Dem To Pols: Drop And Give Me Ten
By Chris Nolan

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Silicon Valley entrepreneur and multimillionaire Steve Kirsch admits he's a "little bit eccentric." The same could be said of his one-man campaign to improve the Democratic Party. Since last fall he's been requiring candidates who want political contributions from him to explain--by writing down their "top ten goals"--what they're going to do once he helps them get elected. "When you go to voters and you say 'Elect me,' then you should be able to articulate to the voters what you plan to accomplish," Kirsch says, speaking from his windowless office at his latest company, Propel Software, in San Jose.

Kirsch's logic (he's an engineer and has degrees from MIT) is hard to dispute--can anyone argue with the idea that elected officials should lay out their goals and be accountable to voters? Since last fall, four politicians have agreed to Kirsch's conditions: Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), Representative Mike Honda (D-California), California assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn (D-24th Assembly District), and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California), who gave Kirsch a long list of almost 20 items, including "Make health care universally available to all Americans" and "Develop an American culture that is marked by acceptance and tolerance." Honda's list is more specific: Among other things, he wants a commuter-rail extension for his district.

But despite the influence he wields as one of the Democratic Party's largest contributors, not everyone has been willing to accommodate Kirsch's demands. A millionaire many times over since he sold his search-engine company, Infoseek, to Walt Disney Co. in 1999, Kirsch has given Democrats about $10 million over the past four years (including more than $3 million during Al Gore's campaign in 2000). So, of course, Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) have approached him for contributions. But they've found Kirsch's "top ten" difficult to manage. "She said, 'Well, don't you trust me?' " Kirsch says of his conversation with Pelosi. A spokeswoman at Pelosi's Washington office did not return a call.

It may seem a simple matter for candidates to reel off a list of things they'd like to accomplish. But Democrats, facing a tough fight against George Bush, are feeling besieged these days. A list of goals could too easily be turned into a list of failures by an opponent. "It's not the way it works," one Democratic insider gripes. Also, under national campaign finance reforms passed last year, Kirsch and other former large-dollar donors are now prohibited from writing big, blank checks (contributions once known as soft money). With individual donations capped at $4,000, politicians must now find dozens more smaller contributors. And once one donor's demands are met, it sets a precedent that other donors may follow.

But setting a precedent is exactly what Kirsch wants. He frequently cites the Republicans' "Contract With America" as a model for what his own party should do, claiming that if Democrats start getting more specific with voters, they just might find themselves rewarded on Election Day. --Chris Nolan