Tech-savvy Senate hopeful dreams of bringing transparency, responsiveness to D.C.
Click photo to enlarge
XMission founder Pete Ashdown is running for Senate against incumbent Orrin Hatch.
Pulled away from a Salt Lake City department store and the prize that had caught his eye, 2-year-old Pete Ashdown sobbed the entire drive home.
By the time Bob Ashdown pulled into their Bountiful driveway, he knew he had to return to ZCMI and buy the toy phone loaded with dials.
When Pete wore out the phone, his father built a larger version, complete with flashing lights and a moving turntable.
Pete Ashdown's nearly magnetic attraction to technology surfaced early and has lasted all of his life, propelling him through the world of underground music to the vanguard of the Internet boom and now to politics.
Sen. Orrin Hatch's comments about retaliating
* AGE: 39
* FAMILY: Wife, Robin, and three children
* EDUCATION: Attended University of Utah
* PROFESSION: Owner of XMission, Internet service provider
* POLITICAL: None
* INTERESTING FACT: Big fan of electronica music
against computer piracy enraged Ashdown and lured him into running against the incumbent.
His campaign has since employed the latest in Internet tools, which Ashdown is convinced will reconnect regular Americans with their elected leaders and strip the excesses out of the Washington bureaucracy.
"Democracy is not only electing people who represent you," he said, "but democracy is communicating with the people who you represent."
It is an unexpected statement from a man who spent his teen years inside his bedroom with his Apple II computer as his constant companion.
The birth of a techie:
Ashdown taught himself how to program
the 1983 computer, picking up tips from fellow techies he found on chat rooms, then called bulletin boards.
"I made a whole new set of friends who had computers," he said.
And those friends led him to the perfect melding of computers and music.
Ashdown claims to have thrown the first "raves" in Utah, underground concerts melding electronica with computer graphics.
"What I found interesting about raves in the early days was the music and the multimedia," he said.
But the scene devolved quickly and a few years later he bailed.
"It wasn't about the music. It wasn't about the computer graphics. It was all about getting wasted," he said. "I threw in the towel."
Ashdown admits that some in the crowd were taking drugs, but said he never did and he never encouraged anyone else to either.
At the time he refocused his efforts on his computer science classes at the University of Utah and his work at Evans & Sutherland, a computer graphics firm.
Ashdown never received his degree. The Internet got in the way.
In 1993, he drafted a business plan for an Internet service provider he would call XMission, but he couldn't persuade any bank to give him a loan.
Once again, his father came to his rescue, lending him the $27,000 necessary to buy a server and five modems.
Ashdown didn't know his father had that kind of cash or would be willing to bankroll such a venture.
"I said 'Dad, you don't understand what I'm trying to do. Why are you doing this? And he said 'If you don't do this now you are going to be working for someone else for the rest of your life.' ''
Actually, Ashdown's expectations for XMission were pretty small.
He set up the server in a friend's closet and expected die-hard techies to buy the service providing him a "tidy check once a month."
Within one year, he needed to expand. A year later the Internet revolution swept the country.
"I didn't anticipate the Internet boom at all," he said. "It completely took me by surprise."
But he was positioned to capitalize on it. Bringing on his sister, Sue, to handle the business expansion, Ashdown focused on XMission's technical development.
As a small-business owner, Ashdown became more politically aware. He had to deal with rising health care costs and he watched as larger corporations received tax breaks he considered unfair. Ashdown felt politicians in Utah and Washington failed to understand his industry and technology in general.
His growing frustration hit a high in mid-2003, when Sen. Orrin Hatch suggested the federal government could remotely destroy the computers of people who illegally download music or movies.
Even though Hatch quickly backtracked, Ashdown said he became "outraged."
"Our senator should represent the economic community of Utah and he was representing the economic community of Hollywood," he said.
Hatch's suggestion circumvents the nation's standard of "innocent until proven guilty," Ashdown said and could unnecessarily harm small businesses or even public institutions.
"That computer could be owned by a person, a company or a university," he said.
A 'peaceful revolution':
Ashdown started talking to prominent Utah Democrats, letting them know he wanted to back whoever challenged Hatch in 2006. He found nobody.
And even after friends and family told him it was a waste of his time, Ashdown decided to take on Hatch himself.
"If we are not going to challenge incumbents, we might as well get a crown and shine it every six years," he said. "It is important for somebody to be working hard, raising the issues and listening to what people need."
He has refused to self-fund his campaign, saying money is the biggest difference between Hatch and himself.
Hatch is "absolutely the status quo of politics and the biggest problem we have in politics today is the money and the influence that money buys."
Ashdown has tried a more simplistic approach in his campaign to topple Goliath.
For the past year and a half, Ashdown has been a full-time candidate, handing over his company to trusted employees while he drove his father's old motor home around the state.
National political observers have written off his chance at unseating the popular Hatch, but he has received attention for his campaign Web site.
On the site, www.pashdown.org, Ashdown included a "wiki," which allows anyone online to edit and add to his draft position statements. The collaborative page helped him develop his position on Iraq, which is to let the Iraqis vote on a referendum about the U.S. occupation and then have the U.S. act accordingly.
He also has a MySpace page and a blog.
These tools may garner attention, but it's a much more simple Web site addition that he says has the most worth. He has posted his calendar for all to see, which includes the names of every person he has visited with and every event he has attended.
Ashdown said every elected official should be required to post their calendars and that every government department should post its budget and expenses.
Such disclosure would clean up political corruption and wasteful spending, he said.
He argues: "Orrin Hatch is business as usual and I'm talking about a peaceful revolution here - making elected officials accountable."