The Battle For The Suburbs
Silicon Valley Is No Happy Valley For GOP
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday September 18, 1996
SUBURBIA IS the battleground for everything from consumer-product makers to politicians. If the ever-expanding land between urban and rural America is as much a state of mind as it is a series of oft-caricatured places, everyone from social scientists to marketing executives still argues over exactly what and sometimes even where the suburbs are. What about hard-scrabble, high-rise Hempstead Village, which sits at the heart of Nassau County yet has the racial and economic demographics - and all the problems - of an urban center? What about comely, quiet Douglaston in Queens, which is as white and prosperous as any suburban burgh?
For my purposes, and to most political strategists, a suburb is any community within a realistic commuting distance of a big city and with its own local government and strong civic identity. (I draw the line, for instance, at exurban east-ern Brookhaven.) What nobody disputes is that capturing the votes of those well-educated, relatively high-income en-campments along the "Crabgrass Frontier," as Columbia University suburban expert Ken Jackson calls them, is espe-cially crucial to the major political parties. These independent-minded, often moderate "swing" voters hold the key to controlling every office from the White House to state houses to city halls and county seats.
During this election season, I'll visit some of these battleground suburbs. This is the first in a series of political slices of life.
-- -- --
If Long Island is the archetypal American suburb, the first and once fastest-growing baby-boom bedroom refuge, then Silicon Valley is Generation X - the cutting edge, the New Wave.
The towns and small cities between San Francisco and San Jose, from Burlingame and Atherton to Sunnyvale and Mountain View, look like a traditional suburb. The terrain - ocean and bay beaches separated by gnarly hills plunging to a broad dry plain - is more dramatic than most. All year long, cyclists get to take aim at joggers clogging the San Mateo Park trails that drop to the San Andreas reservoir and a stone marker announcing the exact route of the world's most famous tectonic fault.
Home prices are the highest anywhere, and not just in the million-dollar mountainside digs, which somehow man-age to survive both economic and actual earthquakes in the nation's richest neighborhoods. Expect to pay $400,000 for a modest, three-bedroom home on little land. But by and large, like most other suburbs, those in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties are low-rise, strip-malled sprawlvilles choked with traffic. El Camino Real rivals Jericho Turnpike for delis, hair salons and fast-food fiefdoms. If not for the spectacular coastal range and enormous eucalyptus trees, you could be crawling along any suburban artery.
What makes Silicon Valley very different from many older suburbs is not only that it's growing but why - the allure of its widely envied high-tech industries. It is a place where people live and work in increasing numbers. As with high-tech Sunnyvale, enshrined in the book "Reinventing Government" for its creatively efficient bureaucrats, the San Fran-cisco-San Jose suburbs are an economic engine unto themselves: More people commute to Sunnyvale's computer and electronics firms than leave each day for jobs elsewhere. (Its population is 125,000 but its work force is 135,000.) And those who do leave Sunnyvale to work increasingly drive to other suburban towns, not core cities.
What also makes this area different from many suburbs is its politics: In some ways its sensibilities may be conser-vative, as a Burlingame restaurateur found out when his place was boycotted and became a cause celebre at city hall after he dared paint it in tropical colors. But northern California's suburbs are about the most easy-goingly liberal in America.
Environmental protection, women's rights, good-government reform, education and job-training programs are em-braced with such zeal they might as well be civic religion. Hardly any successful candidate for any office opposes abor-tion rights or open-space preservation. In national elections, Democrats usually carry carry northern California, although the area often sends moderate or liberal Republicans to Congress, the state legislature and even county seats.
But, as the national Republican Party has come to be dominated by social and religious conservatives, home-grown Republicans at all levels are finding a harder time connecting with voters. Bill Clinton's lead of nearly 30 points in northern California could put this state's 54 electoral votes out of Bob Dole's reach, as it did for George Bush in 1992. As Jim Roberts, a Sunnyvale city councilman and moderate Republican activist, put it, "Unfortunately, the party has moved away from us."
To stay alive, most Republicans running anywhere near the San Andreas fault take a page out of Clinton's survival guide. If the president has regained his popularity by acting more like moderate Republicans, northern California Re-publicans such as Rep. Tom Campbell win by acting more like New Democrats. As a Washington aide to Newt Gin-grich sniffed, "There's a lot of folks here who don't consider Campbell a Republican at all."
Where the GOP has a serious new problem is with the people who should make up its base - the high-tech suburban businesses that have made Silicon Valley a symbol of the future. Last month, for instance, some 75 computer executives - many of them Republicans - met at the headquarters of desktop publishing software maker Adobe Systems Inc. to en-dorse the Bill Clinton-Al Gore ticket. Suits barely outnumbered open-necked shirts, the dress code was the only thing laid back about this go-go crowd.
"Silicon Valley doesn't traditonally look for handouts; it doesn't look for special tax credits," said Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer and now head of Pixar Animation Studios. "What it looks for is a solid business climate based on economic policy that makes sense. And I think we feel we've had that over the last four years."
National Republicans would be silly to write off this event as northern California foolishness, a sort of political Stockholm Syndrome in which normally Republican businessmen have come to identify with their region.
What these information-age hall-of-famers, people known all over the world as computer pioneers, are saying is that not only the GOP's candidate but its platform and key leaders are way out of step with where America should be going. After watching the GOP convention closely the prior week, Adobe CEO John Warnock said, shaking his head: "We heard a lot of backward thinking, looking into the past and reminiscing about the good old times. High-tech busi-ness - we live in the future."
The current and former execs from Hewlett Packard, Silicon Graphics, Xerox, Adobe, Autodesk and others have found a lot to like about Clinton, about the new direction he represents for the Democratic Party. They liked his willing-ness to confront the deficit - even if it meant risking his popularity by raising taxes - which brought down interest rates and made it easier to raise capital. They liked his surprise (and opportunistic) opposition to a stateballot initiative that would make it easier for shareholders to sue companies. They also cited his seriousness about reducing governmental bureaucracy and his commitment to free trade and, most importantly, investing in education and job-training.
After all, most of the technology for their inventions and innovations come from research institutions, such as Stan-ford University, that rely heavily on funding from government. Without government backing, whether it's through un-derwriting research at universities or procuring cuttingedge technology from these companies, they might be out of business - especially in competing against firms in Japan and other techno-tigers heavily subsidized by their own na-tional treasuries. Hardly responding to typical GOP government-bashing, they value the public-private partnerships run by super-efficient Sunnyvale and aided with federal funds that retrain high-tech workers whose specialties often become obsolete every few years.
These executives also have no taste for an insidious strain of immigrant bashing that they've heard mostly from Re-publicans, when so many key people in their industries come from other countries. As Robyn Parker, a Hewlett Packard manager and mayor of Sunnyvale, put it: "Intolerance is intolerable here; diversity is somethng we celebrate and sell." Parker should know. In a city in which less than 4 percent of the people are black - like her - voters had no problem electing her by overwhelming margins.
If the suburbs are going high-tech, as Long Island and others are trying to do to revive themselves, and if they're even more the key to political success, then what's happening to Republicans in Silicon Valley suggests the party is in danger of burning a key bridge to the future.
But the message is not just for conservative Republicans, who consider moderates such as Tom Campbell to be Democrats in disguise. Suburbanites aren't comfortable with extremists of any ilk. So Silicon Valley also offers a red flag for Democrats trying to become a majority party again. If they continue to see words such as corporation and free trade as epithets and generally resist Clinton's overtures to Wall Street and Main Street, Democrats could burn their own new bridges.