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Critics of money in politics have embraced Elizabeth Warren. But increasingly those who are responsible for injecting that money into politics are getting on the Warren train. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tech donors are slowly embracing her. She absolutely refuses to reciprocate.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks an Elizabeth Warren presidency would “suck.” And you might assume that his peers agree with him.

But a quite surprising thing has happened in Silicon Valley over the last six months: Tech has warmed up to Elizabeth Warren.

The candidate who wants to break up Zuckerberg’s company and other tech giants is emerging as a frontrunner in Silicon Valley’s elite circles — even as she spurns those very elites’ efforts to get to know her better.

Hunter Walk, a former product director at Google who is now a venture capitalist, calls it his “evolution.”

“To find her right on everything else and then disqualifying when it’s about my industry? Maybe that’s a little bit too precious,” said Walk. “I’m willing to say, ‘Yes, change all the other things! Uproot all these other assumptions!’ But then, oh my goodness, when she said something about tech, that’s disqualifying? Come on.”

Walk isn’t alone. Recode’s canvass of a group of major Democratic donors and fundraisers in Silicon Valley shows Warren is making significant inroads with some of tech’s wealthiest Democrats. That progress would have been unthinkable just six months ago after she called for the industry’s iconic companies to be split asunder.

Warren has not moderated her at times vitriolic rhetoric toward Silicon Valley. But tech elites are not, as often caricatured, single-issue voters driven by tech policy. And the two dozen tech executives, investors, and veteran fundraisers who spoke with Recode outlined three key reasons why their industry is making this unexpected shift toward Warren: They say they respect her policy rigor. They see her as less radical than once imagined (and especially when compared to Bernie Sanders). And perhaps most importantly, she has a reasonable path to winning the nomination, and there’s nothing Silicon Valley loves more than a winner.

What’s even more unusual is that Warren is gaining traction with these elites by doing barely any of the traditional coaxing and coddling that is a mainstay of today’s big-money era. While some of her 2020 competitors are returning to Silicon Valley multiple times within a single month, Warren is, by at least one measure, doing the best in the tech industry while also doing the least — sometimes with glee.

If Silicon Valley is embracing her, Warren is not reciprocating.

The tech mega-rich’s support for Warren can be hard to quantify because she, unlike every other candidate save Bernie Sanders, does not travel the high-dollar fundraising circuit that offers a semi-public scorecard for who has won over the party’s leading donors. But at CEO dinners, in hotel ballrooms, and on private donor listservs across the Bay Area, Warren is emerging as an outsider that Silicon Valley insiders can live with.

Fans range from Barry McCarthy, the understated chief financial officer of Spotify (she “raises the level of political discourse,” he says) to outspoken former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya (“I don’t agree with many of her proposals but I donated to Elizabeth Warren because SHE IS THE ONLY MAJOR CANDIDATE WITH STUFF WRITTEN DOWN,” he tweeted).

Also cutting $2,800 checks to Warren in recent months are former Y Combinator chief Sam Altman; the founder of Sonos, John MacFarlane; and Chris Sacca, a billionaire investor who runs a network of Silicon Valley liberal donors. Just as rank-and-file employees at Google are surprisingly pro-Warren, counterintuitive cracks are beginning to show at the elite level as well.

Warren’s team reiterated to Recode that she hasn’t shifted on policy to be any closer to tech donors, regardless of their newfound support for her.

“She isn’t doing high-dollar fundraisers or call-time. Because of this policy, Elizabeth is able to spend her time making the case for her plan to break up Big Tech and put power back in the hands of the American people — whether it’s a billboard in the heart of Silicon Valley or taking on Amazon in Long Island City,” her campaign said.

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign billboard in downtown San Francisco has a profile picture of the candidate and reads, “Warren: Break up big tech. Text tech to 24477 to join our fight.” Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Elizabeth Warren’s campaign posted a billboard in downtown San Francisco earlier this year calling attention to her proposal to break up the tech giants.

Silicon Valley’s strange new respect for Elizabeth Warren

Rob Stavis, a venture capitalist who gave more than $1 million to Democratic causes ahead of the midterms last year, is a self-described moderate who would prefer the same in the Democratic nominee. But even he acknowledges some new grudging respect for the Massachusetts senator, even though he’s staying neutral.

“She is growing on me,” said Stavis, “From ‘that would seem crazy,’ to, ‘I’ll take her over Trump.’”

To be sure, Warren has not satisfied her critics, especially those in the upper echelons of the very companies she wants to break up. Zuckerberg’s leaked comments should make that clear: He’s right to think Elizabeth Warren represents an “existential threat” to his company. She almost certainly won’t see donations from Tim Cook or Larry Page.

And Warren’s proposed wealth tax, which would levy a charge on people with more than $50 million in assets, retains its yuck factor among Silicon Valley billionaires.

But one thing broadly misunderstood about tech donors is that tech policy is not their all-consuming single issue.

For instance, Steve Dow, a venture capitalist, sees Warren’s initial proposal to break up tech companies as an opening position that he isn’t taking that seriously.

“While I don’t always agree with the full extent of some of her ideas, I think they are directionally correct — and always well-thought through,” said Dow, who cut her a check earlier this year. That’s “in contrast to Bernie, who I do not support,” he said.

Three things have boosted Warren’s standing in Silicon Valley since she rattled tech’s cage this past winter, Democratic fundraisers say.

First, each of her new policy plans has won hard-earned kudos from Silicon Valley’s wealthy, who are finding her intellectually simpatico even if they don’t agree with her.

“The clarity of her plans and message is the way folks in tech are used to talking about tackling problems,” said Nabeel Hyatt, an early investor in companies like Discord and Postmates. “Even if you disagree on some things, there is just a craving for competency, for someone who will do a job well.”

Even venture capitalist Bilal Zuberi — who offered one of the most vocal rebukes to Warren’s plan to break up tech, telling reporters that Warren was “jumping on the bandwagon of blaming tech for all societal ills” — now has evolved.

Though he calls her tech proposal an “emotional outburst,” Zuberi says her other plans on green manufacturing jobs and student loan debt are thoughtful. “Country before tech,” he said.

Secondly, some high-dollar donors — people who donate thousands of dollars a year — also say that as they listened more closely to Warren in town halls and on podcasts, they discovered more differences between her and avowed socialists like Bernie Sanders than they initially anticipated. Warren has for months tried to subtly draw that distinction.

Steve Silberstein, a former software executive who has given millions of dollars to Democratic causes as one of his party’s largest donors, doesn’t see Warren as a far-left ideologue.

“My guess is that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs believe in capitalism, markets, and competition just like [Warren] does. My guess is that they do not like monopolies or socialism, and thus are aligned with [Warren],” said Silberstein, who has hosted Warren for multiple high-dollar events at his home in Marin County over the years. “It is becoming more and more clear that she is the one that most people like the best.”

Similarly, MacFarlane, the founder of Sonos, has spent the last few months fielding concerns from friends who feel that Warren opposes innovation. That’s why MacFarlane has started gently pushing back, trying to argue why Warren would actually be good for Silicon Valley, much like how rank-and-file Google employees argue breaking the company up would be good for Big Tech.

“She is not anti-tech, as you know, she is anti-monopoly,” MacFarlane said, recalling an era when this thinking was more popular. “It’s funny because the Silicon Valley of 2000 would have gone wild for her.”

Above all else, Silicon Valley leaders value in a candidate what they value in their C-suites: intense competency. Analysts have widely praised Warren for running one of 2020’s most effective campaigns, and fundraisers say that has endeared her to donors who aren’t predisposed to like her but who admire her execution.

Warren last month began overtaking Joe Biden in some key early-state polls, mirroring the slow embrace Warren has found in Silicon Valley.

“People just respect success,” said one Silicon Valley fundraiser aligned with a different candidate. “There’s a flight to quality.”

Elizabeth Warren refuses to reciprocate

Like any other donors, those in Silicon Valley flock to the people who they’ve met. That’s a problem for Elizabeth Warren, who refuses to work the circuit.

Take people like Mamoon Hamid, an influential venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins who’s been meeting as many candidates as possible to make his choice. Friends and even portfolio company CEOs have been twisting Hamid’s arm to keep an open mind on candidates like Warren.

And he’s listening. But there’s one problem — and it’s something that’s true with other Silicon Valley donors considering Warren: He hasn’t met her.

That’s a common hold-up in the world of high-dollar fundraising, where a cocktail of ego and custom generally means that donors get what they want. And donors want to measure up the person they’re handing over their $2,800 to — especially when they’re putting their credibility on the line and asking their friends to do the same.

So Warren does run a risk by not playing the game.

She wasn’t always resistant to courting tech’s big players. Before her decision this winter to forgo doing any closed-door fundraisers, Warren visited the Bay Area multiple times a year for glitzy high-dollar bashes — dating from a 2012 fundraiser at the Piedmont home of Oakland A’s part-owner Guy Saperstein during her first run for office to an October 2018 lunch hosted by Karla Jurvetson, which helped her raise over $100,000 just two months before she announced her presidential run. But the event in Jurvetson’s living room would be Warren’s last event of this kind.

A large crowd at a 2012 campaign event for Elizabeth Warren with her onstage in front of a large American flag and flanked by “Elizabeth Warren for Senate” signs.Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Warren has been coming to Silicon Valley for campaign money since her first run for Senate in 2012.

Warren was wildly popular when she was feted by a network of wealthy women called the Electing Women Bay Area PAC in the fall of 2017, so much so that the group had to place a rare cap on the number of their people who could attend because there was too much interest in her two events, which raised over $100,000 for her.

But in 2020? Despite hosting almost all the top women running for president, Warren has repeatedly turned down Electing Women’s entreaties because of her no-high-dollar fundraiser rule. Warren’s staff has even kiboshed attempts to do a private event for donors that don’t technically raise any money or a less buttoned-up event, featuring the women’s young kids, according to people familiar with the matter.

And so this time around, Warren has proven to be an elusive character to the very people who want to throw money at her. Some of her biggest supporters in the Bay Area say even they haven’t received phone calls from her.

Silicon Valley donors have grown desperate at times to get that access and attention that is de rigueur on the high-dollar campaign trail. With typical tech industriousness, they’re trying every angle they can to get to her.

Some donors have tried convincing Warren’s staff to relax her rule forbidding fundraisers — to no avail.

“They don’t even want the appearance of a donor ask,” said one source. “We’ve tried every lever.”

Multiple Silicon Valley backers of Warren expressed frustration that the campaign is offering no way for high-dollar donors to formally organize on her behalf. Warren’s campaign does not even keep track of how much its supporters voluntarily fundraise, or “bundle,” for her — totals that typically motivate healthy competition between well-connected donors and are often considered when a new president awards ambassadorships. Her aides have told people that there are no secret plans for an outside group like a super PAC. Warren won’t even take one-on-one, no-strings-attached, get-to-know-you meetings with rich donors.

You can give the legal maximum to the campaign, and that’s it. A wink-wink arrangement this is not.

“We want her to be president, and now is a hard time to figure out that there’s not much you can do — or the things that you usually do aren’t open to you,” said one tech-adjacent Democratic fundraiser who is backing Warren. “I cannot talk to her now if I wanted to.”

So when Warren finally did come to the Bay Area as a headliner for a rare fundraiser this past August — one for the Democratic Party, not her campaign specifically — some high-dollar Silicon Valley donors saw it as a opportunity to get that access that they covet (and almost always get). A photograph with the presidential candidate is a timeworn keepsake from the high-dollar hustings.

This was their chance to finally get in front of Warren, some donors thought, and so they forked over as much as $50,000 to attend a VIP reception and earn their grip-and-grin with possibly the next Democratic nominee for president. People from Silicon Valley who’d had no plans to attend yet another Democratic Party fundraiser were suddenly buying tables.

Another Democratic fundraiser who is backing Warren sent out an email to her list of a few hundred like-minded donors, many of whom are in tech: “This is the way to meet her if you want to meet her in the Bay Area.”

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaking from behind a podium with her arms raised out to her sides.JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images
Elizabeth Warren at the DNC summer meeting in San Francisco this August.

Tech donors, including some senior employees from companies like Slack, Apple, and Facebook, took the bait — and helped fill out three tables in the center of the ballroom at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where Warren would speak to the larger group after the VIPs got their time to peddle influence.

But there was just one problem: There was no special access for the hundred or so VIPs who were promised a “photo opportunity” in the invitation. In fact, Warren didn’t even show up, said three people who were there. Cory Booker might’ve been in the hotel’s French Room snapping selfies, but she refused to play the game.

When Warren got up to speak before the larger group — people who paid as little as $100 a ticket — she backed off not one iota from the donors’ favored industry, promising that “we will break up Big Tech.” That drew some light boos.

“I’ll take you on, on that one,” she shot back.

And yet after she spoke, hundreds of donors queued up for 20 to 30 minutes each for selfies — just like the thousands of people who pay nothing to attend her rallies do. Silicon Valley’s VIPs waited in line with everyone else.

Author: Theodore Schleifer

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