Has anyone else been wondering whether Bill Foster is running for re-election or not?

by , posted on Sunday, June 28th, 2009 at 10:08 am

When Ethan Hastert officially announced he was running for Congress a few weeks ago, a number of the stories made passing reference to Bill Foster’s intentions. Or perhaps I should say lack of intentions, because the impression that was initially given was that maybe Foster hadn’t decided yet whether he was going to run for re-election. Which seemed odd, because why on earth wouldn’t he? He just got the job, what, a little more than a year ago?

And yet, the first story I saw, in DeKalb’s Daily Chronicle, stated that “Foster said this afternoon that he hasn’t decided if he’ll run for re-election.”

The next story I saw, in the Kane County Chronicle, said Foster wasn’t undecided at all: “Foster is planning on running for re-election, according to a spokeswoman who released a statement Monday in response to Ethan Hastert’s announcement.” But all the statement itself had to say about whether Foster was or was not planning on running was this: “he is not thinking about elections right now,” which didn’t seem to unambiguously support the claim that he was indeed planning on running again. Washington Wire, a Wall Street Journal blog, quoted that same line from the official statement, but said nothing to indicate that he was nevertheless going to run again.

That Daily Chronicle story seemed pretty unambiguous. “Foster said … he hasn’t decided.” Where was the Kane County Chronicle‘s certainty coming from? Was it possible that some of these media outlets were running only a part of the statement that Foster’s office had released? “What’s the deal, here?” I wondered.

As I pondered the mixed messages that I was seeing, I recalled what a friend had told me, about how Foster had struck him as bored at an event where he had given a rambling, unfocused address a couple of months ago. And I saw a similar sentiment offered in a comment at the Capitol Fax Blog in the wake of Ethan Hastert’s announcement by an observer on the other side of the district, and the other side of the aisle, from my friend. Now admittedly the take away point here may be nothing more than the unfortunate fact that Foster often comes across to people at these campaign events as not wanting to be where he is at, and that may have nothing to do with how he actually feels, but I found myself also thinking about llbear’s comment here at the Progressive Fox that mentioned the fact that Foster had cancelled a couple of fundraisers out by Dixon, and his belief that Foster had already become a short-timer.

And then there was the rumor one heard early on about how Foster hated all the travel involved, having to fly back to the district on the weekends. Plus, I knew he was a newlywed, having remarried last fall to a woman who worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which is located about an hour’s drive east of New York City on Long Island. So, he’s in DC during the week, commuting back to Illinois most weekends, and his new wife works on Long Island? Yeah, I can see how all the travel involved in a situation like that would get old pretty fast.

And once I started musing about all this I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Foster was finding that the job of a Congressman wasn’t as much fun as he had imagined it would be. After all, when he first got involved in all this he had other things in mind.

In February 2006, when he announced he was leaving Fermilab, Foster was upset about the decision by the Department of Energy (DOE) to support a project, the International Linear Collider (ILC) that he, and, it should be added, many others in high energy physics, believed to be technically unfeasible at the time. The decision by DOE to support funding for the ILC was also perceived to doom any “intermediate-scale” projects, such as Foster’s own Proton Driver Project at Fermilab, which offered high energy physics in the U.S. an alternative to that of putting all their eggs in one extremely expensive ILC basket. As Foster put it in a letter in which he sought to explain to his colleagues, and “to a possibly wider audience,” his reasons for leaving the field of high energy physics:

It has been a great disappointment to me that I have been unable to convince DOE to agree that the Proton Driver Project is a reasonable option to preserve. But I also realize that my voice will not be heard, since after years of insisting that unpleasant technical realities be respected in strategic planning in [high energy physics], I find myself branded as a troublemaker with an axe to grind. … In any case, I have no desire to continue a debate in which one side feels free to ignore demonstrable facts.

It was Foster’s belief that “the battle for the project has been lost on the political front,” to “a clique of people spouting technical nonsense.”

I do not claim any special standing or expertise on the political feasibility of the US-ILC. … Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion on political issues. However, technical reality must be respected in any strategic plan [emphasis in original]. This is clearly not the case at present.

And having walked away from his career in physics frustrated over the manner in which political considerations had trumped the advice of technical experts, like him, who knew better, Bill Foster decided his next step would be to get involved in the world of politics. As he put it on his personal website a couple of years ago, on a page entitled “Bill Foster – Political Stuff” (the contents of which he pulled offline soon after he announced he was running for Congress):

In May 2006, I moved to Washington DC to explore possibilities for a $1/year, non-partisan career on Capitol Hill or elsewhere in government. Since then I’ve been studying piles of books on constitutional law, politics, history and economic policy; attending committee hearings in the House and Senate; sampling a fraction of the impressive output of the CRS, GAO, and various think tanks; and have interviewed informally for several possibilities. Four linear feet of books so far, and god knows how many downloaded .PDF files. It feels good to exercise a completely different set of neurons than my previous careers in Business and High-Energy Particle Physics

It soon became abundantly clear, however, that you can just about forget about a non-partisan career on Capitol Hill. Signing up to work for the Sunnis immediately puts you on Shiite death list, and vice-versa.

And it was only after this, after having moved to Washington, DC only to discover it wasn’t a particularly inviting place for someone looking to offer his services as a non-partisan $1/year man, that Bill Foster began to find his way into the world of electoral politics, ultimately moving back to Illinois to run for Congress himself.

And yet, after he was elected to Congress, he ended up with a committee assignment that didn’t allow him to put his expertise to use. It always seemed to me that if there was a particular value in having more scientists in Congress, it was in having them serve on the Committee on Science and Technology, but Foster ended up on the Committee on Financial Services, where he brings almost nothing special to the table. What about his career as a businessman, you ask? Well, as I have documented in great detail elsewhere, Foster’s career as a businessman was nowhere near what he would have us all believe it was. Virtually every reference he has ever made to it has been an exercise in resume padding. It was his brother, not Bill, who built a small business they and a couple of buddies co-founded while in college into an enormous success many years later, long after Bill had moved on to his career in physics. So, as a member of the Financial Services Committee he is something of a fish out of water. Maybe he likes that, maybe that’s fun for him, exercising a completely different set of neurons and all, but it is certainly conceivable that this, too, is turning out to be a grind that is getting old fast.

And if it is, how long do you hang in there before you say to yourself “Who needs this?” Especially when you are so wealthy that you have the luxury of walking if you don’t like the job you’re stuck with. And, remember, Bill Foster is one of those who has that luxury. He essentially won the lottery when his brother developed their company into a great success. And so now, by one well-documented estimate, Bill Foster is the 37th richest member of Congress, richer even than the majority of U. S. Senators.

Is it possible Bill Foster is already finding himself bored by political life? Is it possible the grind of the job is already starting to get to him? Could it be that he is really not sure if he’ll run for re-election?

I then started thinking about the people who have been giving him campaign contributions recently. What would the campaign contributors at the fundraiser that was held for him just days before in Aurora think if they saw the story that said “Foster said this afternoon that he hasn’t decided if he’ll run for re-election” right after they wrote checks to his 2010 campaign for $250, $500, $1000?

And that made me wonder what his overall fundraising looked like for the year so far. Had he begun raising money aggressively yet for 2010? So I went to the FEC records to see what I could see, and what I saw there was something kind of interesting.

Bill Foster’s biggest bundle of contributions this year, by far, came to him from a company called Intellectual Ventures. Here’s the breakdown:

Nathan P. Myhrvold, 1756 114th Ave SE Suite 110, Bellevue, WA 98004
Intellectual Ventures, Founder and CEO
10/27/2008 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 general”
03/19/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt primary”
03/19/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
03/19/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”

Rosemarie B. Havranek, 1756 114th Ave, SE Suite 110, Bellevue, WA 98004
Housewife, Ph.D.
10/27/2008 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 general”
03/19/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt primary”
03/19/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”

Edward Jung, 13420 NE 36th St, Bellevue, WA 98005
Intellectual Ventures, Founder and President
10/27/2008 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 general”
03/20/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt primary”
03/20/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
03/20/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”

Jooyun Joanna Jung, 13420 NE 36th St., Bellevue, WA 980051403
10/29/2008 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 general”
01/15/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
01/15/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
03/20/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt primary”

Gregory Gorder, 1756 114th Ave SE, Bellevue, WA 98004
Intellectual Ventures, Founder and Vice Chairman
10/27/2008 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 general”
03/18/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
03/18/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt primary”
03/18/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”

Valerie Gorder, 1756 114th Ave SE, Bellevue, WA 98004
GDG Consulting, Invention Investor
10/27/2008 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 general”
03/18/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt primary”
03/18/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
03/18/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”

Peter Detkin, 280 Valley Street, Los Altos, CA 94022
Intellectual Ventures, Founder and Vice Chairman
01/12/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
01/12/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
03/25/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt primary”
03/25/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt general”

Michelle L. Oates, 280 Valley Street, Los Altos, CA 94022
01/12/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”
01/12/2009 2300.00 receipt for: “2008 debt other”

Intellectual Ventures was founded in 2000 by two very senior ex-Microsoft executives, Nathan Myhrvold and Edward Jung. Myhrvold was Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, where he had been described as “one of the few people who can work on a peer level with Bill,” and as “no less a warrior-capitalist than Gates.” Jung had been Chief Software Architect, serving as a technical strategy advisor to Gates and the executive staff at Microsoft.

In the company’s own words,

Intellectual Ventures’ goal is to assemble a world-class team to invent and invest in inventions …

To pursue this vision, Intellectual Ventures has hired some of the brightest minds in business, technology, computer science, physics, biotechnology, mathematics and intellectual property. Employees are conceiving new inventions and exploring invention investment opportunities in a wide variety of technology areas.

Their initial focus was on patent acquisition and licensing, and they did such a good job of it — they are reportedly capitalized to the tune of $5 billion and hold over 27,000 patents — that some were soon talking about Intellectual Ventures, fairly or unfairly, as potentially the most dangerous “patent troll” of them all, and Myhrvold was being described as the “most feared man in Silicon Valley.”

But other observers have focused their attentions on the extraordinarily rich intellectual environment the company has created in order to encourage innovation, and just a few weeks ago they launched a lab of their own where they intend to work on prototypes that can demonstrate the viability of at least some of the endless stream of ideas that bubble up in the brainstorming sessions they hold.

Two things are interesting about the campaign contributions Bill Foster has received this year from the co-founders of Intellectual Ventures and their wives. The first is that they’re all contributions given in 2009 for the 2008 campaign. These people aren’t contributing to Bill Foster’s 2010 campaign, they are retroactively maxing out for last year’s campaign. Which is interesting, since the only outstanding debts remaining on the books from the 2008 campaign are loans Foster made out of his own personal pocket to his campaign committee. And it seems unlikely that he is worried about getting that money back since he has already loaned the committee $45,000 more this year. The only thing that seems clear to me is that these contributions are about building a relationship with Foster. The question becomes: What kind of relationship?

The answer that leaps to mind first is that they want to build a relationship with Foster that will ensure that he, as a member of Congress, will lend them a friendly ear, should they ever need one, at the very least. And the company does indeed have a vital interest in the future of patent reform legislation. Another answer, one less cynical, might be that it’s nothing more than a case of absurdly rich scientists who have money to burn being supportive of one of their own, a scientist who has managed the rare feat of getting himself elected to Congress.

But I don’t find either of those explanations persuasive. And here’s where the second interesting thing about the contributions comes in. The folks at Intellectual Ventures make a lot of campaign contributions, but they tend to be of two kinds. They either go to politicians from their home state of Washington, or they go to politicians with a high profile of some sort. In the latter case they tend to be Senators more often than members of the House, and they tend to be members of the leadership, and/or committee chairmen or ranking minority members, i.e. people who can do them some good. If you eliminate those two sorts of politicians, there’s almost nobody left on the list. And Bill Foster is neither a politician from Washington state, nor somebody with clout, but they’re giving him more money than pretty much anybody else they’ve ever contributed to.

Foster no doubt understands what their business is about better than almost anyone on Capitol Hill, but what good would it be to have him carrying your water for you if you’re Intellectual Ventures? He’s a backbencher on Financial Services. The thing is this: the contributions Intellectual Ventures have recently given to Bill Foster are completely anomalous. They are unlike any other contributions that have been made by the company in the entire decade it has been in business. And it seems unlikely that they would be delivering such a unique bundle of contributions to the Bill Foster for Congress campaign committee simply to say “nice goin’, bud” to a fellow scientist getting started in a new career.

But then I wondered if it was possible that the relationship this company is so clearly trying to build with Foster has little or nothing to do with the fact that he’s a member of Congress right now. What if they’re trying to get him to come to work for them? What if they’re trying to recruit him? After all, hiring people exactly like Bill Foster is what they’re all about. He’s just the kind of person they want sitting around the table brainstorming with them. Read the Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker piece that portrays what the intellectual environment is like at Intellectual Ventures, then think about who Bill Foster is and what he’s spent his professional life doing, and ask yourself if he wouldn’t look at a place like Intellectual Ventures and think that it might well be the perfect fit for him.

By this point I was really curious to know what was going on with Foster’s future plans. So I decided to write the Daily Chronicle to see if I could confirm that they had actually talked to Foster directly. I also wrote Shannon O’Brien, the Foster spokeswoman mentioned in the stories, to see if she could help me sort out the mixed messages that seemed to be coming out of the media coverage. It turned out that the Daily Chronicle had not spoken directly to Foster. There had been some sort of miscommunication between Foster’s office and them and the paper had written a correction to the sentence that had originally set me off that had appeared on the Wednesday following the original article; Foster was running for re-election, they confirmed. O’Brien also confirmed that he was running, and helped me understand where the ambiguity I thought I saw in the Kane County Chronicle‘s phrasing of things had come from. Her assurance to me that Foster was indeed running came as a separate part of the message from the text of the official statement itself. To quote what Shannon said to me directly: “while he is going to run for reelection, he is concentrating on governing right now, not campaigning.”

So that settles that. Foster is running again, as expected.

I still can’t help but think about Foster and Intellectual Ventures, though. I wonder what that’s all about?


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5 Responses to “Has anyone else been wondering whether Bill Foster is running for re-election or not?”

  1. llbear says:

    Time will tell, but I predict that with all of the votes Foster cast opposite to what Phil Hare does, that leaving the House is something he is looking forward to. My friends tell me that Ethan Hastert will be appearing at the Annual Reagan Ball, Tuesday, July 30th, being held at the Dixon Elks Lodge. I wonder if Chris Lauzan will be coming? We’ll keep you posted.

    By the way – the Foster Office in Dixon is still there. But the staff isn’t.

  2. Downtowner says:

    He’s pulled ALL of the staff from his Dixon office?

  3. n0madic says:

    If he’s not staffing his Dixon office the way he should, I would have to think things are even worse in Geneseo. Looking at his website, I notice that there are no regular hours listed for any of these offices. Seems to me that would be useful contact info to provide to one’s constituents.

    Perhaps they figure having “Congress on Your Corner” by popping Bill into one or two random Jewel grocery stores somewhere in the district on the weekends is a more efficient way of providing constituent service than staffing district offices adequately?

  4. […] at Foster’s office must have noticed this comment in n0madic’s post about Foster’s intent to run in ‘10, because I received an […]

  5. […] health care. Ms. Bean did hold a $25 town hall, which drew criticism from some quarters, while Progressive Fox, on the left, and Illinois Review, on the right, have speculated that Mr. Foster spends little time […]

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