UNION CITY — Lower corporate and capital-gains taxes and more immigration visas for skilled workers are the keys to keeping Silicon Valley and America's economy humming into the future, business leaders told Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Thursday.
Flanked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former eBay President and CEO Meg Whitman, the Arizona senator listened to and shot questions back at high-tech executives in a global-competitiveness round-table talk on the production floor at Finelite, a maker of lighting systems for offices and schools.
"I'm here to listen and learn, a lot more than I am to be talking to you," he said, saying in brief opening remarks that high gas prices, the housing market crash and rising joblessness can't eclipse America's bright economic future based on innovation like that found in Silicon Valley.
He cautioned that renegotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement, as Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wish to do, would mark a return to protectionist ways that hurt the United States in the past. "We can compete with anyone, and we prove it every single day here in Silicon Valley."
The Valley returned the praise Thursday: McCain went from Union City to a fundraising lunch at Whitman's Atherton home, where donors could give up to $43,100 each through various state and federal GOP committees. After that, McCain headed to a public rally at Stockton's airport and then another fundraiser at the home of billionaire developer Alex Spanos. Attendees there, including the governor and a coterie of Republican elected officials and Central Valley businessmen, were asked to raise up to $25,000 each on McCain's behalf.
At the round table, Cisco chairman and CEO John Chambers said Silicon Valley has "no fear of global competition," so long as industry and government are in sync in responding to global marketplace changes. "Ineffective response to change can crash a company, a state or a country."
RockYou founder and CEO Lance Tokuda told McCain low taxes are vital to the flow of venture capital dollars that make possible companies like his own. McCain said it's "indisputable" that reducing capital gains taxes produces higher revenues, and the nation also must lower its corporate tax rates, now among the world's highest.
Solar energy startup Innovalight President and CEO Conrad Burke noted China's universities will graduate 700,000 engineers this year while America's will graduate a tenth that number. McCain asked whether it's hard for him to get H1B work visas to bring skilled workers to the Bay Area; Burke replied that it is, although he prefers to hire locally when possible.
MetricStream CEO Shellye Archambeau followed up, noting annual H1B visa availability has fallen by two-thirds since the Sept. 11 attacks. More foreign students must return to their home countries after earning U.S. university degrees; these skilled workers should get visas with their diplomas, she said.
"Senator (Ted) Kennedy and I tried very hard to get immigration reform, a comprehensive plan, through Congress," McCain replied, accepting some responsibility for the federal government's failure to get the job done. He said such reform is crucial to California's agricultural sector, which needs a temporary farmworker program, as well as to secure borders and national security.
McCain closed with a plea to business leaders in Silicon Valley and beyond: "You've got to help us come up with solutions to this dependence on foreign oil" so as to reduce global warming, curb the economic drain on America and ensure national security.
Among those in Thursday's audience were former Gov. Pete Wilson, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, Stanford University President John Hennessy and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell.
McCain is expected to release 400 pages of medical records, including documents on his August 2000 melanoma surgery, to reporters from about a dozen national media outlets Friday. He has said that there will be no surprises and that he's in fine health.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the guest list for a Memorial Day party at McCain's Arizona home — an event an aide called "purely social" — includes at least three prominent Republicans whose names have been bandied about as possible running mates: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.