The Boston Phoenix
November 18 - 25, 1999


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Al Gore touts the `new economy' and the tech companies that fuel it. He also wants to end suburban sprawl. But you can't have the first without the second.

by Seth Gitell

News that Al Gore had hired Naomi Wolf to turn him from a "beta male" into an "alpha" was surely evidence that the vice-president is having trouble defining himself on the campaign trail. But hiring someone to help him dress for debates is not the worst of it. A more ominous sign for the Gore campaign is how he's handling ("ignoring" might be a better word) the obvious clash between two of his favorite policy goals.

Earlier this year, Gore targeted suburban sprawl as a campaign issue, calling it his "livability agenda." Gore thought he had a winner. Time magazine ran a cover article in March that focused in part on the issue. And sprawl is one of the hottest topics in an area where primary votes mean a lot -- southern New Hampshire. "Roads are clogged, schools are packed tight," says the Web site of the Nashua Telegraph, which devoted an eight-part series to the problem last month.

But picking on sprawl makes it awkward when the vice-president takes credit, as he does, for the thing that has made most people happy with President Clinton and, by extension, with Gore: the booming economy. The majority of places that are really booming -- the ones that have come the furthest since the recession-plagued Bush years, the ones that have benefited most from the new economy -- are also the ones most plagued by sprawl. And that's no coincidence.

Bradley just wants to be noticed

In this week's New Yorker, Vice President Al Gore explains the difference between himself and Bill Clinton: "Bill Clinton sees a car going down the street and he says, `What are the political implications of that car?' I see the car going down the street and I think, `How can we replace the internal-combustion engine on that car?' " Bill Bradley distinguishes himself from both men. "When my car drives by," Bradley told the Phoenix, "I want people to wave and say, `That's Bill Bradley's car, and we want to vote for him.' "
It's a problem faced by every vice-president who runs for the top office: how to take credit for the good stuff while distancing himself from the bad. The irony in Gore's case, of course, is that both the new economy and suburban sprawl are perfect issues for him.

Gore has long touted the benefits of the high-tech economy. In the 1970s, when he was a congressman, he joined an informal Capitol Hill group that focused on the economy of the future, and in the 1980s he shepherded the fledgling programs that grew into the Internet. As vice-president, he's advocated research-and-development tax credits for high-tech companies.

Meanwhile, coming up with solutions to problems like suburban sprawl is equally appealing to Gore's wonkish side. Throughout his career, he has made hay of rather dry technical issues. During the 1980s, the then-senator discovered the Midgetman missile at a time when all the Republicans were talking about the deadlier, more costly MX missile; being one of the few Democrats to support a defense program helped Gore carve out a reputation as a moderate, sensible legislator. In the early 1990s, as vice-president, Gore found a defining issue in the environment, championing curbs on the pollutants that cause global warming.

In this case, though, Gore's affinity for tech-friendly issues has gotten him into trouble, says Chip Griffin, the New Hampshire-based editor of, an online newsletter focusing on the presidential election. "Gore's in a difficult position because he has to balance touting the new economy and criticizing the new economy," says Griffin. "On the one hand, you want to talk about the new economy and growth. On the other hand, there is a segment of the voters who worry about quality of life and how it impacts on that."

Those who have studied the relationship between economic growth and geography -- people such as Fred Siegel of Cooper Union, Mitchell Moss of New York University, Joel Kotkin of Pepperdine University, and David Birch of Cognetics, Inc. -- say that sprawl is a natural consequence of the '90s economic boom. That seems especially true in southern New Hampshire, in part because entrepreneurs looking to launch start-up ventures like the low taxes and cheap land costs there. Another trend fueling New Hampshire sprawl is the commuters who construct big, relatively inexpensive homes outside of Nashua, just a drive down Route 3 to their jobs closer to Boston.

Birch, whose Cambridge-based economic-research firm studies start-up companies, was critical when he heard Gore take a hard line on the issue in a February speech. Sprawl, the vice-president said, "affects taxpayers by forcing them to subsidize the replication of expensive infrastructures like water lines, power lines, sewer lines out in corn fields and pasture lands, when it already exists in cities, in the center of cities that are being abandoned."

" `Sprawl' is a pejorative term," says Birch. "If Gore's going to be an advocate of the new economy, he's got to be an advocate of growth. Is he arguing that people ought to move into downtown Dallas because there's already sewers and water there? People aren't going to do that."

Moss, meanwhile, likens Gore's statement to suggesting that all the new residents outside of 495 and in southern New Hampshire ought to move back within 128. "New Hampshire is a wonderful success story. And New Hampshire is built on sprawl," Moss says.

The statistics tell much of the story. New Hampshire has a higher percentage of its work force employed in high-tech industries than any other state, according to planning experts and academics -- just the sort of companies that have fueled the '90s boom. Between 1990 and 1998, New Hampshire experienced 6.8 percent population growth, according to Andrew Singelakis, the executive director of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission. And this growth, the highest of any New England state, has been concentrated in towns like Nashua and Brookline, New Hampshire. As recently as 1980, Singelakis says, Brookline was a small town with a population of 1766. That population was 3128 in 1997 and is expected to be 4140 in 2000.

Drive down Main Street in downtown Nashua and you get a sense of what everyone is talking about. There are all the hallmarks of small-town New England -- a church, a library, a pizza shop -- but everybody is sitting in traffic. Step into the lobby at One Indian Head Plaza, a multi-level office building just off the main drag, and you see what's causing the crush. Among the tenants in the building are Progress Software, Millennium Software,, Inc., Internet Commerce Services -- all high tech. Nobody, including Gore, wants these golden geese to go away.

In fact, Gore would love to highlight the recent high-tech growth. When three of Gore's key advisers -- former congressman Tom Downey, campaign chairman Tony Coelho, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo -- got together at a fancy Washington restaurant this September to think of strategies for helping Gore, one idea they came up with was sending him to speak in the areas of the country that the economic boom has most helped. These are places that were languishing in the early 1990s and are now thriving -- places like southern New Hampshire. But if Gore starts touting the benefits of the new economy in some traffic-choked high-tech office park, he could look a little foolish after all his speechifying against sprawl.

To be sure, Gore began to downplay his "livability agenda" this spring after Republicans scoffed that he sounded like more of a city planner than a presidential candidate. But a Gore staffer in the White House says the vice-president hasn't abandoned the issue, just changed his emphasis. Gore now wants to make sure that "as we grow, we grow smartly," says the staffer. "Are we going to continue the sprawl that we've had in the past, or are we going to give the communities the tools they need to handle the growth of our economy?"

A number of thinkers on growth and the economy would like to see just such an emphasis on "smart growth," which involves different kinds of development within one geographic region, according to Ross Gittell, an associate professor at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire. A town could have a well-preserved historic district, a funky area with art galleries and coffee shops, and business centers farther from the center of town.

A focus on smart growth might lead Gore to highlight a company like Eyeon Interactive. Headed by a Long Island-born entrepreneur named Mark Samber, the company designs Web sites for a range of businesses and individuals. Samber chose to base his company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a compact oceanside city that he likes for its plethora of restaurants and coffee shops and its proximity to climbing and kayaking sites. Plus, his office space costs one-third what it would in Cambridge or Boston. "We don't have to deal with the traffic nightmares," Samber says. "There's no sprawl. Portsmouth retains its seaside charm."

But though people like Samber may exemplify Gore's new smart-growth agenda, high-tech yuppies won't win the vice-president any points in Middle America. Plus, contends Cooper Union's Siegel, Samber and his Web-designing cohorts are actually an anomaly in today's economy. More typical are hardware and biotech companies that need plenty of space and can't cram themselves into an urban loft in a scenic city or town.

Even more politically troublesome is that the Clinton administration may not have the best record when it comes to giving local communities the tools to deal with growth. In 1995, when Nashua needed federal approval to add a bypass to alleviate traffic downtown, the government balked. Nashua's Singelakis says that the federal government's role in the bypass affair flies in the face of what the Gore people are pushing right now.

Besides, say many critics of Gore's livability agenda, the federal government should keep out of local planning matters such as where new real-estate developments are built. "I think we all need to understand that land-use decisions are a state police power," Singelakis says. "The federal government has no jurisdiction here."

However Gore resolves this problem, there's no question that the real Al Gore is a person more at home with wonkery than politics. As he recently told the New Yorker, "Bill Clinton sees a car going down the street and he says, `What are the political implications of that car?' I see the car going down the street and I think, `How can we replace the internal-combustion engine on that car?' "

Still, the old Gore -- the Gore who championed the Midgetman missile -- would have managed to find an issue that symbolized the promise and the peril of the high-tech world. The new Gore is merely casting about for issues, just as he's struggling to define himself. And his advisers aren't really helping. Another idea his cronies came up with at the restaurant strategy session, for example, was that the vice-president should show up on the campaign trail with a veteran, charismatic politician. That person? President Clinton. That won't exactly make Al Gore seem like an alpha male either.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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