TechÕs White House Connection

By Aaron Pressman

Issue Date: Apr 02 2001

In a White House dominated by old-economy staffers, Lezlee Westine speaks up for the technology industry.



WASHINGTON - While Steve Case, Michael Dell and a handful of other high-tech titans waited for a meeting with President George W. Bush in early February, they traded small talk over coffee in a White House anteroom.

Before the president arrived, an aide popped in with good news. "We've all been upgraded," he said, announcing that the meeting had been moved from the Roosevelt Room to the larger and more ornate Cabinet Room, just off the Oval Office. The group chatted with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and top economic adviser Larry Lindsey before spending an hour talking with Bush about his agenda.

For some of the executives, it was the second White House meeting with the new president in a month, thanks in large measure to the efforts of Lezlee Westine, former co-CEO of TechNet, a nonpartisan lobbying group based in Palo Alto, Calif. Now Westine is director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and is emerging as the most prominent advocate for the new economy in the Bush administration.

While Westine has been great at getting tech execs plenty of face time with the president, the real test is still ahead: Will she succeed in pushing the tech industry's agenda with the administration's staff of old-economy veterans like O'Neill and Evans?

The tech community enjoyed a close alliance with the previous occupants of the White House. Executives knew they could always get a fair hearing from former Vice President Al Gore, Chief of Staff John Podesta or a handful of other Clinton advisers.

But the Bush administration's inner circle doesn't have the same degree of comfort and familiarity with technology issues. "Bush had a relationship with some tech folks in Texas, but it wasn't something he really got into," says a leading industry lobbyist who requested anonymity. "None of the people at the top really get it. But we don't want to pre-judge too much. They are still figuring it all out."

Many tech leaders find no fault with the president's plans to improve education and cut taxes. And they like elements of the White House's proposed budget, such as the administration's $100 million e-government initiative. The industry is decidedly less enthusiastic about proposed cuts to research-and-development funding at the Commerce Department and the National Science Foundation. And they are worried that the administration has yet to stake out positions on privacy protection and other issues at the top of the tech industry's agenda.

The grumbling hasn't amounted to much, though. "We're not going for a lot right now, but [Bush's] general sympathies are in the right direction," says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group that includes ATT (T), Compaq and IBM (IBM).

Lobbyists are still pressing the Bush administration to name a high-level tech czar. For now, Westine remains the industry's key contact in the White House. She isn't directly responsible for crafting policy, but as one of the White House's most experienced Silicon Valley hands, she is an important contributor to discussions on technology. (The administration recently brought in two Capitol Hill veterans to be primary tech-policy wonks: Ceasar Conda was an aide to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham until the tech-friendly former Michigan senator was defeated for re-election in November. And Richard Russell was the senior staffer on the House Science Committee's technology subcommittee.)

The 40-year-old Westine works for top Bush strategist Karl Rove to assemble public support for whatever policies are headlining the president's agenda. That means reaching out not only to tech groups but also to every relevant constituency, from Hispanic leaders to women CEOs.

In a White House where meetings start on time and formal attire is de rigueur, Westine fits right in. Like Bush, she has an MBA and exudes a natural CEO-like charisma.

Westine first caught the political bug in the mid-1980s while attending business school at UCLA. She came to Washington for a fellowship that featured meetings with congressional members and top staff at the Reagan White House. "I remember thinking how important it was to bring the mentality of the business community to government," says Westine with an easy smile.

After business school, Westine obtained a law degree and went to work for San Francisco's Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, a leading political law firm favored by the Republican Party. In 1992, then-California Gov. Pete Wilson hired Westine to run his San Francisco office and reach out to Silicon Valley. Five years later she joined TechNet, then a fledgling organization trying to get lawmakers to pay more attention to new-economy concerns. Through those positions, Westine developed friendships with Valley business leaders like Jim Barksdale and John Chambers that have fueled her success ever since.

Westine served as co-chairwoman of Bush's California campaign and worked with Chambers to organize a $4 million fundraiser. Rove noticed her efforts and brought her to the White House. It's been a hectic transition for Westine and her soccer-playing 8-year-old daughter as they dropped their lives in Marin County, Calif., and created a new home in a Washington suburb. "I haven't stopped running in the seven and a half weeks since I got here," she says.

Next up on Westine's agenda: planning a March 28 meeting for the president with hundreds of high-tech CEOs. The summit will give Bush another chance to show support for his agenda: taxes and education. What tech execs will gain in return for providing a backdrop to photo opportunities is unclear. Westine, adhering to the White House's buttoned-down, lips-sealed culture, says it's too soon to start detailing the administration's stand on specific technology issues.

Unlike former President Clinton, Bush hasn't talked up the new economy much. White House officials are asking for patience, saying they are formulating positions on all the important new-economy issues. But they argue that those priorities must take a backseat while the president fights for his core agenda.

The administration, however, is taking some pains to show the tech lobby it cares about their concerns. In advance of this week's summit, Westine's office sent attendees a memo asking which issues they would like to discuss with the president. Westine and other White House staff are also crafting a more formal process to keep the dialogue flowing between Bush and the tech community.

Westine and her crew are working hard to keep tech execs connected to the administration. But it will take more than face time with the president to keep them happy.