Washington: One More Digital Divide

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Maria Cantwell is not your typical Internet whiz kid. At 42, she's more like an Internet whiz-kid's high school principal. Sit down to interview her, and you get a moment of silence before she answers each question with a disarming smile. You'd never guess that Cantwell, Washington State's Democratic Senate candidate, is an executive on leave from RealNetworks, the Seattle — based Internet giant — and the first dotcom millionaire with a shot at winning major political office.

Her opponent, the incumbent Slade Gorton, is old enough at 72 to be grandfather to the average tech geek. Yet he's the best friend Microsoft has in the Senate, where he has tirelessly attacked the Justice Department's lawsuit. The more than $103,000 Bill Gates and his employees have donated to Gorton is one piece of evidence that he's "the Senator from Microsoft," as he has called himself. "I certainly am proud to have that moniker," says Gorton. He says that on the campaign trail, his zing at the antitrust suit is "one of the best applause lines I have."

RealNetworks and Microsoft are business rivals. Real's executives have gone before the Senate to claim Microsoft tried to hurt them. So you might expect this to be an antitrust grudge match. On the surface, at least, it's not. Washington State is so pro-Gates that Cantwell, who served one term in the House, is careful to stress that "they used to call me the Congresswoman from Microsoft." Break them up? No way. "I can stand up and say I know they're a great competitor."

But in this most 21st century of races, the allegiance of the competing multibillionaires, Microsoft's Gates and Real's founder Rob Glaser, is not in much doubt. Cantwell may have fought for Gates in the House, but she was voted out in '94. One year later, she was handpicked by Glaser as one of his first 15 employees and then put in charge of the company's best-selling product — Real Player — which happens to take customers from Windows Media Player. Gates, who is less than serene when it comes to competitors, will not be happy to have a Senator with that résumé.

Cantwell has a paper fortune of roughly $13 million from her years at Real, $6 million of which has already gone to her war chest. Paradoxically, these dotcom dollars are helping her with the campaign-finance-reform crowd. "The fact that she's not taking PAC money is a plus," says veteran state pollster Stuart Elway.

As of September, the race has been too close to call. Feeling stymied and outspent, the typically blunt-spoken Gorton believes the occasion actually calls for campaign-finance deregulation. "In a race like this, I should be able to raise more than $1,000 per individual," he says. "Especially individuals from Microsoft."

How much of his $63 billion fortune would Gates give if he could? We'll never know. But the fact that so many of his employees have given the limit is a sign that there are some sleeping giants awakening in Washington State. Both Redmond and Real keep a lobbying presence in the "other" Washington. Now they are grasping the importance of having influence directly inside the Senate. Issues like Internet taxation and H1-B visas for overseas tech workers just keep cropping up too often, and the technology itself just moves too fast. "Not many Senators know what a software download is," says Alex Alben, Real's vice president of government affairs. With the tech-savvy Cantwell and Gorton, that's not an issue. What could matter is which software they download.