Is the Southland Tech Community Up To Its Brush With Presidential Politics?

by Matt Welch

The Zone News

April 2000



On paper, it’s a great match.

An increasingly nervous convention committee, wanting to showcase Los Angeles’ renaissance, seeks a final $9 million in funding plus a whole bunch of gadgetry—from 500 pagers to live, broadband Netcasting service.

Across the aisle stands the local Internet industry, still preening from being named the second-most robust venture capital region in the country, eager to impress an international audience and win a seat at the grown-ups’ table.

But the 2000 Democratic National Convention Aug. 14-17 will probably come too soon for a Digital Coast that is just now discovering itself. Judging from activity to date, the 4,300 delegates and estimated 15,000 journalists are likely to come away from Los Angeles knowing more about the corrupt police division nearby than the burgeoning local Internet economy.

By March, the L.A. Host Committee (which is organizing the event along with the separate Democratic National Convention Committee) was racked by chaos and personnel turnover; had raised only $26 million of its $35 million funding target; and was just starting to figure out how to provide a 21st century communications network for visitors scattered across 80-plus hotels—themselves only selected on Feb. 16. Meanwhile, the nascent local tech lobby was just getting around to thinking about the ramifications of having the whole world watch L.A. for the first time since the 1992 riots.

“Los Angeles is the leading Internet space in the country and in the world, and with the national press and global press coming to the convention it’s a tremendous opportunity to expose them to what’s going on here,” said Gary Mendoza, government relations chair of the Digital Coast Roundtable, a non-profit Net industry group chaired by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

Mendoza is one of the few people in the Southland who has straddled New Media business and City Hall politics. As a corporate lawyer for the mayor’s old firm Riordan & McKinzie, he has helped represent Internet incubators such as eCompanies and idealab!. As a public official, he has served as California Corporations Commissioner and deputy mayor for economic development. At the Roundtable, which has about 60 dues-paying members, Mendoza helped organize face time late last year with then-presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and led opposition to proposals forcing cable companies to open their lines to competing Internet service providers. Though a Republican (like Riordan), Mendoza is encouraging Roundtable companies to get more involved with the convention.

“But it’s a bit preliminary,” he said. “There is a growing recognition of the importance associated with having a voice in policy decisions...but it’s still in its early stages. The Internet industry itself in many respects is still in its early stages.”

Unhappily, tangible planning for the convention is also in its early stages, even after Riordan jumped noisily into the process in January. Host Committee member Rob Patton, who is in charge of implementing the complicated technology requirements before the event begins, said that lists of contractors and suppliers are only now getting compiled.

“My guess is that up to June and July, when we’re really in crunch time, we’re still going to be making decisions about who’s going to do what,” Patton said. “It’s nerve-wracking...but this is the kind of political environment we’re working in.”

There is a clear Digital Divide between the local Internet economy and the political juggernaut that will take over Los Angeles (and spend an estimated $150-$190 million) this summer. The two sides have a little less than half a year to come together, and indications so far are not promising.

Unconventional Planning

L.A.’s convention planning has been snake bitten almost since the wooing process, which was led by Riordan and civic heavyweights such as real estate magnate Eli Broad, DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen and superlawyer/political financier Bill Wardlaw. After naming supermarket tycoon Ron Burkle as a fourth co-chair of the Host Committee, Riordan was reminded that Democrats—especially in L.A.—don’t think of themselves as exclusively rich, white and male.

So a leadership group already stuffed with Alpha-male egos was doubled in size to include a black man, two women and two Latinos. Riordan’s buddy Wardlaw (who convinced the mayor to run for office) was designated chief fundraiser, but soon fell foul of his political progeny when the two disagreed about who should succeed Riordan in office.

After Wardlaw failed to reach the goal of raising $35.3 million before the year 2000, Riordan stepped in January at the urging of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who was mayor of San Francisco during the 1984 Democratic Convention), and announced that his office would now handle up to 50 percent of the Host Committee planning. The DNCC, which receives $13.2 million in federal funds for the convention, is barred from soliciting private donations, while the Host Committee is allowed to raise as much as it wants for things like security, communications and booze.

Soon after, key committee member Don Foley, vice president of Northwest Airlines, resigned, and on Feb. 17 Riordan replaced Host Committee Chief of Staff (and Wardlaw ally) Lucy McCoy with his own deputy, Noelia Rodriguez.

With public criticism mounting, even attempts at damage control backfired.

“Here’s one question we posed to the [convention] delegation,” said the Los Angeles Times editorial page, after receiving a visit from the Democrats. “Is it prepared for major protests of the sort Seattle saw at the World Trade Organization conference in December? Answer: Yes, because the Los Angeles Police Department is well known for its ability to prevent confrontations. Huh? Another question: Who are you working with to ensure that conventioneers can travel easily between downtown and hotels? Answer: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Uh-oh.”

Though the last two months have seen some concrete decision-making—the hotels were finally selected, SBC Communications (through Pacific Bell) was chosen for wireless telephony and general telecommunications, and Event411.com was named “official online event-planning provider”—the impression left has been one of disorganization and internal bickering.

“Right now,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., “there is some confusion regarding the convention.”

Yet to be determined is exactly who will provide the 475 computers, 100 laser printers, various walkie-talkies, fax machines and Palm Pilots, Patton said, not to mention e-mail service and Web hosting.

So far the fundraising efforts have centered largely on big-ticket companies that can supply the kind of “in-kind” logistical support that an event like this requires. So, Microsoft has been tapped to supply software, AT&T has pledged $100,000 worth of service (and will likely provide long-distance), Pacific Bell is on for local and wireless, and negotiations continue with companies such as Motorola, Xerox, Cisco and Ortel. Six donors have pledged more than $1 million in total contributions, the Associated Press reported Jan. 19, compared to just two (Ameritech and Motorola) who gave that much to the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago. The Host Committee did not respond to requests for donor information, and Wardlaw would not comment for this article.

Despite widespread criticism, convention planners and suppliers all say they are actually ahead of schedule, considering that this year’s event is substantially larger than previous conventions.

Major convention sponsors—who can also freely donate sizeable sums to individual candidates, political action committees and the two major parties—get to splash their logo around, show off their latest technology and rub elbows with politicians who may end up regulating their sectors.

“You get opportunities for branding, and access to the bigger events they’re planning,” said Pacific Bell representative Steve Getzug.

The corporations also get a chance to strut their civic and national virtue.

“It’s an opportunity for us to be part of the democratic process,” said AT&T spokesperson Rochelle Cohen.

“When it comes down to it,” said Bob Gold of the South Bay broadband public relations firm Bob Gold and Associates, “all these corporate sponsors really want are two things: They want party invitations, and they want to get on the floor of the convention.”

Higher Ground

But politics is about more than just branding and narrow self-interest. Personal passion (and private wealth), not industrial concern, is what has driven Hollywood’s emergence as a major font of political cash—for both parties (George W. Bush raised almost $25,000 more from Hollywood than Bill Bradley in the first half of 1999, according to Los Angeles magazine).

And though several studies released this year have shown that Southern California is second only to the Silicon Valley in venture capital investment, the community it has seeded is a political non-factor compared to the digital colossus up north. But, said eBay Vice President of Marketing and Business Development Steve Westly, it may take a few years before the natural convergence of democratizing IT and political commitment takes place.

“It used to very quiet here politically,” said Westly, who is a Democratic National Committee member and convention super-delegate. “Then about four years ago it really changed.”

Silicon Valley discovered politics partially because of the boom in Internet usage and the subsequent rise of regulatory issues, such as encryption, privacy and sales tax, Westly said. “But there’s also a whole new generation of people here, many of whom are politically active,” he said. “The Silicon Valley has matured, and people just kind of realized that you have to participate in government if you want to make a difference.”

Westly, who serves as liaison between California Democratic Party Chair Art Torres and tech companies (heading up a group that donates nearly $1 million to Democrats every election cycle), sees a natural connection between the Internet’s “democratization of information” and political idealism.

“It’s just an amazing time and place to be here,” he said. “It’s truly a meritocracy, with the best and the brightest rising to the top.... I think it’s a reaffirmation of the American dream...if you’re good at what you do, then the Silicon Valley is the place to be.”

Westly, whose own political ambitions were ambushed 11 years ago when Jerry Brown beat him out for chair of the state Democratic Party, is, like many techie Democrats, an ardent Al Gore man (“When push comes to shove Gore will carry every county in the Bay Area,” he says).

Gore, despite his rhetorical exaggerations about fathering the Internet, has a long and admired record of accomplishment on tech issues that pre-dates the World Wide Web. And, unlike perhaps any other national politician, he has been meeting with the Hollywood convergence crowd for several years already.

At one such occasion in the L.A. Convention Center a few years back, an inspired Gore convinced one visitor from Seattle to change her life and relocate to Southern California.

“He was talking about L.A....and how impressed and proud he was that we had reinvented ourselves despite obstacles, that we had developed a New Economy,” recalled Molly Lavik. “Within months I moved down here.”

Now Lavik is the executive director of Lawnmower Online—The New Media Roundtable, which is an Internet publishing and events company in L.A. founded by the same people who launched the Digital Coast Roundtable.

Lavik, who stresses that her strong support for Gore is separate from her Lawnmower duties, says the level of political commitment of Internet people in L.A. is deeper than what she’s experienced in Seattle, New York or West Lafayette, Indiana.

“I believe the L.A. community is more collaborative that way than any other city,” she said. “I have noticed that people in New Media here tend to care more...they seem to be more enthusiastic and caring about these issues than perhaps people in other industries I’ve worked in.”

Finding a Voice

Still, said the Economic Development Corp.’s Jack Kyser, the tech sector’s political effectiveness in Los Angeles is “not good.”

“First of all, individually, people in the technology industry tend to be very, very focused, and if they have any experience at all in dealing with the government, they’re probably going to be disenchanted very quickly, because compared to what they’re used to, the government process is very slow and inefficient,” he said.

Also, compared to the Silicon Valley, there aren’t the same clear-cut regulatory issues. Much of the Internet action in Southern California involves the digital conversion of Hollywood’s film and music industries, a process which mostly poses copyright questions that will likely be answered in the courts. Of more immediate interest is how the government will midwife broadband proliferation and narrow the “digital divide,” so it’s no surprise that local companies and groups like the Digital Coast Roundtable have focused largely on these two issues.

But probably the biggest factor contributing to the Internet economy’s puny political muscle is the fact that most dot.coms weren’t around three years ago. In 1980s Los Angeles, “tech” meant aerospace, as compared to the Silicon Valley’s already-established Apples and Hewlett-Packards. Media/entertainment monoliths like Disney and Seagram, to the extent that they can be called New Media companies, are likely to dominate the sector’s political discussions for the near future.

“DreamWorks executives have a pretty big footprint; David Geffen and his role in the convention is noteworthy,” the Roundtable’s Mendoza said. “The telcos are very much involved, the cable companies are involved in lobbying issues that are important to them. ... But I would say that at this point there is not a leading voice for the technology community.”

But there’s five months to go before the convention, not to mention another year before the next L.A. mayoral race. Even if the tech community hasn’t developed a voice, events may force a mass clearing of throats.

“There are so many vendors and technology providers out there,” Patton said. “We have our hands full just wanting to get everybody involved.” z

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