Q and A with Harris Miller, ITAA ex-president

Harris Miller served as president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) trade group for more than a decade until announcing last week that he had stepped down to seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in Virginia. As head of the IT trade group, Miller, 54, was the public face of the ITAA, which represents about 250 member companies. A native of New Kensington, Pa., Miller has been active in Democratic politics for years and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1984. He talked Thursday with Computerworld’s Todd R. Weiss about why he’s again running for public office and why he left the ITAA.

This is quite a change in your life, going from the leadership of the ITAA to running for the U.S. Senate. What motivated you to do this?

My concern about the future. That’s really why I was at ITAA, because I’m perceived as a visionary who’s looking ahead. I don’t see a good future for our country when we’re running unbelievably massive deficits, when we’re relying on investment from China. We’ve fallen into 17th or 18th in the world in science and math scores for our students. We’re cutting student loans. We have to have the best-trained people in the world. Our country is sixth in the world in research and development investment per capita. I’m just afraid the country has gone off track.

Are technology issues a key part of your platform, coming from the ITAA — where tech issues were your daily mainstay?

I’m running to talk about how you cannot have a technological revolution without investing in people. In fact, cutting college student loans, which is what Congress is looking to do, is actually going backward. You can’t have technology without skilled people. You can’t have technology without investment. You can’t have technology when you don’t bring it to all people.

What kinds of changes do you believe are needed?

The U.S. is 14th in the world in broadband distribution to its citizens. These are the kinds of things where there’s been a lack of investment after taking an early lead…. We’ve become complacent and fallen behind. We’ve been so long going in the wrong direction that we’ve lost our focus. When Sputnik went up [into Earth orbit in 1957], we reacted [to the Russian space program] with massive investment in R&D. We began the work to put a man on the moon. Where is that comparable situation today? It’s actually stepping backward. China and India, they aren’t just places for cheap labor. They’re making massive investments in R&D. What are we doing? We’re running up massive deficits and doing pork barrel projects. My campaign is about paying attention, it’s about the future.

Last week, when your plans to leave ITAA became public, Oracle Corp., a member of ITAA for years, announced that it was leaving the group because you are taking on Republican Sen. George Allen, who is seen by Oracle as an established friend of IT. What is your reaction to Oracle’s move?

I’ve always had a good relationship with the people at Oracle. They’ve been very active in ITAA. I have no idea what that is all about. I was a little surprised by their comments.

So why are you taking on Sen. Allen, a first-term incumbent?

Allen has been part of the problem. He has the third-highest support scores for President Bush’s policies among all U.S. senators. Clearly he’s interested in running for president. I will be a full-time senator for Virginia when I’m elected.

As the president of ITAA, which includes electronic voting systems vendors among its members, you said in the past that you opposed verifiable paper trails for such systems. For many people in the country, this is a very important issue because of accuracy issues in several recent elections. What is your stand on this issue as a candidate?

I did oppose verifiable paper trails until about a year and a half ago. I was hearing from local registrars, including in Virginia, that they didn’t want the additional burden for administration and maintenance that the paper trails would produce with printers and other equipment. But voters want it. It has more voter confidence. My argument at the time was that if [a hacker] is smart enough to take over a [voting] machine and register someone’s vote internally for the wrong candidate, that they’re also smart enough to make it look like the paper trail properly says who you voted for. People could get a false sense of security.

Why give up an established, full-time job to run for a major office against an incumbent senator?

I’m just so frustrated with the direction of our country and … I think I can make a difference.

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