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Silicon Valley's Emergence as Political Mecca


By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 1996


Silicon Valley might be on the top of an engineer's itinerary, but until recently, this swath of high technology in northern California rated barely a nod from politicians.

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Now it seems candidates are thicker than transistors on a computer chip. The politicians come in search of the endorsements - and the money - of the high-powered entrepreneurs who are etching their fortunes in silicon.

The emerging political influence of the owners of the thousands of firms in the Valley is a reflection of this region's role as the most vibrant economic force in California, a state whose electoral votes remain the greatest prize in the presidential contest. But candidates also come here in the hope that they can share in the aura of Silicon Valley as the land where the future is being shaped.

Republican vice president nominee Jack Kemp showed up this week at Netscape, where fortunes have been made almost overnight by producing the popular software for cruising the Internet. "We know this country can compete with anybody in the world and you're proving it here in Silicon Valley," Mr. Kemp told the assembled crowd, among them some of the 225 executives who endorsed the Dole-Kemp ticket last week.

Kemp sounded themes that warm the hearts of Valley entrepreneurs - cutting capital gains taxes in half, supporting securities litigation reforms that would make it harder for lawyers to sue firms, and freeing companies from government regulation.

But when it comes to visiting Silicon Valley, the Republican candidates are a distant second to President Clinton. As the Democratic nominee in 1992, Mr. Clinton came here and gained the backing of some of the leading entrepreneurs, a first for any Democrat. As president, he has carefully cultivated the relationship, in part through numerous trips designed to highlight the claim that his administration is the most cyber-savvy ever to hold office.

In a typical stop here in mid-September, Clinton sat down for dinner with a small group of executives from some of Silicon Valley's powerhouse firms. The menu was crab soup and steak, but the talk was strictly high-tech, ranging from how to use the Internet to reform tax collection to lifting government controls on export of encryption software.

"Clinton's not intimidated by this stuff at all," recounts the evening's host, entrepreneur Regis McKenna. "He didn't back away from asking tough questions."

The courting has paid off to some degree. In August, 75 Valley executives, many of them Republicans, endorsed his candidacy. And Silicon Valley has become a source of significant campaign funds - though not yet at Hollywood levels - from the cyber-rich.

Valley chiefs stay true

But such well-publicized events have also irked the usually silent majority among Valley chief executive officers who, like their corporate brethren elsewhere, are true Republicans unswayed by the president's talk of the future.

"[Clinton] hasn't delivered anything - the only thing he's done for Silicon Valley is visit," venture capitalist E. Floyd Kvamme said at a press conference held last week to unveil a longer list of executives endorsing the Dole-Kemp ticket.