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Tech industry doesn’t play political favorites

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Propel Software CEO and Democratic donor Steven Kirsch said an industry downturn may curtail donations.

Propel Software CEO and Democratic donor Steven Kirsch said an industry downturn may curtail donations.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Republicans and Democrats alike are trekking to Silicon Valley to scoop up campaign money, capitalizing on a trend of evenhanded political giving that high-tech leaders predict will not soon end.

Though Republicans control Congress and the White House, their majorities are too slim to make it wise for high-tech to throw all its support behind them, industry lobbyists say.

In addition, many issues important to the information technology industry — trade, intellectual-property rights, stock-option expensing, broadband, education — cross party lines.

"There's almost never an issue where the IT industry comes in and says the Democrats are right and the Republicans are wrong, or vice versa," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

"That doesn't make either party very happy. Both sides work very hard to try to convince me, to convince us, to convince our members, that they're the right party for the Internet age," Miller said.

From January through June, individuals and political action committees in high-tech gave at least $1.8 million to Republicans and $1.6 million to Democrats on the federal level. That's according to figures compiled by two groups that track campaign finance, the Center for Responsive Politics and PoliticalMoneyLine.

During the same period in the 2001-02 election cycle, before companies themselves were banned from contributing, those involved in high-tech gave at least $3.2 million to Republicans and $2.8 million to Democrats.

Further illustrating the divided leanings, venture capitalist John Doerr, co-founder of group of high-tech executives that throws fund-raisers, has endorsed Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in the presidential race. Fellow TechNet founder E. Floyd Kvamme backs President Bush, who has named Kvamme by him to a technology advisory council.

Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers is a staunch GOP donor. Propel Software CEO Steve Kirsch is a prolific Democratic giver.

"We have no intention of losing our bipartisan status," said Donnie Fowler, vice president of Democratic outreach for TechNet, which also has a GOP wing. "Candidates of both parties are coming through Silicon Valley, so that must mean they both feel like they can get activists to participate in their campaigns, to give money."

Kirsch said visits are steady despite an industry downturn that may mean less political money.

"I think there's less, that people are more reluctant to donate money, just because they're feeling their net worth being squeezed," Kirsch said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee held a Silicon Valley fund-raiser during the August congressional recess, collecting at least $40,000. The committee's Democratic counterpart has held several fund-raisers in the region this year, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California was including high-tech representatives in meetings around the country.

Several Democratic presidential hopefuls have made multiple visits to Silicon Valley this year.

The region was among Bush's first campaign stops. He raised $1.6 million at a June event held in Burlingame, roughly halfway between San Jose and San Francisco, to make it convenient for donors from both.

Intel CEO Craig Barrett, who paid $2,000 to attend, thinks Silicon Valley is leaning toward Republicans.

"The Democrats kind of proclaimed themselves the Silicon Valley champions and (Al) Gore was the high-tech VP and, you know, talked a good talk, but I think perhaps Silicon Valley got a little bit disenchanted with lack of action," Barrett said.

Still, Barrett sees reason for dissatisfaction with the GOP, too.

"I don't think either party has a real feel for the threat to the U.S. high-tech industry from what's going on in Asia," he said. "I think they are both perhaps a little bit overly content with our current position and don't recognize the fact that the Indians and the Chinese are now in the game."

Barrett said the government was putting too many obstacles in the industry's way, such as export controls and proposals to require the deduction of stock-option expenses from corporate earnings.

Miller, of the Information Technology Association, said his industry is not as politically active as it should be, in part because it is unregulated and relatively young. Many see no need to "play the inside-the-beltway game," he said.

"I hope we learn before some crisis occurs and we have to do it," Miller said.

Ralph Trefney, an employee of San Jose-based Cisco, said he does not give to campaigns and does not want to.

"Whether industry wants to admit it or not, they're using this as a form of lobbying," Trefney said. "I would rather go back to the old law and methods and let the person, for the genuineness of honesty and integrity, be the winner and not be influenced by a cash cow."