Bill Gates' recent folksy appearance on Martha Stewart Living was one indicator of how Microsoft is re-spinning its greedy corporate image in the wake of antitrust accusations. Even more revealing is the company's new burst of political spending. The Redmond software titan has suddenly become a top player in DC power circles, spending more than $3 million in 1997 and 1998 to enlist candidates and twist arms. Its dazzling soft-money contributions alone jumped sixfold over 1996.
According to updated figures from the Federal Elections Commission, the once mostly apolitical corporation softly stuffed $654,800 into candidates' pockets—nearly all of them Republican—to become one of the nation's biggest donors of "soft money" (contributions to parties, who buy advertising and indirectly benefit candidates, skirting campaign-limit laws). For the first time, Microsoft surpassed the soft-money contributions of Washington state's traditional heavyweight giver, the Boeing Co. ($493,000).
In the midst of its antitrust shootout, Microsoft last spring began donating heavily to the Republican National State Elections Committee—$99,000 and $100,000 in March and April. Thousands more flowed in through the summer and, in October, Microsoft gave the GOP $285,000 more. Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Slade Gorton became an outspoken defender of Gates, his Eastside neighbor and suspected Democrat. Altogether in 1997-98, Microsoft gave $519,800 to Republicans and just $135,000 to Democrats.
Microsoft contributed another $500,000 through regulated hard-money corporate and employee donations, pushing its total political giving in 1997-98 beyond $1 million—two-thirds of it to Republicans—according to the Center for Responsive Politics in DC. That's triple Microsoft's 1996 hard-money spending. Similarly, corporate lobbying costs zoomed to near $2 million in 1998. The company now employs such well-connected Capitol Hill lobbyists as former GOP chair Haley Barbour and former GOP and Demo congressmen Vin Weber and Vic Fazio.