Thursday, November 12, 2009

Silicon Valley, California’s high-tech mecca best known for giving the world laptops and iPhones, is emerging as a breeding ground for a lower-tech product: the political candidate.

Although the valley has long been a cash cow for candidates - especially Democrats - the state’s dire economy has opened the door for business executives and entrepreneurs, with their savvy financial skills, to try their hand at politics. With the economy sure to be a pivotal issue in 2010, five prominent alumni from Silicon Valley have jumped into statewide races for next year.

Carly Fiorina, who spent five years as chief executive at Hewlett-Packard Co., is running against state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore for the GOP nomination as both vie for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Three hopefuls with deep roots in the valley are squaring off in the Republican primary for governor - Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay; Steve Poizner, an early entrepreneur of Global Positioning System devices and now the state insurance commissioner; and Tom Campbell, a dean at UC Berkeley’s business school and a former congressman who represented Silicon Valley.

A fifth valley alum, former Facebook executive Chris Kelly, is running as a Democrat for attorney general.

“In Silicon Valley, it’s always about finding a new way to do something, inventing something that hasn’t been invented,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University in the heart of Silicon Valley.

“It’s approaching a problem in a way others haven’t considered. And it’s being unafraid to take a risk. That kind of appeal really stands out at a time when the state seems to be drowning under its own weight.”

California’s financial house is in shambles: Since February, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers have cut $33 billion from spending and raised taxes by $12 billion. Even with those actions, the state faces a combined $38 billion deficit over the next three fiscal years, and the unemployment rate in what would be the world’s seventh largest economy if it were an independent nation is now at 12.2 percent - the highest since the Great Depression.

Mr. Poizner, who made his fortune as founder of SnapTrack Inc., which developed technology that allowed GPS units to help emergency-services workers pinpoint the locations of cell phones, said the time is ripe for an entrepreneur to take the reins of a dysfunctional government.

“What I bring to this, and what Silicon Valley culture brings to some of the problems facing the state of California, is this entrepreneurship and this ability to be innovative and to apply these entrepreneurial skills to solving problems,” Mr. Poizner told The Washington Times.

Computer industry pioneer Ross Perot demonstrated the marriage of business and politics in two credible presidential runs in the 1990s.

In fact, entrepreneurs and executives share much with top state officials - raising large sums of cash, meeting payrolls, balancing budgets and overseeing thousands of workers. What’s more, with the auto, real estate and financial sectors ailing, high-tech has become the one field that has risen above disaster during the recession.

“The high-tech community still has its halo,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“Just as importantly, because of the tremendous wealth that was accumulated in Silicon Valley over the last decade or two, there’s a much deeper pool of self-funded potential candidates.”

One such candidate is Mrs. Whitman, the former CEO of eBay. She has given her campaign $19 million - just for starters. Mr. Poizner, who sold his company for $1.2 billion, has poured $4.2 million of his own wealth into his campaign.

State Democrats, however, say the business executives and entrepreneurs offer little to solve the vast problems in California.

“I don’t think they bring any more than a bank book, a checking account,” said John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “They’re trying to play it as a big deal. … I don’t think anyone’s going to vote for somebody’s checkbook.”

But the Club for Growth, a conservative group that endorses Republican candidates who support limited government and lower taxes, sees value in business experience.

“Business folks from all industries are attractive in an environment when Washington’s principal flaw seems to be the inability to balance its budget,” said group spokesman Michael Connelly. “People who’ve made a career of meeting a payroll and balancing a budget and creating jobs will obviously have an appeal in these times.”

Enter Mrs. Fiorina, who brings an impressive resume as the first woman to take the lead at a Fortune 20 company. While her tenure at the helm of Hewlett-Packard was fraught with controversy (she was unceremoniously dumped in 2005 after the company’s stock plummeted by 50 percent), she made the jump from business to politics, playing a prime role as a top adviser to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, during his 2008 presidential bid.

“Fiorina learned some valuable training working for McCain and should be able to couple that with her corporate experience and make this a race in California,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “Fundraising and message discipline drive both politics and corporate growth, and her experience should be an asset.”

To date, though, Silicon Valley tech whizzes have had little success in politics.

Engineer and former Rep. Ed Zschau, a Republican, lost his bid for Senate in 1986. Although former eBay executive Steve Westly, a Democrat, served as state controller for four years, he lost his 2006 bid for governor.

But California’s financial woes may have changed the electoral calculus.

“Voters are still intrigued by the idea of a political outsider, but they’re looking for one whose experience may be more directly applicable for governing California and dealing with its economic challenges,” Mr. Schnur said.

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