Electing to unite in bid for wealth

Politics: A former GOP congressman and a one-time political director for President Clinton team up to bring Voter.com to the Web.

June 12, 2000|By Michael Griffin | Michael Griffin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Craig Smith, former political director for Bill Clinton and campaign manager for Al Gore, thinks Randy Tate is an uptight right-winger bent on imposing his religious doctrine on American society.

Tate, former Republican congressman and political director of the Christian Coalition of America, thinks Smith is a wild-eyed bleeding heart, part of the political ilk that has led America down the path of moral decay.

Only in America could these two become business partners.

Smith and Tate are top executives in Voter.com, a political Web site aiming to become the Super Wal-Mart of politics on the Internet: a one-stop site where users can check out candidates, find out who represents them in Washington and at their state capital, register to vote and contribute to their favorite cause.

It's not politics that brought these strange bedfellows together. It was the prospect of making a lot of money off politics - or at least in serving the needs of voters. The Web site was created last year and launched in March with a $20 million ad campaign. Since its launch, the site has had 3.4 million visitors.

"Most of us didn't exchange Christmas cards last year," said Smith, who said he has a simple policy about keeping the peace at work. "We just don't talk politics."

Tate said he "shocked a lot of my friends" when he joined up with Smith. About the only thing the two agreed upon, Tate said, is that the Internet is changing politics.

"One out of five voters used the Internet in the last election," said Tate, who was a Republican U.S. House member from Washington state from 1995 to 1997. "We think that's significant."

What separates Voter.com (www.voter. com) from many of the thousands of political Web pages that dot the Internet is that it has no pretense of nonpartisanship. In fact, the page's partisanship is its biggest selling point, Smith said.

Smith is Voter.com's director of Democratic affairs. Tate is director of Republican affairs.

Between the two of them, they have lined up a diverse client list of political extremes: the AFL-CIO and the American Chamber of Commerce; the People for the American Way and the Christian Coalition; the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee.

Last month, Voter.com sponsored the Million Mom March on Washington and the Texas Republican Party convention.

"We represent all viewpoints, and we bypass the media," Tate said. "It is the first time voters can connect directly with candidates and vice versa."

Candidates and organizations pay to post issue positions, advertisements and links to their Web sites. Candidates for offices from president to statehouse pay a sliding scale to be included. Federal races cost more, state races less.

The Web site also sells banner advertising to businesses that want to reach the politically aware customer.

The commercialism of the site - and others - troubles the old hands of Internet politics - nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations that have been on the Web for years.

Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.org) is funded by grants from the Ford and Carnegie foundations and was created in 1989 to redirect political debate toward issues. Among its founders were former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and former U.S. Senators Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.

Richard Kimball, Project Vote Smart president, said allowing the marketplace to set the level of political discourse is dangerous.

"Do we want to make commercial interests the gatekeepers of political information?" Kimball asked. "Unless the businessperson is an idiot, what they will look to in the end is what sells."

If Al Gore and George Bush sell, Kimball reasons, they will get the space on the Web sites. Alternative candidates will get the short end.

Not so, says Smith.

"We put it all out there and let the voter decide," Smith said. "We want people to come here and get involved in the process."

To that end, the page enables users to type in their ZIP code and find out who represents them at almost every level of government, Smith said. The page lists biographies of most public officials and hopes to expand soon to offer public officials' voting records.

Users with credit cards can contribute to their favorite cause or candidate. They can also register to vote - or at least request the paperwork to register be mailed to them.

The page also features a section titled "My Voice" that enables users to create their own political organizations. Others can click on the site and join up.

As for Smith and Tate, they are becoming friends.

"When I worked in the White House, I never spoke to Republicans," Smith said. "Randy and I have actually become pretty close."

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