gore asked him to run. By the time President Clinton called the next day, Honda had decided to go for it. Almost instantly, the down-to-earth assemblyman became a formidable candidate, boosted by decades of community ties and a stirring life story.

On some issues, the candidates do not seem so different. They even agree on some of the new economy matters, such as the importance of education, free trade with China and the benefits of allowing more high-skilled immigrants into the country.

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