The biggest Republican supporter in the state? It was that nerdy looking guy sitting with Democratic Governor Gary Locke at the Sonics' game the other

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The new power buyers

Microsoft greases the skids in a big way and becomes the state's top corporate donor to politicians.

The biggest Republican supporter in the state? It was that nerdy looking guy sitting with Democratic Governor Gary Locke at the Sonics' game the other night.

Sometime political-liberal but increasingly conservative-businessman Bill Gates has now replaced fabled Seattle GOP benefactor Thomas Stewart as Washington's number one Republican party donor. Gates' Microsoft has also for the first time topped the Boeing Company as the state's largest corporate donor to US politicians.

Gates' rise is a market indicator of the new political buying power of fabulously wealthy high-techers, although the Microsoft chair and his longtime friend and software buddy Paul Allen are taking opposite tacks. The world's richest man is giving most of his Election 2000 political cash to conservatives, while second-richest Allen is pouring all his influential donations into Democratic coffers.

Microsoft has so far donated $266,100 (72 percent) to Republicans and $101,250 (28 percent) to Democrats, all in elusive "soft" contributions. That's a company-record $367,350 in political donations this election cycle, according to the latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics in DC. Only a few years ago, Microsoft shied away from giving to federal campaigns—before, of course, the Democratic Clinton administration filed its antitrust case.

Allen, impresario of an ever-growing global telecom and entertainment empire, has so far this season donated $105,000 in soft money to the Democrats—separate $50,000 donations to senate and congressional committees and $5,000 to the party from his corporation, Vulcan Northwest, according to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

It's unclear whether the Demo-backing Allen, who is also a member of Microsoft's board, had any say in the mostly GOP donations by the software colossus he helped found. His spokesperson Susan Pierson Brown says Allen believes "both parties have members who understand the implications of the wired world. From time to time he supports certain individuals who have the best interest of the consumer in mind." Sallie McDonald, a Microsoft spokesperson, says it is company policy not to disclose "the political opinion of individuals within the company."

Soft money is the least-regulated form of political donations, a loophole that allows entities to avoid contribution limits by giving to the national parties. The parties then redistribute funds to indirectly aid candidates.

Conversely, "hard" money—donations by individuals and corporate political action committees (PACs)—are closely policed by the FEC. PACs can give $5,000 per election to a candidate and up to $15,000 annually to a national party committee, plus $5,000 to another PAC.

Figures provided by the FEC and other sources peg Microsoft's combined soft and hard money US donations to date as $479,000 and Boeing's as $400,750. Most of Boeing's donations are from documented hard money, while most of Microsoft's are loophole-seeking soft funds.

Tom Stewart's Seattle-based food enterprise, Services Group of America, is the state's third largest overall donor, giving $250,000 in soft money and $13,000 through traditional hard donations—all to Republicans, of course, and all apparently legal (majority owner Stewart, the top local GOP funder for decades, pled guilty in 1998 to illegally funneling $100,000 to Republican candidates, paying $5 million in penalties, the third largest such fine in US history).

With Microsoft and Boeing also heavily funding the Republicans, Allen's gift to the Demos hardly levels the field. Right behind him, as well, is Microsoft executive George Spix, who has given $80,000 to the GOP.

All this political charity is good news for the GOP but not necessarily for the nonbillionaire voter, says Charles Lewis.

"The public should be wor- ried but perhaps not surprised," observes Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), an independent DC watchdog group, "that the two richest men in the world are giving money to politicians and political parties to protect or advance their financial interests."

The high-tech world, says Lewis, a former investigative reporter and 60 Minutes producer, "and Microsoft in particular, have 'warmed up' to giving in Washington and now see it as an essential business strategy to invest in politicians. That is one of the reasons Gates has hired [lobbyist] Haley Barbour, the former Republican Party chair who is personally close to fellow Mississippian Trent Lott," the Senate majority leader.

The other half of power-brokering is lobbying, and Boeing easily dominates the local field. New FEC figures show the aerospace giant as the fifth-ranked American corporation for money spent lobbying the federal government on its own behalf—$4.9 million in the first six months of last year. Microsoft, at $2 million, is 49th but rising fast in the arm-twisting competition. Seattle law-and-lobbying firm Preston Gates & Ellis is now fourth among US firms ($6.8 million in the first half of 1999) who lobby on behalf of other companies—such as Microsoft ($800,000 in the last 18 months).

Though corporations have the advantage in buying power from the government, more awareness of the money trail can enlighten voters, says Lewis of the CPI. Political largess to a campaign is a relevant indicator of how candidates will truly react to an issue, and "What they do is much more important than what they say," Lewis notes.

As a sort of road map, a new book produced by the center—The Buying of the President 2000—explains how politicians become friends for life with high-spending special interest groups (www.publicintegrity.org). Lewis shows how corporate money follows candidates from local to state to federal campaigns; in return, elected candidates regularly reward their backers through legislation or by blocking it.

Vice-president Al Gore's major career benefactor, for example, has been the accounting and lobbying firm of Ernst & Young, whose members and families gave $148,000 to support his assorted campaigns and have benefited financially from his help. Governor George W. Bush's top presidential campaign contributor has been the Texas law firm Vinson & Elkins ($316,700), Senator John McCain has been supported mainly by US West ($107,520)—Boeing is also among his top five lifetime contributors ($61,400)—and ex-Senator Bill Bradley's biggest career givers are Wall Street firms, topped by Citigroup ($454,065), Merrill Lynch ($169,500), and Goldman Sachs ($148,800).

Those amounts don't include the $72 million in US corporate soft money so far funneled to White House 2000 hopefuls.

But brace yourself. Deep-pocket high-techers may have only just begun to give.

"The anomaly about Gates and Allen," says Lewis, "is not that they are giving now, but that it took them so long to do what so many other large corporations and CEOs routinely do: Grease the skids in Washington."

 
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