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CAMPAIGN 2002 / VOICES OF SILICON VALLEY

Governor Feeling Little Political Fallout From the Dot-Com Bust

Many distance selves from politics and politicians in the bad times as well as good.

June 10, 2002|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALO ALTO — As a psychotherapist in Silicon Valley, Samuel Rolano can testify to the human toll of the recession and the dot-com bust. He sees the symptoms daily: anxiety, depression, economic insecurity.

"I can't imagine anyone who's not been affected," said the 43-year-old.

Indeed, signs of the slump are everywhere, from the vacant glass office parks south of San Francisco to the sagging attendance at San Jose's flashy Tech Museum. Everyone, it seems, can relate some measure of personal woe, be it layoffs, lost business or a shriveled stock portfolio.

Few, however, blame Gov. Gray Davis--or any politician, for that matter.

"Finger-pointing is ludicrous," said David Benson, a Menlo Park business consultant whose employer has shed six of its 40 staffers over the last year. "You can't blame any one person or any one party."

Nearing the midpoint of this election year, California faces a record budget deficit and fallout from the worst economic downturn in a decade. Davis, unpopular even with many fellow Democrats, risks further upset by proposing an unpalatable mix of tax increases and budget cuts to close the projected $23.6-billion gap.

Meantime, he struggles against persistent--if unsubstantiated--accusations of trading favors in return for campaign cash. Some of those allegations involve Oracle Corp., one of Silicon Valley's own.

And yet here where the recession has hit hardest, where commutes are hellish and home prices--even now--are outlandish and still climbing, few of those interviewed in recent weeks blame Davis for the bad times, in the same way that few credit government for the times that were good.

Instead, they believe it was high-tech's entrepreneurs and investors who created the glory ride. Now that it is over, they suggest that the end was inevitable and maybe even deserved.

"As a friend of mine said, all of us were a little bit drunk," said Martin Hellman, a Stanford University engineering professor.

At bottom, politics in Silicon Valley is about pragmatism; if Davis has done little to inspire, at least he has been a steady friend of high-tech. If people fault his handling of the energy crisis, which many do, they appreciate his tolerant stance on issues such as abortion and gay rights, which matches their own live-and-let-live attitudes.

If the Oracle scandal speaks to an unsavory relationship between money and politics, it is hardly a surprise.

"Big business is always looking to contribute to political campaigns in return for favors. It's built into our political system," said Chris Fitting, 36, a paralegal toting a bag of Subway sandwiches back to work. "Oracle and Davis, Enron and Bush. It's all political business as usual."

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Partisan Inclination

For years Silicon Valley was a bastion of liberal Republicanism, finally yielding to Democrats under the care and courtship of President Clinton. Given that partisan inclination, many now lean toward Davis if only because he is not as conservative as Bill Simon Jr., the Republican candidate for governor.

Joe Svitek, a 56-year-old geologist, had just polished off a hamburger at Taxi's, a retro diner on Palo Alto's bustling University Avenue, when asked his opinion of Davis. He took a long time before responding, "OK-ish, I guess. OK-ish enough, unless someone really inspiring came along."

Or as psychotherapist Rolano put it, in an often-stated variant of the lesser-evil theme, "Do I think he's wonderful? No. But I certainly think he's better than Bill Simon."

For all the veneration of the Internet and gaudy New Economy hype, it is easy to forget that high-tech is a relatively young industry, with an even shorter history of political activism.

Until about a decade ago the prevailing sentiment toward government was one of apathy tinged with contempt. "Do our job, keep our heads down. We don't lobby. We're hip," was how Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley analyst and director of the Institute for the Future, described the mind-set.

That began to change as the world grew more socially and economically connected--thanks in good part to the tools of technology--and as the valley's population grew larger and more dense, making the importance of matters like education and quality of life acute. In 1992, Clinton became the first presidential candidate to actively woo Silicon Valley, as part of his strategic makeover into a different kind of Democrat.

Four years later, the high-tech industry raised $40 million to defeat Proposition 211, an attorney-sponsored effort to ease the filing of securities lawsuits. The effort was a turning point.

Afterward, the industry beefed up its lobbying in Sacramento and Washington and continued its generous campaign contributions.

In 2000, presidential hopefuls Al Gore and George W. Bush led a parade of candidates through Silicon Valley as high-tech soared to No. 8 among national political donors. Four years earlier, the industry had ranked 33rd, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political giving.

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'Split Personality'

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