California Politics

Choosing Boxer Over Fiorina in Silicon Valley


When Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Meg Whitman, eBay's (EBAY) former chief executive officer, won their June 8 Republican primaries for the U.S. Senate and governor's office in California, the next-day narrative was upbeat: Voters had smartly chosen two competent technology executives with proven leadership skills.

Two weeks later a more sobering reality is hitting Fiorina. She faces a wall of opposition from her Silicon Valley peers, even as Whitman retains their loyalty and Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, Fiorina's Senate rival, boasts numerous technology executives in her corner. Cisco Systems' (CSCO) John Chambers, who often backs Republicans, is a Boxer fan. Also standing behind her are Oracle's (ORCL) Larry Ellison, Netflix' (NFLX) Reed Hastings, eBay CEO John Donahoe, Autodesk (ADSK) CEO Carl Bass, Symantec (SYMC) Chairman John Thompson, and John Doerr, the venture capitalist.

Fiorina's tech supporters are less numerous: The short list includes Intel (INTC) CEO Paul Otellini and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers co-founder Tom Perkins. "There's a lot of animus about her business decisions at HP," says Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics & Media at California State University, Sacramento. "It's mostly the Compaq decision and how she handled it," O'Connor says, referring to Fiorina's bitterly fought 2001 acquisition of Compaq Computer, a $19 billion deal meant to help HP regain its lost market value. The strategy backfired, and HP lost its personal-computer market lead to Dell (DELL), resulting in Fiorina's 2005 ouster.

"It isn't surprising that a three-term incumbent senator is supported financially by many in the tech industry," Amy Thoma, a spokeswoman for Fiorina, says of Boxer. "Carly enjoys a broad range of support both from the Silicon Valley and throughout the state."

The rebuff stiffens Fiorina's challenge of beating a Democrat in a heavily Democratic state. "It makes it a harder hill to climb for Carly," says Jim Cunneen, a Republican state assemblyman in Silicon Valley from 1994 to 2000 and now a principal at political consulting firm California Strategies in San Jose.

Contrast that with Whitman, who's racking up funding from Chambers, Yahoo! (YHOO) co-founder Jerry Yang, former Apple (AAPL) finance chief Fred Anderson, Intuit (INTU) CEO Brad Smith, former Oracle operating chief Ray Lane, and Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer. Whitman faces California Attorney General Jerry Brown in the November gubernatorial race; the $54 million she raised through May 22 is more than triple Brown's take, according to the California Secretary of State.

Boxer, 69, spent years nurturing Silicon Valley by backing more H1-B visas to bring technology engineers to the U.S. from overseas and, in 2004, opposing rules forcing companies to account for employee stock options as an expense, saying that would make it harder to attract top talent. "Over the years, Barbara has worked with our industry on critical issues impacting Silicon Valley, including education, promoting innovation, stock options, and tax policies, even when she's faced opposition from many colleagues," Chambers, 60, said in an e-mail. As of May 19, Boxer had raised $16.3 million, more than double Fiorina's $7.4 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. From computer and Internet companies, Boxer took in $229,000 to Fiorina's $46,000.

Among voters overall, Boxer leads Fiorina 48 percent to 43 percent, according to a June 9 Rasmussen poll, almost within the 4.5 percent margin of error. Still, with unemployment in California near 13 percent and the state home foreclosure rate the nation's fourth-highest, it could be a difficult year for incumbents, Cunneen says. "This election is really about jobs and the economy," he says, "and there aren't many jobs and the economy is still sputtering."

The bottom line: Fiorina's six years at Hewlett-Packard aren't winning her much love—or money—from Silicon Valley.

Levy is a reporter for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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