Romney’s friend in high tech

March 7, 2012, 3:49 PM UTC
Fortune

By Richard Nieva, contributor



FORTUNE — Mitt Romney had a good night. The former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital executive won GOP primary fights across the country and beat back a vigorous challenge by Rick Santorum in Ohio.
Amid the flurry of Super Tuesday coverage, one important Romney supporter has gotten little attention. Gary Shapiro’s is hardly a household name. But as president of the Consumer Electronics Association, he is a powerful figure in the technology world and one that cuts against the grain of west coast liberals.

The CEA — which is based in Virginia, a state Romney handily won last night thanks to a dearth of challengers on the ballot — is best known for hosting the Consumer Electronics Show, the massive annual trade show in Las Vegas. This year, it attracted over 150,000 people for product unveilings, demos and panels. But for the other 51 weeks of the year, the organization says it’s mission is to grow the tech industry by providing market research, training programs and networking opportunities to its 2,200 member companies and organizations.

Shapiro’s support — he insists he’s said favorable things, but has not made an official endorsement — of Romney is no surprise. He’s a well-documented conservative. His book The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream is critical of policies set in place by the Democratic congress of the late-aughts. He’s written several op-eds supporting Romney. In 2008, he and Hewlett Packard (HPQ) chief Meg Whitman created a campaign called Tech Executives For Romney. And last month Shapiro hosted Romney at a CEA breakfast event for tech CEOs, introducing him glowingly before he spoke.

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How does Shapiro gel with his organization’s young, bike-riding, hoodie-garbed members? It’s the not the disconnect it seems at first, argues Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a trade association in Washington, DC that represents the tech services industry in the public sector. (Soloway himself is a Democrat, and worked for the Clinton White House.) Speaking of the tech industry as a whole, “It is not monolithic,” he says. In fact, because the CEA evolved from a group of primarily tech manufacturers, a case could be made for it being more right-leaning since the manufacturing industry tends to be more conservative. Dean Garfield, CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, another trade association, says a divergence of opinions is a mainstay of the industry. “The tech sector is usually politics agnostic, but has a strong interest in policy,” he explains.

That focus on policy is why Shapiro feels it makes sense to endorse a candidate in the first place, especially this year. “He’s the only business candidate,” says Shapiro, ticking off reasons he thinks every other candidate will not grow an economy based on innovation. “I would guess about 90% of CEOs in America, in the tech industry, would support him,” says Shapiro. “The ones that wouldn’t are disagreeing maybe on social issues.”

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But one of tech’s highest profile CEOs may not be one of Shapiro’s 90%. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg made news last month when some thought he was endorsing Romney on his public Facebook page. Slate writer Farhad Manjoo wrote the status update, “just try looking at the Romney logo without seeing the word MONEY,” and linked to Romney’s homepage. Zuckerberg clicked “like” and his subscribers saw the link on his page, without Manjoo’s original comment. The story did more to reveal flaws in Facebook’s software than anything else, but it raises the question of Romney’s appeal to the head of one of the most important companies in Silicon Valley. Context would suggest there is none. But unlike Shapiro, Facebook is unwilling to take a stance either way. “We’re not going to get involved in discussions about personal politics,” said director of corporate communications Larry Yu, in an email.

Shapiro says Romney has the pulse of the tech industry. “CEOs can’t say what they want because they have to worry about their customers,” he says. “I find it amazing that no other association head is willing to stand up and say these things.” Some of his fellow association heads in Washington understand his view, but will not support any particular candidates themselves. Soloway, of the PSC, thinks endorsements work on a case-by-case basis, and their suitability depends on the individual culture of each trade association. Regardless of its suitability for Shapiro’s group, he shuns the idea of a backlash. Says Shapiro, “I haven’t lost my job yet.”

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