Seattle -- This isn't exactly the land that Bill built, but sometimes it feels that way.
In truth, it's the land that rain built, and Boeing, and volcanoes and grunge and spotted owls. But when it comes to buying a house or renting an apartment or funding a charity, the influence of the Microsoft Corp. and its billionaire founder Bill Gates run deep. There is simply a certain Billness to the place.
It's more than the 12,000-plus Microsoftees he employs, more than his 37,000-square-foot home, more than the half-billion dollars or so he has given away through the William H. Gates and Gates Library foundations. It's Gates as symbol and source of all Seattle's prosperity and problems.
For many here, Gates and his software empire represent the "Best Coast" thumbing its nose at stodgy Eastern authorities. Authorities like the Justice Department, for example, which with 20 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia filed antitrust suits against Microsoft this month. He's the Northwest's Horatio Alger in Goretex, a local boy done good, the quickest way short of Lotto to become a millionaire. He helped make the place cyber-chic.
For others, the romance with Redmond, Microsoft's suburban headquarters, is over. They are sick of seeing Bill's bimonthly column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a presence some critics have questioned. The Seattle Times, no enemy of the software giant, came out with an editorial right after the suits were filed that struck many here as surprisingly tough. "To correct Microsoft's alleged improper use of its monopoly, the Department of Justice has filed the right lawsuit, narrowly focused, with the proper remedies," it said, adding: "Microsoft brought this case onto itself."
If there is any consensus about Gates in this notoriously easygoing Eden, it is a somewhat conflicted one, a canon along the lines of:
1. Nobody likes a bully.
2. Yes, but he's our bully.
"Redmond is ugly and Microsoft is creepy. A lot of power in very few hands is very creepy," says Dan Savage, columnist for The Stranger, the city's lippier alternative weekly. He characterizes Microsoft's corporate image as "totalitarian, Orwellian."
"I hope they bust them up into a million pieces and spread these mini-Microsofts all over the country so everyone has to suffer this plague of Microsoft millionaires that we've had to suffer, and every metro area is saddled with a Redmond," Savage says.
Because of Gates, Savage says, there's reason to fear a so-called "Aspenization of Seattle," where lower- and middle-class people won't be able to afford housing.
"It's bad for the city," he says. "Most people that make a city interesting are not the 401(k) corporate types. [But] they want to live in the city, and by moving here they are ruining it. When really little, tiny apartments are going for $700-800, where is the next wave of 18- to 20-year-olds going to live?"
As it is, the region has a few too many of Bill's kind of Generation Xers -- "20-year-olds with $700,000 houses, no life experience ... three-car garages and 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot houses that all look exactly the same," says Bill Stainton, executive producer of "Almost Live," a Seattle-based syndicated comedy show.
Stainton tips his hat to the Microsoft mystique, recalling one local Gates impersonator who got steady work appearing at IBM corporate functions, and did so well he moved to Los Angeles. But in the wake of the antitrust action, he says, folks on his show are feeling the real Bill's pain.
"His value has dropped $8 billion or $10 billion, so we're thinking of holding a telethon for him. We all feel very, very bad for him, after he just bought that nice Winslow Homer painting," Stainton says, referring to Gates' $30 million purchase of "Lost on the Grand Banks."
"I guess it's going to be time for him to lower the bar in his tastes in art, and get one of those kids with the big eyes or something."
But while pundits crack wise, the politicians have lined up behind the home team.
"Where are the angry consumers who are calling for this case?" )) asked Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, while her Republican counterpart, Slade Gorton, wonders why taxpayers, not Microsoft's competitor, Netscape, have to foot the bill for the antitrust lawsuit.
Jay Patterson is not angry, but the sales consultant at Barrier Motors, two miles from Microsoft's campus, knows enough to side with the cybergiant.
"With the good that Microsoft has done with this community -- it's phenomenal as far as the strong economy goes -- I think it would be an absolute crime to get the government involved in this stuff," he says.
Of course, what's good for Microsoft is good for luxury automobiles.
"The type of individual who works at Microsoft is, uh, you could call them 'computer nerds' if you want to," Patterson says. "They come in with their tape measure, totally analyzing everything, and when they go through their process, the natural result is an Audi or a Porsche."
Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson complains that Gates has been unfairly turned into "the Godzilla of Cyberspace." This after his company has brought great prosperity to the region: four or five billionaires, 2,200 millionaires, retirees who contribute to charities, help save local landmarks like the Paramount Theatre, and a corporate matching program for any Microsoftee's philanthropy.
"There's no question the company is arrogant, no question this guy is ruthless, this guy is tough," Watson says. "[But] all families, all tribes and all cities kind of want their own to succeed."
God or Godzilla, Watson says, "He's still our guy."
Pub Date: 5/31/98