News

Hopefuls seek support of Silicon Valley insider

Julia Prodis Sulek
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Pity poor Larry Stone.

The Democratic candidates for president just won't leave the Santa Clara County assessor alone.

First, a few weeks back, he had to "beg off" presidential candidate Barack Obama, who grabbed his hand at an exclusive fundraiser in Portola Valley, Calif., looked him straight in the eye and said, "What will it take to make this deal?"

Then he had to stand with all eyes on him near the back of the Loft restaurant in downtown San Jose when presidential candidate Bill Richardson called out from the podium, "Don't let Larry Stone out of the room until he is signed on!"

And just recently, Hillary Clinton's campaign office called, asking him to drive to Monterey for a private little arm-twisting with her husband. (That would be former President Bill Clinton.)

The tug of war over Stone shows just how far candidates will go to lock up Silicon Valley support in these early, frantic months of the campaign. It also underlines the wrenching decisions that face Democrats excited about the prospect that a black or a woman could become president but struggling with which, if any, historic first to back.

Stone may be a 66-year-old elected official partial to suspenders, thinning on top and stooped a bit at the shoulders, but his day job as tax assessor is not, he says, his "main point of identity."

"Political animal" is. Stone is an insider's insider who has a personal database filled with hundreds of Democratic donors who usually say "yes" when he calls.

For the Obama camp, getting Stone not only would mean landing a team player with a proven track record, but it would continue the momentum of Clinton defectors supporting Obama, said Wade Randlett, an Obama fundraising co-chair in San Francisco.

When Stone didn't commit to Obama at the Portola Valley fundraiser - where hors d'oeuvres were served under a big white tent - Randlett invited Stone to meet with the campaign's national finance chair. But Stone had another engagement: Bill Clinton.

Stone never thought it would come to this.

Months earlier, he had chosen his candidate - Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat who proved he could win in a red state, with a universal appeal that Stone thought could take him to the White House. Then Bayh dropped out.

Usually by this time in a campaign, Stone is in a campaign's inner circle, helping craft political and financial strategies. Back in 1990, when Stone was mayor of Sunnyvale, he took a chance on a little-known Arkansas governor and introduced him to Silicon Valley at a small gathering.

"It was like pulling teeth to get 35 people there," said Stone, who missed Nolan Ryan's record-setting no-hitter against the Oakland A's that night.

His foresight gave him cachet, and when President Clinton would fly into San Jose on Air Force One, there would be Larry Stone, standing on the tarmac at the base of the stairs. He also spent a night in the White House, chatting with the first family until 2 a.m.

Woe be the campaigns trying to top that.

"Man, I feel like I've got a pea shooter against a cannon right now," Randlett said. "We definitely don't have ex-presidents doing one-on-ones to close for Barack."

In an e-mail to Stone, Randlett - an old friend of Stone's - gave it one more shot: "if you say no to bill clinton," Randlett wrote, "we'll double your frequent flier miles on obamair."

Typically, Stone relishes the limelight. On his bookcase at work, he keeps a collection of framed photos. There's Stone grinning with then-California Gov. Gray Davis. And there he is throwing out the first pitch at Candlestick Park. And, from his days on the U.S. Conference of Mayors, there he is next to Muhammad Ali - and, wait, there's one with Fidel Castro. So it was no surprise in 2004, when the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce put him in a royal red robe and crown and roasted him as that year's "royal schmoozer."

But the photo that is harder for him to look at lately is the one of him at the White House with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

"I like Hillary a lot," Stone told the Washington Times on March 5, "but I just question whether she can win."

That quote caught the attention of the Clinton campaign. They were still doing damage control from headline-making comments by Hollywood mogul David Geffen. Geffen, an old friend of Bill Clinton who shifted to Obama, also questioned Hillary Clinton's electability.

The Clinton campaign in New York contacted Stone's office. Within two days, Stone was driving to Monterey, where Bill Clinton was speaking at the $4,000-a-person Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference.

"It was a rush," Stone said, to get a private meeting at a book store that had been closed to all but a security team and a half-dozen others. The only person he recognized was movie star Cameron Diaz, who got a quick hello from Clinton. Stone wound up getting more than an hour.

But Stone's initial rush turned quickly to panic when Clinton seemed surprised to see him.

"Are you in town for the conference?" Clinton asked.

"I'm here because I haven't decided who I'm going to support for president," Stone answered.

Clinton looked at him, irritated - a look that, to Stone, said, "Why are you, Larry Stone, not supporting my wife? But more importantly, why are you, Larry Stone, here to tell me that?"

That's when Stone realized that Clinton "had no idea why I was there."

"It got kind of intense," Stone said. "When you're talking to Bill Clinton and you screw up, you can hear your heart beating."

But things relaxed, Stone said, as they started talking about the presidential race.

"I've been president, and I know Hillary would do the best job and I know all these people," Stone recalls Clinton saying. "He said he liked Barack and Bill Richardson, but he kept saying three or four times, `I just know who will make the best president, and that's Hillary.'"

Clinton and Stone moved among the book shelves, and Stone helped Clinton pick out a few artsy candles for his wife. That's when Clinton called over one of his people to take a few pictures before he left.

"He's the most persuasive guy in the world - and you can ask world leaders that," Stone said. Nonetheless, "I haven't made up my mind yet. But, certainly, he made a strong case."

Once he chooses, though, Stone's troubles won't be over.

He'll be expected to deliver.

Poor Larry Stone.


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