Va. Candidates Seek High Tech's Cash
By Dan Eggen and Craig Timberg
Politics has discovered new money in the Old Dominion, as state lawmakers eye the bulging pocketbooks of Northern Virginia's newly minted Internet millionaires in their bids for reelection.
Technology companies and their executives have responded with a surge of contributions leading up to the Nov. 2 election, hoping to sway Virginia legislators on a wide range of issues that include Internet taxation and local education.
While that sector still does not give at the level of some other industries, the rapid awakening of the high-tech giant provides a vivid glimpse into the likely political future of Virginia. The new technology players, many agree, are certain to become as influential as the developers, lawyers and chief executives who have bankrolled Virginia campaigns for decades.
"In some ways, this is a struggle between old Virginia and new Virginia," said Douglas Koelemay, executive director of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, an alliance of high-tech firms. "Old Virginia is very hierarchical, rigid, slow-moving. This is challenging all those things directly."
Computer firms, software companies, telecommunication giants and other technology players have given nearly $1.5‚million to legislative campaigns and political action committees during the 1999 election cycle through September, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance reports compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project and sponsored by The Post, Virginia Commonwealth University and state news organizations.
In delegate races alone, technology contributions have jumped by more than one-third since the last House election, in 1997, to more than $450,000.
Dulles-based America Online Inc. – which in 1997 gave just $500 to one lawmaker – has contributed more than $50,000 this time around, and its executives have tossed in nearly as much. Microsoft Corp., which has no offices in Virginia and never contributed to local candidates, has given more than $37,000 this year.
Even old-line federal contractors and telephone companies, long generous donors in state politics, have dramatically stepped up their contributions in anticipation of knock-down technology battles in Richmond over access to high-speed phone and cable lines.
Northern Virginia lawmakers drool over the fund-raising potential of these swaggering high-technology start-ups, with their flood of new millionaires, many of whom had never given to political campaigns. The courting rituals mirror the larger efforts of such presidential candidates as Vice President Gore (D) and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), both of whom have targeted technology donors in Northern Virginia, Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, invited more than 50 high-tech leaders to breakfast last month, collecting about $10,000 by the time the last cup of coffee was emptied.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) chose old-fashioned snail mail, sending a fund-raising letter to more than 500 high-tech contacts in his bid to become speaker of the House.
Other lawmakers have opted for that old standby, the fund-raising dinner, collecting tens of thousands of extra dollars by holding catered events in the spacious suburban homes of technology executives. State Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), for example, raised $60,000 in a fund-raiser hosted by Dan R. Bannister, chairman of DynCorp, at his home last year.
First-term Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-Fairfax) held two fund-raisers last year aimed at tech-givers. In part for that reason, she is Northern Virginia's top recipient of high-technology money, pulling in nearly $34,000 for her reelection race.
State Technology Secretary Donald W. Upson attended one of those events, and the other was at the home of Michael A. Daniels, chairman of Herndon-based Network Solutions Inc., a company that registers Internet addresses.
Devolites says she makes an effort to court technology leaders when she sees them at meetings or political events. "I take their card, I give them a call and I go for a visit," Devolites says. "I've done tens of those visits."
She also has benefited from her political alliance with U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who once worked for the information-technology company now called Litton-PRC. Twenty percent of the $314,000 raised through August by Davis's Virginia Victory Fund came from technology givers.
Indeed, Republicans and Democrats alike largely credit Davis and Gilmore for marshaling support in the computer and software sector, which has been reticent to tread heavily in politics.
Gilmore has made tech issues a cornerstone of his administration, appointing Upson as the state's first technology secretary and nabbing the chairmanship of a national committee focused on Internet commerce issues. The GOP governor also was instrumental in securing passage of tax breaks for AOL and a package of Internet-related laws that has been held up as a national model by the computer industry.
"The most dramatic change in Virginia has been Governor Gilmore's leadership in the technology area," Daniels said. "It's gotten everybody's attention."
Gilmore's role, coupled with aggressive fund-raising, is key to GOP success in attracting high-tech dollars. Seventy percent of the technology contributions have gone to Republicans in this election, a departure from relatively even splits in the past.
Yet Daniels and other executives insist there is no partisanship inherent in that.
"It turns out that in this state and at this particular time, Republicans have taken the lead on these issues," said George Vradenburg III, AOL's senior vice president for global and strategic policy. "But the company is politically agnostic. It is Internet ideological."
Nearly all of the itemized contributions have gone to incumbents, especially to heads of major committees and other legislative leaders. Technology companies focus on issues dear to their core businesses, fighting to thwart taxes on Internet commerce and restrictions on electronic speech. But AOL and other Northern Virginia firms also are campaigning for more roads and school funding, arguing that the region's quality of life affects their ability to attract good employees.
As givers, tech firms are still eclipsed by traditional players such as the real-estate and construction industry, which leads the private sector with 11 percent of all campaign contributions larger than $100 to PACs and House and Senate candidates. The growing technology and communications sector accounts for 6 percent of the total.
"It's not in the same league with your old-line contributors," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who has received about $13,000 from technology donors. "They're new to Virginia. They're new to the political process. They're new to their industries. And their industries are new to us."
Lawmakers also swap tales about the relative lack of sophistication among tech givers, who sometimes will respond to extensive courting with a $100 check. The big players of political money routinely cut $250 checks for almost any incumbent who asks, and checks of up to $1,000 to favored lawmakers who carry important bills or chair key committees.
But most believe the quick studies of high technology will be fast to learn the ropes. Kathy Clark, the technology council chairwoman who runs Landmark Systems Inc., said most tech executives are just waking up to the potential of politics.
"It's still a little uncomfortable for a lot of us, because we're not used to it," said Clark, who has contributed $2,500 to candidates this year. "But more and more wealth is being created in the pockets of the people who've founded technology companies, so the resources are there. . .‚. Giving to political candidates is not a big impact on your pocketbook."
Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company