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From Boardroom to Beltway

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Former CEOs look to break into politics.

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President Obama's $500,000 limit on CEO salaries was a last-second addition to the stimulus bill brought on by backlash against banks and bankers.

But taking shots at CEOs has become the sport of choice in Congress: At a recent congressional hearing on the salmonella outbreak, Peanut Corp. owner Stewart Parnell was challenged to eat his own product (appetizingly wrapped in biohazard tape). Parnell opted to plead the Fifth instead.

But despite widespread mistrust and suspicion, many of America's top executives are looking to break into politics.

The first CEO to hit Washington for a job instead of a congressional grilling could be Symantec's (SYMC) John Thompson, who has been tapped to become President Obama 's Commerce Secretary.

Obama's previous 2 Commerce appointees, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Republican Senator Judd Gregg, were both political insiders who couldn't make it through confirmation. Thompson, on the other hand, is a Silicon Valley veteran whose only previous experience in the capital was working on President George W. Bush's National Infrastructure Advisory Committee.

Assuming he makes it through confirmation, Thompson could just be the first of many former high-profile CEOs making a move to the political arena.

The shift has already begun in California, where former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has announced a plan to run for governor in 2010. After ending her 10-year reign at eBay last year, she served as finance chair for the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney (her former boss at Bain & Co.) before becoming campaign co-chair for presidential runner-up John McCain.

With current Governator Arnold Schwarzenneger clashing with Democrats over an expected $42 billion state deficit, Republican Whitman is looking to change the California political landscape.

A fellow member of the McCain campaign team is also inciting political rumblings: former HP CEO and media fixture Carly Fiorina is rumored to be eyeing a bid for Barbara Boxer's California senate seat in 2010.

But perhaps no CEO could give the Republican Party a bigger shot in the arm than Cisco (CSCO) chief John Chambers. The prominent McCain backer's stage presence has generated comparisons to Bill Clinton, and Chambers recently wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying "government's leadership has never been more important."

With rumors that he may be interested in a political career rampant, some Silicon Valleyites have already begun wondering if he might be looking to run for president in 2012.

Of course, some think that business abbreviations aren't what people want to hear in the capital - particularly CEO and MBA. Both were a big part of George W Bush's first presidential campaign, a run that made him the first (and least popular) MBA to be president. With certain "corporate" ideas still considered political kryptonite in Washington, expect executives on the Beltway to leave the lingo back in the boardroom.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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