ICYMI- How to Woo Tech
How to woo tech
Posted 1/21/2014 5:11:00
Washington politicians know there is a lot of loot to be raised from Texas energy barons. But the bounty comes at a cost — a slick sheen of suspicion that the recipient is in the tank for Big Oil. Same goes for pols who rattle their cup with trial lawyers. They’ll get checks, but also raised eyebrows from people alleging they are in the thrall of ambulance chasers. There is only one arena in American politics today where raising money from some of the country’s wealthiest people is not merely safe, it’s downright cool.
In 2013, the path between Silicon Valley and Washington was trod by some of the biggest names in politics: President Barack Obama (twice), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Marco Rubio, among dozens of other big players on Capitol Hill.
And as the 2014 election cycle begins to rev, politicians of both parties are salivating to take advantage of the new willingness of the tech community, in California and also Washington state, to play the political game and back up its policy agenda with cold cash.
It’s not just contributions that the officeholders are seeking. Many also are eager for association with an industry that — while clearly as self-serving about its economic interests as any other — projects an aura of glamour and new-economy dynamism that the typical Washington pol, to put it mildly, does not enjoy.
But raising money from high tech is an art form of its own, requiring special techniques for finding the erogenous zones of rich people who tend to take themselves and their ideas very seriously. Tech leaders see Silicon Valley not just as a special place, but as unique — almost a nation within a nation that drives innovation, economic growth and the very way Americans live their lives. So capital lawmakers who don’t come prepared risk confirming the typical tech industry view of Washington politicians as clueless buffoons.
Here, based on interviews with tech political players in Washington and the West Coast, is a user’s guide for how candidates can loosen the wallets of technology tycoons.
Don’t try to score on the first date
Any evening on Capitol Hill there is a familiar ritual: A lawmaker stops by an event, gives a little speech and goes home with campaign checks. This simply won’t work for reaping tech dollars.
Just look at what happened to former Sen. Olympia Snowe. The Maine Republican sat on the powerful Commerce and Finance committees — both key for the tech industry. But during one Silicon Valley swing, she didn’t convince tech execs she cared for their industry or understood their policy desires, according to a technology source. Her perfunctory effort drew equally perfunctory results, yielding only about $20,000.
Snowe knew one thing — that most big players expect the politician to come to them — visiting with tech players in their native habitat. But what’s even harder for many pols: The tech money players usually want to do at least as much talking as the politicians. They insist on knowing that the politicians are really listening. As a general rule, the first meeting is not the right time to ask for money.
“Lesson One: We’re old-fashioned; we don’t like to kiss on the first date,” said Carl Guardino of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a tech industry advocacy organization. “Prove that you care about our policy before reaching for our purse. I find that all too often, members of Congress treat Silicon Valley like an ATM machine and expect to come out here without establishing themselves on our policy, without building personal relationships, and simply want to reach into our purse. And that rarely works, and it certainly doesn’t work more than once.”
Know your audience
Washington types often refer to “the Valley” or “the tech community” as though it were a group of people with a unified agenda.
It’s more complicated than that. That’s one reason that both parties have been striking rich veins of tech money, even though the most famous names in tech are more associated with Democrats.
Different audiences respond to a different message. CEOs and top-level execs tend to want to hear most about hard-core economic issues, corporate tax reform and specific items that will affect their bottom line. Rank-and-file tech workers, in contrast, tend to be socially liberal and are more open to an avowedly progressive message.
This trend is backed by data. Disclosure records show that technology industry money broadly tilted 60 percent to 40 percent to the Democrats in the 2012 election. Technology corporate political action committees, on the other hand, favored Republicans 55 percent to 45 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“PACs give on business issues of relevance to the company whose PAC it is, and individuals vote on personal issues that matter the most to them as an individual,” said Technology CEO Council Executive Director Bruce Mehlman.
Some issues, of course, have nearly universal support in the Valley. Both ends of the political spectrum believe immigration reform is an urgent priority — and the failure to advance it a glaring example of Washington dysfunction.
Work around weakness
Both parties have some natural issues that help give them traction with tech interests.
But they also have issues in which they need to reassure their audience. Despite prominent Democratic supporters, such as Google’s Eric Schmidt, the tech industry is not immune from the general suspicion of business executives that Democrats just don’t really admire or support private-sector wealth creators.
Republican social conservatives, however, have the bigger vulnerability. There is pretty much no part of the tech sector — no matter where people fall on the ideological spectrum on other issues — where opposition to gay rights is a winner.
There’s not really any reassurance or explanation that a conservative who splits with California on social issues can offer. The better approach, say tech lobbyists, is simply not to breathe a word about the issue, in the hope that tech donors will focus on their areas of agreement.
Put Washington on mute
Here’s another area subject in which tech donors are nearly uniform in their negative views of the nation’s capital. They regard the tech sector as a model of creative innovation — and Washington as a model of stale partisanship and dysfunction.
The worst thing a visiting politician can do is offer a reminder of the things tech titans don’t like.
Former Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) drew some sour reviews during one Valley visit with a talk that put too much emphasis on ideology and railing against the opposition.
“What definitely does turn them off, I would say, is bashing Obamacare just to bash Obamacare and not offering an alternative,” one tech lobbyist said.
Find a Sherpa
The typical Washington pol is well advised not to wing it on trips to the Valley, especially when there are plenty of places to ask for help. There are several groups — TechNet, FWD.us and the Internet Association, to name a few — with people eager to help translate technology issues and teach newcomers the Silicon Valley ropes.
Even better is to make a CEO friend. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for instance, is close with Safra Catz at Oracle.
“A CEO or a general counsel or someone who’s really high up, they can move mountains,” said Ralph Hellmann, a former lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council. “They can get their companies to do a lot more, and they can get similarly situated colleagues in the other companies to be supportive. It happens all the time.”