Mr. Gates Goes to Washington

Article excerpt

Microsoft's borrowing of NRA lobbying tactics reveals the Republican tilt--and the naivete--of its political strategy.

When The New York Times revealed in April that Microsoft had hired Ralph Reed, the onetime executive director of the Christian Coalition, to lobby George W. Bush on the company's behalf, the story that generated all the attention was Reed's obvious, if bizarre, conflict of interest--he was also a paid adviser to Bush's presidential campaign. But the underlying story, largely overlooked at the time, was something bigger: the increasingly Republican can tilt of Microsoft's presence in Washington, D.C.

Not only has Microsoft hired a disproportionate share of its lobbyists from the Republican side of the aisle; it has also showered money on a host of political advocacy groups aligned with the GOP's most antitax and antigovernment wing. (A mere sampling of the groups now feeding at the Microsoft trough: Americans for Tax Reform, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation.) But perhaps the most striking thing about Microsoft's campaign to gin up grassroots opposition to the government's proposed breakup of the company is how strongly it resembles the tactics deployed by Big Tobacco and the NRA.

Pioneers of corporate-financed grass-roots (often called "Astroturf") organizing within the tobacco industry and the NRA have perfected ways of imitating genuine groundswells of public support or opposition. The most common tactics include launching and funding front groups to support a client's cause; paying political consultants to generate phone calls and letters to politicians; and, perhaps most effective, using phone banks and highly targeted calling campaigns to manipulate public opinion.

Which brings us back to Ralph Reed. Phone bank work is, as it happens, the specialty of Reed's consulting firm, Century Strategies. And what he got in trouble for with Microsoft was a form of grass-roots work--often referred to as "grass tops"--in which the consultant solicits letters and phone calls from local business and community leaders on behalf of a client. But Reed isn't the only one doing this. If Microsoft Astroturf has the look and feel of the tobacco and NRA variety, that's no accident: Over the past two years, the software giant has hired many of the same people who pioneered Astroturf organizing for the tobacco lobby and the NRA.

Over the past decade, two companies in particular have played a conspicuous role in organizing grass-roots campaigns for the tobacco lobby and the NRA: DCI, an Arizona consulting firm that specializes in phone bank work, and Direct Impact, an Alexandria, Virginia-based outfit that focuses on grass-tops solicitation. Last year Microsoft hired one of Direct Impact's key grass-tops experts, Michael McMahon, to coordinate the company's campaign. DCI was retained to handle phone bank work and other grass-roots advocacy. Another company, Stateside Associates, was hired to coordinate grass-roots activities at the state level.

DCI is the creation of Tom Synhorst, a Republican political operative and one-time field coordinator for the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, who first made a name for himself by helping Bob Dole pull off an upset victory over George Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucuses. In subsequent years, Synhorst remained close to Dole, but he found his real niche in phone bank work. DCI, as well as a cluster of allied companies in which Synhorst also holds an interest, has worked for the tobacco industry for most of the 1990s. In 1998, when Congress was poised to sign off on a comprehensive tobacco settlement, the industry retained both DCI and Direct Impact to engineer a coordinated campaign of grass-roots opposition to the bill. In 1999, in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, the NRA paid out more than $300,000 to DCI and another phone bank operator, Optima Direct, to rev up opposition to renewed efforts to regulate firearms. …