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Silicon schmooze

For most of the 1990s, even the nerds in Silicon Valley had sex appeal. Young entrepreneurs enjoyed limitless access to capital, worked at warp speed and had no doubt they would alter the course of human history.

For most of the 1990s, even the nerds in Silicon Valley had sex appeal. Young entrepreneurs enjoyed limitless access to capital, worked at warp speed and had no doubt they would alter the course of human history.

By Jenny Anderson
January 2001
Institutional Investor Magazine

How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley
By Sara Miles
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York; 256 pages; $24.00)

For most of the 1990s, even the nerds in Silicon Valley had sex appeal. Young entrepreneurs enjoyed limitless access to capital, worked at warp speed and had no doubt they would alter the course of human history. Washington, on the other hand, seemed stuck in time, obsessing about age-old issues like Social Security and pointless New Age issues like Monica,s blue dress.

For a while the two worlds moved in separate orbits, but with the emergence of technology as the driving force of the New Economy, they came together. Inevitably, as political and regulatory issues arose, an alliance of power, money and political access was forged between the two coasts.

Improbably (given the usual pro-Republican proclivities of corporate America), Democrats won the upper hand in this new union, reports journalist Sara Miles. How to Hack a Party Line: The Democrats and Silicon Valley is her tale of how Silicon Valley, a once politically disinterested amalgamation of tech junkies, became a powerful lobbying group with open access to everyone from the nation's most powerful senators to the president himself.

Miles tells her story through Wade Randlett, a young, handsome political fundraiser convinced that the titans of Silicon Valley were best represented by the pro-business, Clintonite faction of the Democratic Party. "The New Economy is not just about high-tech products," Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner John Doerr told a group of California legislators. "It's about the politics of education, constant innovation, job creation and unlimited growth."

Though Miles fails to make her case that Randlett was the linchpin in forging this new alliance, she does paint an intriguing picture of the massive wealth creation of the mid-1990s, as well as of a Democratic Party undergoing a full-blown makeover.

At first, she writes, "most of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were strikingly uninterested in politics of any kind. A dull, default Republicanism prevailed among most of the older businessmen and a kind of knee-jerk anarch-libertarianism among the brattier boy wonders, but generally people were too busy making fortunes and rhapsodizing about the future of the digital revolution to bother with anything so dull as government."

Randlett, a bratty boy wonder himself as well as a wannabe Washington insider, was born in Danville, California, a heavily Republican suburb of San Francisco. Upon graduating from Princeton University in the mid-1980s, he returns home and becomes a political fundraiser for a local Democratic official before launching his own political consulting firm. Here he develops an impressive Rolodex of Democratic officials and wealthy entrepreneurs.

In 1996 he wins Doerr's affection by helping him defeat Proposition 211, a California state initiative that would have encouraged shareholder suits against high-tech executives. Doerr likes Randlett,s take-no-prisoners approach to lobbying and supports him when he becomes head of the California Technology Alliance, a state political action committee that is soon replaced by the bipartisan Technology Network, or TechNet. Thanks to his selective and aggressive schmoozing as head of strategy for TechNet's Democrats, Randlett ensures himself an open line to the White House.

Although trial lawyers support Proposition 211, such Democratic stalwarts as Sandy Robertson, founder of Robertson Stephens, and Doerr (with some pointers from Randlett) persuade the president to abandon his support for the bill, effectively defeating the initiative. Under the TechNet umbrella Randlett also helps to win expanded visas for foreign technology workers.

One could argue that these battles were won by pure capital: If the Democrats were to desert their new high-tech allies, they would risk losing important campaign contributions and the positive publicity that comes with being cybersavvy.

Certainly, Randlett revels in his newfound power. Kicking back with a beer in Palo Alto, California, he says: "I can go to Doerr and ask for $50,000, and we can make things happen for a politician. It can be painful if they [opponents] try to screw us."

In the end, Randlett leaves the world of politics to join Red Gorilla, a high-tech start-up that collapsed in October. Was Randlett's political relationship-building critical to Silicon Valley,s legislative victories, or was it ultimately the money that made the difference? Miles doesn,t address that question, but her book would be more interesting if she had.