Clinton nominees dismay high-tech businessmen

January 02, 1993|By Sara Fritz | Sara Fritz,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Disappointed by two of President-elect Bill Clinton's key appointments, leaders of the high-technology community are privately expressing concern that the new administration may be backing down on its commitment to increase government support for U.S. technology.

The anxiety is based largely on Mr. Clinton's choice of Ronald H. Brown, the Democratic Party chairman, as secretary of commerce, and Mickey Kantor, a lawyer and lobbyist, as U.S. trade representative. Executives at some high-technology concerns view both appointees as relative strangers to their industry.

One high-technology lobbyist described the appointments as "a very surprising choice and a disappointment." Others, all of whom declined to be identified by name for fear they might offend the new president, expressed similar misgivings.

The nomination of Mr. Brown is especially disconcerting to high-technology industries because in his capacity as a Washington lobbyist, he has represented many of their Japanese competitors.

As one business source, bitter about what he sees as the new secretary of commerce's lack of background in U.S. manufacturing, said: "The only industry that Ron Brown comes out of is the influence-peddling industry."

The industrialists' reaction is perhaps a harbinger of future troubles for Mr. Clinton, whose generous campaign promises created such high expectations among various interest groups that many are likely to be disappointed by the results.

Those who represent the nation's high-technology companies in Washington said that the appointments were not consistent with a commitment Mr. Clinton made Sept. 18 to "create a world-class business environment for private sector and innovation."

High-technology industry officials said that they expected the president-elect to choose people familiar with American technology for the jobs that traditionally promote U.S. industry on world markets.

Mr. Brown is sure to be questioned about his lack of industry experience and his ties to the Japanese when his nomination comes up for review Wednesday by the Senate Commerce Committee, according to congressional aides.

He will also be asked how his appointment squares with Mr. Clinton's commitment to promote U.S. technology abroad.

Ken Kay, executive director of the Computer Systems Policy Project, a group that represents the chief executive officers of 13 prominent companies, said it would be up to Mr. Brown to demonstrate that, "He's not going to continue the legacy of the Commerce Department as a bureaucratic backwater."

The Senate Finance Committee has not yet scheduled hearings for Mr. Kantor, who is a partner in the politically well-connected law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Phillips & Kantor, led by Charles Manatt, the former Democratic Party chairman.

Neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Kantor could be reached for comment on the issues raised by high-technology industry officials.

Apparently in an effort to mend fences with the industry, Mr. Brown spent three days last week visiting executives in California's Silicon Valley to discuss his plans for the Department of Commerce.

Clinton transition officials also have let it be known that they might be considering some high-technology industry officials, such as David Barram of Apple Computer or Roger W. Johnson of Western Digital, as potential appointees to lesser Department of Commerce positions that deal directly with technology.

Michael R. Wessel, another popular choice with the high-technology industry, is being considered as Mr. Kantor's deputy. Mr. Wessel is an aide to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., the House majority leader.

The appointments of Mr. Brown and Mr. Kantor have been widely interpreted as a signal that Mr. Clinton may be satisfied with the relatively low profiles the Department of Commerce and the U.S. trade representative's office have had in past administrations.

High-technology industry officials have been dissatisfied with what they see as unwillingness by these agencies to actively promote American technology on the world market.

Pat Choate, author of "Agents of Influence," said that the selection of the Democratic chairman as secretary of commerce is seen as "a continuation of the tradition of irrelevance at the Commerce Department." Mr. Choate's book details lobbying activities for foreign companies by American political leaders, such as Mr. Brown,

Many times in the past, presidents have used Department of Commerce appointments to reward those who played a major role in their elections.

President Bush named his chief fund-raiser, Robert A. Mosbacher; former President Richard M. Nixon chose the man responsible for funding his campaign, Maurice Stans.

Likewise, the U.S. trade representative often has been closely identified with party politics. Previous appointees have included Robert S. Strauss, former Democratic Party chairman, and Bill Brock, former chairman of the Republican Party.

While Mr. Kantor has never served as party chairman, he most recently served as chairman of the Clinton presidential campaign.

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