Senate races

Virginia Senate hopefuls woo tech leaders

RESTON, Va. — The two men vying to represent Virginia in the Senate next year worked to woo the commonwealth’s technology leaders on Monday.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D) and his Republican challenger Ed Gillespie made similar pleas for better education and tax reform to feed the state’s growing sector, but also sounded contrasting notes on issues ranging from immigration to the role of federal contractors.

{mosads}The stage at Microsoft’s Northern Virginia headquarters — about 30 minutes west of the nation’s capital — seemed at times like home turf for Warner, who made millions in the early days of the cellphone industry before entering politics.

Among a multitude of other investments, he co-founded the company that eventually became Nextel, experience that he harked back to while talking at length about industry-specific issues, such as the need to reform country’s patent laws and get more chunks of the nation’s airwaves into the hands of phone companies.

“As I started to go around Virginia, what I was introduced as was ‘that tech guy from northern Virginia,’ ” he told the audience of tech executives and lobbyists, while peppering his remarks with anecdotes from his previous career.

Warner contrasted his past with Gillespie’s history as a “partisan warrior” who used to lead the Republican National Committee.

“I’ve known an awful lot of people in that room for a long time,” he told reporters after the event, which was hosted by the Northern Virginia Technology Council. 

“I’ve worked with them as governor; I’ve worked with them as senator. Back in the early ‘90s when the tech community was coming of age, I was a part of all the efforts as this community got branded, and we tried to brand the whole area,” the Democrat continued.

Gillespie responded by linking Warner to President Obama, saying, “Our anemic economy is not somehow a matter of fate.”

“It’s the result of bad policies and a government that’s grown too big and done too many things that would better be left to local governments and the private sector,” he added. 

One of the signs of a bloated government, the GOP hopeful told the packed room, was the federal government’s reluctance to rely on contractors and, instead, have more functions performed in-house at federal agencies, a phenomenon known as insourcing.

The subject is especially resonant in the Northern Virginia suburbs near D.C., where government contractors’ advertisements are common at metro stations and highways are lined with anonymous-seeming office buildings.

“I don’t accept the notion that it can be done more cheaply inside the federal government,” Gillespie said. “You’re insulated from competition. You’re insulated from innovation, and I believe that the inclination ought to be toward having it be done in the private sector if it can be done in the private sector.”

Warner took a slightly more measured approach on the subject.

“I think that the pendulum on this has probably swung too far both ways,” he said, arguing that governments have both embraced and spurned contractors too much in the past. 

“I think it’s going to be done on an analysis of best value for the taxpayer and best value in terms of product that we’re going to get out,” Warner added.

The two did not face off toe-to-toe as in a traditional debate, but instead answered questions for about an hour each in two back-to-back appearances on the same stage.

Northern Virginia has a relatively vibrant technology hub, spurred in part by contractors for the federal government. 

The state has the highest concentration of science, technology and engineering jobs in the nation, and about 1 in every 10 private-sector workers in Virginia is employed by a tech company, according to the TechAmerica Foundation. 

To grow the industry, both Warner and Gillespie called for reforming the system of visas for high-skilled workers, but differed on how precisely to update the nation’s broader immigration laws. 

Gillespie, who was skeptical of the Senate’s immigration reform bill last year, said the country had a “responsibility to secure our border” before moving forward with other measures.

Warner voted in favor of the Senate immigration reform bill and blamed Republicans in the House for failing to pick up the issue.

“If the House had a better idea, fine, but don’t do nothing,” he said.

Both agreed that a research and development tax credit should be extended and said science and tech degrees should be more affordable.

Both also called for a limited set of changes to government surveillance programs — which tech companies complain will cut their profits by tens of billions of dollars due to public mistrust following leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — and voiced support for a legal way to allow companies and government officials to better share information about malicious hackers.

Warner is considered the favorite in the Senate race and has been leading Gillespie by double-digits in recent polls.

— Updated on Sept. 9 to correct Reston’s proximity to Washington, D.C.

Tags Ed Gillespie Mark Warner Mark Warner Microsoft Virginia Senate

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