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In Senate, Kerry Maintained a Low Profile on High-Tech

As a member of the Commerce Committee, he played a large role only on telecom issues involving his home state's economy.

March 27, 2004|Ralph Vartabedian And Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writers

A high-stakes effort by the Senate Commerce Committee to reshape U.S. technology policy over the last decade has included few contributions from its best-known member.

Sen. John F. Kerry, a committee member since 1986, has seldom taken a direct role in shaping the major legislative decisions on technology during the 1990s, according to former Federal Communications Commission officials, telecommunications executives and congressional staffers.

When Kerry did become active in industry issues, it was often to protect the jobs and other economic interests of high-tech firms in Massachusetts, which had become entangled in bureaucratic quagmires. In two of his most important efforts, Kerry intervened to help iron out complex regulatory issues involving Verizon, a campaign contributor and major Massachusetts employer.

But his work left a spotty record at a time when the federal government was attempting to recast the regulatory framework of a fast-changing and important sector of the economy.

"He was perhaps the only member of the committee I never met," said Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a Republican FCC commissioner from 1997 to 2001. "Of all the members of commerce, he was one of the least engaged in telecom issues."

Echoed former FCC Chairman William Kennard, a Democrat: "He certainly wasn't the most actively engaged Democrat on the committee. He was certainly engaged in issues that concerned Massachusetts."

Kerry's Senate staffers disagree with those assessments and say he has been engaged in major issues. "He was an active player who played an important role in key issues," said his chief of staff, David McKean.

Ivan Schlager, the former chief Democratic counsel on the committee, said Kerry played a key role behind the scenes in shaping policy. The senator, for example, provided support for advanced technology programs, Schlager said.

Kerry supporters note that he was identified by Business Week magazine as one of the 12 "tech savvy" members of Congress in 2000, though the story did not mention a single detail about Kerry and said he was a "newcomer to e-issues."

Telecom analyst Blair Levin, FCC chief of staff from 1993 to 1997, recalled: "I don't think I could have told you that Kerry was even on the Commerce Committee, except that I was reminded of it a few weeks ago."

Kerry played a relatively minor role in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the industry, and stayed on the sidelines in many subsequent battles over the policy, said Levin. He often took a back seat to his colleagues Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.).

"When I stop and think about it, I can't think of anything the guy has ever done," said longtime FCC observer Kenneth G. Robinson, who edits the Telecommunications Policy Review.

Kerry's fundraising from the tech sector lags significantly behind other politicians', including President Bush and Democrats who earlier sought the party's nomination.

Communications giant SBC, for example, has given Bush $129,000 through its political action committee and individual employee contributions, while Kerry received $2,500 from employees. (Kerry has refused to accept PAC money.) And software giant Microsoft gave Bush $148,000, while Kerry pulled in $11,000.

Kerry received $21,000 from AOL Time Warner, compared with $45,000 for Bush. Even Verizon employees and executives have sharply curtailed contributions to Kerry from past years, giving him $4,000 for his presidential bid, while the company's employees and its political action committees have given Bush $75,800.

Kerry may do better, now that he is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Some industry CEOs are raising money for Kerry -- among them the heads of Viacom, Centillium Communications, Qualcomm Inc. and the former president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn., the trade group of the wireless industry.

Though Kerry has not been a leader in technology policy, he has still been criticized for his efforts on behalf of the industry.

The Center for Public Integrity has charged that "Kerry carries water" for telecommunications lobbyists and the industry, asserting he has backed many industry positions. Former presidential candidate Howard Dean picked up on that criticism and attacked Kerry during the early Democratic primaries. Now, Bush is making similar allegations.

When the senator went to bat for Verizon, his foremost concern was the economic effect in Massachusetts, his staff said.

Kerry got involved in 1999 and 2000 in trying to help resolve a snag in the $52-billion merger between Bell Atlantic and GTE that created Verizon. One of GTE's highly valued assets was an operation known as the Backbone Network, a pioneer in the technology to carry large volumes of Internet traffic. Backbone Network not only provided 600 jobs in Massachusetts, it was seen as a wellspring of technology in the state.

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