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Election Takes Seat at Techies' Table

September 08, 2003|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

WOODSIDE, Calif. — It was not yet 8 a.m. at Buck's restaurant, the legendary Silicon Valley networking nexus and breakfast joint.

Already, Jamis MacNiven, Buck's irrepressible owner, was in full recall spiel, navigating his big frame from booth to booth -- from venture capitalists hunched over kiwi strawberry blintzes to unemployed techies desperately scouring the dining room for opportunities.

Not even the recent Hewlett-Packard-Compaq merger talks, said MacNiven, had generated as much excitement in California's high-tech capital 30 miles south of San Francisco. "The recall is the best thing to happen to this state since discovering gold," MacNiven, a master of overstatement, announced. "Who doesn't love this?"

Woodside -- population 5,500 and home of Buck's -- is a horsy, fabulously wealthy enclave of estates and mansions strategically placed near Stanford University and Sandhill Road, the favored street address of high-tech venture capitalists. At the heart of Woodside's tiny downtown center this modest cafe is adorned with velvet Elvis paintings, a harmonica collection, a stuffed buffalo head and, inside a glass case, two antique squeezeboxes.

"In case of emergency," a sign says, "break glass, save accordions."

In the 13 years that MacNiven has owned it, Buck's has emerged as the unofficial headquarters of Silicon Valley risk-takers. Yahoo Inc. was funded in one of its booths. So was Hotmail. Besides the rhinestone-studded velvet Elvis and the shaggy buffalo, the walls are decorated with silicon chips donated by grateful patrons. Breakfast is the big meal here. But sometimes the high-tech crowd stays all day, working out deals. MacNiven makes a point of never rushing people, occasionally even leaving them here after closing.

No wonder that the dot-com crowd considers Buck's a second home.

These days, with the industry in the doldrums and fewer deals on the table, much of the chat in the room is about the recall.

The tidal wave of money from dot-com stock options fueled the economic surge and budget surplus in the first administration of Gov. Gray Davis. The collapse of the dot-com industry led to the tax shortfalls and huge budget deficit in the second Davis administration.

For this reason, Silicon Valleyites feel especially invested in the recall issues.

"I sent Gov. Davis a lot of tax money," said Sharon Barrington, 53, an unemployed former software executive, "and he squandered it. As far as I'm concerned, he's out of here."

The most striking feature of Silicon Valley's reaction to the recall election is the depth of anger expressed by those whose lives were turned upside-down by the dot-com bust, and those who feel betrayed by the California government.

Barrington and two other unemployed colleagues meet regularly at Buck's in a support group and job-search brainstorming team.

"Three years ago," said one of the trio, Greg Ames, 47, a former computer engineering executive now unemployed, "I was driving a Lexus, I had a new home, I had boats."

"You still have boats," Barrington said.

"That's all I have," said Ames, who supports the recall and favors Republican Peter V. Ueberroth. Barrington said she is "leaning toward [Tom] McClintock," a Republican state senator from Thousand Oaks.

Others here, including prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, another Buck's regular, favor Arnold Schwarzenegger, also a Republican. Later this month, Draper plans to host a $10,000-a-plate fund-raiser for the actor-turned-politician at his home in nearby Atherton. The event includes a photo session with the muscular candidate.

Buck's proprietor MacNiven, who has a strong appreciation of politics-as-theater, also supports Schwarzenegger.

"He's got the most bizarre accent since Henry Kissinger," said MacNiven, who honed his political skills in late-1960s Berkeley.

"We all get to call him by his first name. He's married to this Democrat. He's a movie mogul and a giant actor. He's an all-time steroid user. He's a big-time womanizer. I mean, who doesn't love this? This was written for us. I'm in for the irony factor and comedy value."

But not everyone at Buck's is enamored of the recall's comedic qualities.

At another table, former Silicon Valley Bank Chief Executive John C. Dean, 56, was concerned about the "dangerous precedent" the recall represents.

"The average Californian already has enough issues to deal with. This is going to be expensive," he said.

Still, others here in the international capital of innovation have more pranksterish political schemes. One popular conversation topic concerns a dot-com genius who wants to create a Web site for 10,000 people -- all of whom agree to sign all the others' petitions to run for governor in a future recall race. Under state law, registered Democrats or Republicans who gather 10,000 signatures can waive the $3,500 filing fee.

"Talk about electoral chaos!" marveled former Apple computer engineer Ames.

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