IN ADDITION to speculation that tech millionaires would banish poverty, cure diseases, and compile a record of philanthropy rivaling Andrew Carnegie's during their early retirement, let's not forget that the computer gang was also poised to revolutionize politics.
Of course, that was a half-dozen years ago—back when code writers got multiple job offers and Nasdaq stocks actually increased in value—but I still remember bracing for the new era of high-tech politics. Microsoft millionaire Tina Podlodowski declared herself a candidate for the lone open seat on the Seattle City Council in 1995, and she seemed like the vanguard for City Hall's new tech elite. Podlodowski raised an impressive $150,000—and promptly spent it all before the primary (people with stock options don't know from frugality). But after dipping into her own pockets for another $78,000, Tina easily won the final election.
And City Hall seemed like it was changing. Podlodowski led the effort to hire a high-profile tech star to lead the city into the digital age. The new hire didn't last long (like everyone else, I've forgotten her name—although I do remember she got paid more than the mayor); nor did Tina. She tolerated the glacial pace of government for exactly one term—and pulled a disappearing act of her own.
Not to say that Seattle city government hasn't gotten wired during this same period. Through the Internet, citizens can save a dozen trips to City Hall. Elections financial disclosure has gone totally paperless; information on a building permit, a public meeting, or a city program can be gathered from your home computer. But computers, as it turned out, were simply a new way of doing things, not A New Way Of Doing Things.
Any discussion of techie influence on local politics has to include Microsoft zillionaire Paul Allen and his self-funded state ballot issue to build a new stadium for his Seattle Seahawks. But the success of the 1997 stadium vote had more to do with the popularity of two old American standbys —money and spectator sports—than any association with Allen. In fact, the football stadium deal proved unpopular enough to help sink a 2000 state charter-schools initiative that Allen partially funded.
As for our other local tech politicians—U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and state Rep. Laura Ruderman (D-Redmond)—they owe at least as much, if not more, to old-fashioned retail politics as to high-tech innovation. Cantwell was a politician first, both as a member of the state Legislature and a one-term U.S. representative, before she was reborn as a tech executive at RealNetworks. Although she spent a stunning $13.8 million of her personal fortune to snag a Senate seat, people voted for her based on her established political skills, not just her good fortune at winning the stock options sweepstakes. (It's just as well; her Senate campaign coincided with the Nasdaq's meltdown, but despite the plunge in the value of her stock, she's still a millionaire.)
Ruderman, although best known for her former employer (Microsoft), actually got her start as a teenage political activist who went to Washington, D.C., as a volunteer lobbyist. She credits aggressive fund raising and doorbelling for helping her to become the Eastside's only Democratic state legislator. Neither of these tasks can be accomplished via e-mail.