From Smoke-Filled Rooms to Silicon Valley

SAN FRANCISCO (01/26/2000) - Politicians don't retire. these days, they join Internet firms. Former officeholders have traditionally moved on to the greener pastures of lobbying and sitting on corporate boards. But the flow of political bigwigs from the Beltway to the Valley - call them the dot-pols - is becoming a familiar story.

The latest Beltway-to-Valley migrations came last Wednesday, when Mike McCurry, former spokesman for President Clinton, and John Sununu, former chief of staff for President Bush, joined the advisory board of a San Bruno, Calif.-based Web site called Grassroots.com, which launches next month. Described as a nonpartisan "political action destination," it is one of a growing number of sites betting that voters would rather rattle off an e-mail to an elected official than make a phone call, sign a petition or write a letter.

With the presidential race heating up, independent for-profit political sites launch practically every week with names like Politics.com, SpeakOut.com, Vote.com, Voter.com, and on and on. None has yet turned a profit. Business models are based on attracting ads for their content, chat rooms, polls and e-mail features. But that model overlooks the public's tendency to turn to brand-name sources for online news and information.

Now the sites need to rise above the noise, and that's where the big names come in. The politicos - including former Reps. Tom Downey and Susan Molinari, one-time Democratic VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro and Clinton political consultant James Carville - are eager to help. Almost universally, they extol the virtues of connecting citizens and their representatives. Those Web sites, they say, remind them of the retail politics of old, when door-to-door campaigning and kissing babies won out over multimillion-dollar television blitzes.

Then, of course, there are the stock options. "You're seeing the inevitable cashing in of politicians on the Internet," jokes Downey, a former congressman from New York, who is now a lobbyist.

Downey serves on the advisory board of SpeakOut.com, a Washington-based startup that helps people interact with local government. The company has secured more than $8 million in venture funding. And its panel of advisers includes Reagan Administration official Michael Deaver and Molinari, as well as Democrats such as former Al Gore adviser Carter Eskew.

"It's a marriage made in heaven," notes Downey. "It's your opportunity to be involved in politics, touch on policy, have some impact and have a piece of a company that could conceivably do very well."

The mix works for McCurry, too. "There is a little more noble cause in this for me," he says. Still, he adds, "there should be a little altruism in everyone's life - and a few stock options."

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