Gilmore Courts High-Tech

The Republican gubernatorial hopeful makes a plea for campaign support

P> Now both of the expected front runners for the 1997 Virginia governor's race have founded a technology council. Virginia Attorney General James Gilmore last week convened a group of area high-tech business people to advise him on issues ranging from tax policy to the development of an information highway throughout the state.

Gilmore's competitor, Lt. Gov. Donald Beyer, already has made his inroads in the Virginia infotech community, starting the Northern Virginia Technology Council in 1991. Gilmore's and Beyer's work underscores two main points about the upcoming gubernatorial race: The winner needs access to the deep pockets of Virginia's high-tech community and a reputation as a tech-savvy politician.

"Policy makers are always drawn to success," explained Gilmore. And what is succeeding in Virginia is technology business. The state has shifted from an economy based on tobacco, coal and defense to one driven by telecommunications and computers. Northern Virginia has in many ways become to Virginia politics what California is to national politics -- a must-win region with many of the richest potential campaign contributors.

Gilmore hopes to gain from that sea change by tapping the knowledge of area CEOs. The attorney general's technology advisory council will meet quarterly, although members will be in contact continuously.

While politicians nationwide determine how best to ride the third-wave economy, Virginia lawmakers find themselves in one of the best positions because of what is happening in their own backyard. "We are in a growth stage," said Gilmore. "Virginia is positioned to lead."

In addition, with telecommunications deregulation, states likely will assume a stronger regulatory role in technology areas, increasing the power of governors. Both Beyer and Gilmore will concentrate much of their high-tech courting in Northern Virginia, where infotech has become one of the fastest growing, profitable markets. Systems integrators such as BTG in Vienna, satellite companies such as Spot Image in Reston, and Internet and telecom giants America Online of Vienna, and LCI International of McLean are paving the way for their own success and creating new opportunities in their markets.

Gilmore said his advisory council will not compete against the Northern Virginia Technology Council or the Virginia Technology Council, which have similar goals of raising the Virginia area's high-tech reputation.

Beyer, who still works closely with the NVTC, said he was surprised to hear the attorney general was setting up his own council. However, he said, "If he's decided to learn more about technology, good for him."

Concentrating on one of Virginia's best attributes is hard to criticize. While some suggested Gilmore was jumping on the tech bandwagon, others welcomed another chance to affect state policy.

"Public officials need a sound understanding of the issues," said Robert Templin, president of the Center for Innovative Technology.

At the first meeting of Gilmore's council, members discussed incentives to draw more technology companies to the area, according to council member Wayne Leonard, director of government operations for OpenVision, McLean, Va.

Tax policy will be integral to attracting companies, such as the IBM/Toshiba semiconductor plant in Manassas. Leonard said he was pleased to see a senior government official take an interest in technology growth in the state.

While Beyer and Gilmore seem to have many of the same goals, they of course come from different political parties.

Yet, their party lines seem to be crossed.

Gilmore, a Republican, said he will rely on his council for advice on how government can help develop an information highway linking Virginia communities.

Beyer, a Democrat, however, believes the private sector can develop such technologies better and faster. "You don't need government," he said.

Both soon-to-be-candidates said they will work to bring information technology to schools.

The easy part, of course, is putting computers in a classroom. The hard part is teaching the teachers. "If you're 55 and have been teaching with a blackboard, that's a big change," said Beyer.

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