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Down In the Valley

Hopefuls Flock To Tech Mecca

When Larry Stone joined about 40 other prominent local Democrats at a Silicon Valley hotel to meet Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in December, he was struck by his surroundings.

They were gathered in the same room at the Cupertino Inn where Stone, the Santa Clara County assessor and a longtime fixture in Silicon Valley politics, first met a certain Arkansas governor in 1990. And to him, the similarities went beyond the number on the door.

“I believe Kerry has the same characteristics that attracted Silicon Valley to Bill Clinton,” Stone said.

It’s a story Stone is fond of telling. But while the former Sunnyvale mayor has already voiced his support for Kerry, the vast majority of big-name Democrats in the Bay area’s high-tech community have yet to commit publicly to a 2004 presidential candidate, meaning that contenders for the Democratic nomination should get used to setting their watches back three hours as they journey west to drum up support.

“I think that the bottom line is that the technology community is still trying to figure out who’s running for president,” said Donnie Fowler, the national field director for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign and a current vice president of the political networking group TechNet. “A lot of politically active people in the tech community paid a lot of attention to the November elections and are just starting to pay attention to 2004.”

As is the case with Hollywood, Silicon Valley is a mandatory stop on any national Democratic fundraising tour. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Gore raised more than $2.5 million in the 2000 cycle from individuals in the communications and electronics industries.

But while the technology sector can’t begin to match unions or trial lawyers in the hierarchy of generous Democratic donors, the industry’s overall symbolic importance far exceeds its actual contribution totals.

The Bay area high-tech community is one of the few bastions of Democratic support in the corporate world. The endorsement of technology entrepreneurs helps Democratic candidates send a valuable signal that they are not hostile to business and can also provide entree to industry leaders in other parts of the country.

While it’s still too early to handicap the race definitively, local observers agreed that Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) are currently the best-positioned candidates in the high-tech world.

“Kerry and Lieberman are a pick ’em right now,” said Wade Randlett, a Democratic fundraiser and former political director of TechNet.

Several area Democrats said Kerry’s relative strength at this point is based on his near-constant presence in the Bay area — he has made about a dozen trips there in the past two years — and his aggressive courtship of local players. He has already scored something of a coup by signing up Stone and Mark Gorenberg of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, a key operative from former Sen. Bill Bradley’s (D-N.J.) 2000 campaign.

Kerry will be in the Bay area on Wednesday and will do five events in San Francisco, Mountain View and Santa Clara. He will be back in San Francisco on March 13 for a high-profile fundraiser. Co-hosts will include Randlett, Gorenberg, Stone, David Pine of Handspring, David Roux of Silverlake Partners and Chris Larsen of E-Loan.

While Kerry’s stance on technology issues is thought to be strong, Lieberman has developed a reputation much like that of his former running mate Gore as a pioneer in the field.

“I think you can make a strong argument that Joe Lieberman has been the best Senator from either party on technology issues,” said Fowler.

[IMGCAP(1)] Democrats in Silicon Valley tend to be fiscal moderates, promoting free trade — especially with China — and economic policies that encourage companies to invest more money in technology.

Lieberman’s best-known longtime ally in the region is Sandy Robertson, the founder of the venture capital firm Francisco Partners. Since the 2000 campaign, Robertson has helped organize three Silicon Valley fundraisers for Lieberman’s ROCPAC, netting a total of about $150,000.

A Lieberman aide said the Senator did not currently have anything scheduled but that he planned to make “frequent trips” to the Bay area this year.

Lieberman made two high-profile treks to the region in 2002 — a May visit where he unveiled his broadband policy initiative and attended the kickoff party for the fundraising group San Francisco Bay Area Dems, and an October trip where he touted his technology-oriented economic stimulus plan and did a Silicon Valley fundraiser for California Gov. Gray Davis (D).

While Lieberman and Kerry are known quantities, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who was scheduled to be in the Bay area this weekend, is more of a wild card. His relative obscurity could even be an asset, as many technology leaders are predisposed to fresh faces and new, forward-looking ideas.

“Out here we have a strong disposition — it’s almost theologic — that the right candidate for us is the one who knows that tomorrow is not like yesterday,” said Randlett.

David Singer, the chairman and CEO of Genesoft Pharmaceuticals, hosted an Edwards-headlined Democratic Leadership Council event at his San Francisco home in late November. Singer got to know Edwards after they struck up a conversation at a bar while both were stranded at O’Hare International Airport.

Singer, who worked for Bradley and then supported Gore in 2000, said he saw Edwards as a “really attractive” candidate and predicted that his freshness would help him attract support in the area.

Like many in the business community, high-tech executives tend instinctively to view trial lawyers with suspicion. Some operatives suggested that Edwards’ close identification with the plaintiff’s bar would put him at a distinct disadvantage when trying to solicit Silicon Valley support.

But others in the region praised the head-on way the North Carolinian has dealt with the issue, saying that his honesty was refreshing.

“It’s a hurdle that I think even John Edwards recognizes,” Fowler said, adding that Edwards confronts the issue when meeting with potential supporters. “What he says is, ‘Yes, I am a trial lawyer,’ and he makes no apologies for that. … The technology community appreciates frankness, so I wouldn’t by any means write Edwards off.”

Fowler said that Edwards stresses that he has never taken part in class-action lawsuits, which are a particular concern to technology and other types of business executives.

Compared to the Senate contenders, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has an entirely different set of assets and liabilities. He is certainly a familiar face in the Bay area, and his fundraising efforts for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have taken him to the region frequently in the past five years.

Gephardt could also be aided by the fact that all of the House Members who represent San Francisco and Silicon Valley are Democrats, giving him a potent potential ground operation if those lawmakers choose to deploy their own local networks of aides and supporters on his behalf.

On the policy front, the former Democratic leader could be hampered by the fact that he is not a moderate on economic issues and is well-known in the region as an opponent of free trade.

A Gephardt aide argued that his trade stance isn’t a hindrance among those executives who understand the nuances of his position.

“He doesn’t shy away from his position. He states it clearly,” said the aide, pointing out that Gephardt supports trade but also promotes policies that would improve living standards — and increase consumer spending — in other countries. The aide also emphasized that many in the high-tech community are social liberals and are thus a natural Gephardt constituency.

Beyond more traditional courtship, Gephardt, Kerry and other candidates will also try to reach prominent high-tech figures through some of the region’s myriad ethnic organizations such as The Indus Entrepreneurs and groups aimed at Asian-American technology workers.

The shape of the race for Silicon Valley’s stamp of approval will become clearer in the next several months as high-profile technology leaders begin to announce their support publicly.

One player to watch is John Roos, a lawyer at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and former Bradley operative who hosted a fundraiser at his house for Kerry in September.

Also said to be on the list of coveted supporters are John Doerr and Brook Byers of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins

Caufield & Byers, Scott Cook of Intuit, Eric Schmidt of Google, Donna Dubinsky of Handspring, Reed Hastings of Netflix, Mitchell Kertzman of Liberate, Art Levinson of Genentech, Kim Polese of Marimba and Jerry Fiddler of Wind River Systems.