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‘High-tech Dems’ Are the Latest Thing

If a small cadre of Democratic lobbyists who represent the technology industry ever sets up a clubhouse, the sign outside would read: No Republicans and no fundraising.

“High-tech Dems,” an informal group that has been meeting for three years to help advance both the techie agenda and Democrats in Congress, meets about once a month for breakfast, usually with a special guest from Capitol Hill. It does not include Republicans and keeps the fundraising out. Members of the group also say they don’t allow any direct lobbying at the meetings, but they do talk legislative and policy issues and discuss strategy for moving the tech agenda forward.

“It’s a good sounding board for both sides to try out ideas,” said Matt Tanielian, director of federal government affairs for Cisco Systems, and a founding member of the group. “It’s an opportunity to take off your hat for an hour and to talk about the big picture — how can our industry do better and how can Democrats do better in promoting it.”

The group’s next meeting is Tuesday — about two dozen lobbyists will meet with Mark Wetjen, who is counsel and policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). High-tech Dems includes in-house lobbyists, outside consultants and trade association representatives, all with Democratic pedigrees.

Josh Ackil, a former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and now a lobbyist with the Information Technology Industry Council, was another founder of the group, which has grown from about a dozen buddies to 25 members.

“It’s an opportunity for us to share information, find out what Capitol Hill is doing on tech issues,” Ackil said. “Most of the people that come to these events aren’t just there simply to push a single issue, but rather to push innovation and competitiveness issues because they believe in them.”

The group’s discussion topics lately include legislation to get more visas and green cards for high-skilled tech workers, a patent reform bill and more federal funding for research and development.

Capitol Hill staffers who have attended the meetings include Melissa Shannon, a policy adviser to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Jason Mahler, chief of staff to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.); and the chiefs of staff to the co-chairmen of the House’s New Democrat Coalition.

And during the 2004 presidential campaign, an adviser to the Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) team stopped by.

“It’s more social than it is business,” Tanielian said. “While there’s no lobbying, it’s an opportunity for staff to come down and ask us questions. Being in the majority now, there’s a little bit more energy behind it.”

Unlike some industries that are viewed as being at odds with the Democratic Party, Tanielian said, “I think there’s a pretty strong connection between the technology industry and Democrats. We can have a very proactive legislative agenda under Democrats.”

The group also shares an e-mail list of about 150 Democratic tech lobbyists and Congressional staffers who use it to share intelligence about legislation and policy.

Last year, for example, when Qorvis Communications partner Don Goldberg, was working on an innovation measure, the list came in handy.

“I was getting material from that quicker than the clients who had big-time lobbyists involved,” said Goldberg, who does public affairs for high-tech clients Adobe, Cisco and the Consumer Electronics Association. “When stuff goes around, it’s usually pretty useful.”

While Goldberg said it might be tempting to use the list to rally support for a specific cause, he sticks to the rules of no lobbying for a specific client issue.

“We don’t bring them [staffers] in there and say we need your boss to get on this bill,” Tanielian said of the meetings.

But what the group does talk about is how an issue might affect the tech community or how certain legislative proposals fit in with the Democrats’ agenda.

“You have a segment of the Congressional Democrats, particularly in the House, that want to be able to push some business-oriented initiatives and the thing about the tech industry is, it’s sort of loved by both sides of the aisle,” said one tech source.

Goldberg said the group got its start after Ackil left the Hill. Ackil, he said, had been a point-person for the tech industry when the ITI lobbyist worked for Daschle. “When we were really in the wilderness, he was sort of the person who was really the liaison for the Democratic leadership in the Senate,” Goldberg said. “When Josh left the Hill, we all said, ‘We’ve got to keep this going. We need to make sure we have a voice.’”

Ackil said the group brainstorms with staffers about “how can we downtown trumpet what the Democrats on the Hill are doing?”

Sharon Ringley, a lobbyist with the Bockorny Group, joined the high-tech Dems when she was an in-house advocate for

“For a long time I was the only girl,” said Ringley, who represents Amazon, Avaya and the Digital Media Association.

“We found a way to work more effectively, especially during the days of the Republican majority,” she said. “We knew there were Democratic offices on the Hill who supported the innovation agenda. We wanted to let them know we were out there.”

Ringley said the group, whose other women members include Hillary Brill of eBay and tech lobbyist Melika Carroll, is an informal conduit of information.

Other members include Microsoft’s Matt Gelman, Time Warner’s Edward An, David Crane of Autodesk, Network Appliance Inc.’s Brian Raymond, Adam Kovacevich of Google and Richard Goodstein, whose clients include Lexmark.

“I think what’s most helpful is it’s about as informal a group as you can get,” said Nick Kolovos, vice president of government relations at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. “There is not an agenda. There isn’t a lobbying focus, just informal discussions of issues that the high-tech industry cares about.”

Bruce Andrews, who represented high-tech clients including Qualcomm while at Quinn Gillespie & Associates, recently decamped to the decidedly old-economy Ford Motor Co. But the gang has agreed to let him stay.

“They kept me in the club,” he said, adding that Ford has a project with Microsoft in its new models that allows drivers to hook all their electronics into the car.

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