Wired Workers becoming coveted costituency

Tuesday, October 10th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

CARBONDALE, Pa. – John and Violet Scarfo work at the same place, but worlds apart.

At Gentex Corp., he fashions the fabric that protects firefighters.

At Gentex Optics, she makes precision lenses for eyeglasses.

"Some of his things came over with the Mayflower," she says, knocking the low-tech nature of her husband's work.

"I was pretty amazed," he says, marveling at the computerized, robotic equipment at his wife's plant next door.

In the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania, Violet Scarfo is what the political pollsters call a "wired worker," someone who works with computers or computerized equipment, often in loosely structured teams.

John Scarfo is not.

Both, though, are stalwarts of America's bulging middle class, which Democrat Al Gore has pursued for months and Republican George W. Bush has been scrambling to engage.

Wired workers are an emerging political phenomenon, a developing voting bloc that was barely a blip four years ago but now includes perhaps 20 percent of the electorate.

They are not only manufacturing workers – like Violet Scarfo – who use computers, robots and computer-driven equipment, but express mail drivers and rental car agents who are tethered to hand-held computers that track and bill things. And there are those who work at their computer terminals all day, plugged into their own programs or using the Internet.

"They're high-information voters, and the campaigns have got to respond and with lots of high-quality information ... . And both of them are doing it," said Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant who has worked for President Clinton and Mr. Gore.

E-campaigns at work

Both the Bush and Gore campaigns are Web savvy, turning the Internet into an everyday political tool. They raise money with it and keep in touch with supporters and potential supporters through e-mail. And there have been Internet ads streaming across Web sites.

"We are doing as much as we can with e-mail, e-campaigns and e-advertising," said Mr. Bush's spokesman, Dan Bartlett, who is involved in communicating many of the governor's proposals.

Wired workers form a "very vague group" that runs the political spectrum, Mr. Bartlett said, but most are very interested in education issues of all sorts, from preschool through college – and continuing education.

"You ask any high-tech and new economy leader and the first thing they'll tell you is that they're really struggling with the future workforce," he said. "They want to talk about education."

In a bid to better connect with wired workers, Mr. Bartlett said, the Bush campaign has established a high-tech advisory council, led by Michael Dell, chairman and chief executive of Dell Computer Corp.

"It's easier for high-tech workers who may not have time to follow politics to identify with a Michael Dell," Mr. Bartlett said.

On the campaign trail, the vice president, particularly, is addressing wired workers.

"There are now computers everywhere and new technologies," Mr. Gore pointed out the other day at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., "and your employer is always wanting new skills."

He visited the Gentex plants in Pennsylvania, where he touted his goal of creating 10 million new high-tech, highly skilled jobs and his pledge for the largest job training and continuing education program since the GI Bill after World War II.

He toured the workplaces, then addressed some of the 1,000 employees outside by the loading dock. In an area of swing voters, heavily courted by both campaigns, he was well-received.

"He is for the working class," Violet Scarfo said. "If we get his educational plans in place, it's definitely a plus. We're not poor enough that we're on welfare, but we're not the people who have all the money to put away for education."

Education ideas enticing

Like his wife, John Scarfo leans Democratic and is drawn to Mr. Gore's education proposals, particularly his call for tax credits for education.

Their daughter, Christina, is only 8, but Mr. Scarfo sees big college bills 10 years down the road. And if Mr. Gore delivered on just "half of what he's saying," Mr. Scarfo said he'd be satisfied.

"I like some of his ideas," he said.

In Grand Rapids, Justin Fazio is a wired worker of a different sort. A design engineer, he uses computers and other high-high equipment to develop returnable packaging for automotive parts.

And he believes that Mr. Gore would do better than Mr. Bush in handling the issues of "education, school loans and paying for college." Mr. Fazio and his wife, Sara, fresh out of law school, still have college loans to pay off.

In Des Moines, Iowa, Joel Eide, a computer network manager for The Principal Financial Group, is immersed in the new technology.

He's a registered independent but considers himself "philosophically ... a true-blue Republican." But he's so removed from politics that he says it's embarrassing.

"Yes, I vote," he said, "but I usually keep half an ear open and usually wait until the end of the process where I can see what I hope to be an objective list of where each candidate stands on the issues."

Right now, he's undecided between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore – though with a wife and 2-year-old daughter, he's interested in Mr. Gore's proposals for targeted middle-class tax cuts for child care and education.

So, just how to capture the vote of Mr. Eide and other wired workers has been a major challenge for both campaigns.

"This is the first election where they have access to so many more tools and news," said Mr. Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile. But it's unclear exactly which tool might work best to lure them – newspapers, radio, televisions, the Internet or others.

More optimistic, open

Generally, says Dr. Rob Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute, wired workers tend to be more optimistic, more open to government programs and want more investment, particularly in education.

They also seem to be more socially tolerant and, while interested in an activist government, have little use for more bureaucracy, Dr. Atkinson said.

"They're not really either in the traditional, liberal Democratic camp or the more conservative camp," he said.

Dr. Atkinson, who tracks the wired worker phenomenon, is director of the Technology and New Economy Project of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Its chairman is Mr. Gore's running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

In 1998, the Institute for a New California, among the first to identify wired workers, found they made up about 57 percent of that state's workforce.

Nationally, Democratic Leadership Council President Al From estimates that about one in five voters is a wired worker, about the same number who are union members.

In a survey last spring, Democratic pollster Mark Penn, who has worked for Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore, found that eight of 10 wired workers believed that the nation's economy was on the right track.

Nearly seven in 10 considered themselves, or their jobs, part of the "new economy." And even more – three of every four – were at least "somewhat optimistic" about it.

While Mr. Penn, Mr. From and others have been quick to recognize and track the wired worker trend, not every political analyst or operative is all that intrigued by it.

Mr. Gore's campaign chairman, for one, isn't sure what a wired worker is.

"Everybody thinks he's a wired worker today," said William Daley, the former commerce secretary.

And Dr. Atkinson said the phenomenon needs more study to determine the "openness and affinity to certain types of political ideas," among other issues.

With union members, he said, "you have a sense as to what issues they would be for and what issues they would be against."

For wired workers, he suggested, the paths are just now being charted.


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