Silicon Valley Leaders’ Plea to Democrats: Anyone but Sanders

SAN FRANCISCO — The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Keith Rabois, onstage in January at a tech conference, said his first choice for president was a Democrat, Pete Buttigieg.

And, sure, it would be a close call for Joseph R. Biden Jr. over President Trump. But Bernie Sanders?

At that, Mr. Rabois, who has been a top executive at or invested in LinkedIn, Square, Yelp and PayPal, balked. Speaking to the crowd, he drew the line at democratic socialism. (Mr. Buttigieg ended his campaign on Sunday night.)

“I would certainly vote for Trump over Sanders,” Mr. Rabois declared.

When it comes to the 2020 Democratic primaries, with California poised to allocate hundreds of delegates this week on Super Tuesday, many tech leaders in Silicon Valley have a plea: Anyone but Sanders.

From venture capitalists to chief executives, the tech elite are favoring moderates like Mr. Buttigieg and Michael R. Bloomberg. And with Mr. Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, leading the field in California and looking like the front-runner for the nomination, the tone among the leadership is growing more urgent. Few tech executives want to end up stuck choosing between Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump. Meanwhile, tech company workers are gathering en masse for Mr. Sanders.

While Silicon Valley has long leaned blue, the chasm between centrist Democrats and an animated left wing has created uncertainty. And now two other things are happening. California Republicans see an opportunity. And a new moderate party in the state — the Common Sense Party — is rising.

“I’m trying to balance what socialism means versus four more years of Trump, and honestly it feels like which is the worse of two evils?” said Venky Ganesan, a partner at the venture capital firm Menlo Ventures, whose disaffection with the presidential field has led him toward the Common Sense Party.

He said the vast majority of his venture capital industry colleagues had the same dilemma. “Eighty percent are thinking the same thing, but many do not speak out,” Mr. Ganesan said.

It is not a huge surprise that the big winners of the tech boom would be wary of Mr. Sanders and his rival Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, who have both taunted Silicon Valley’s elite. But the technorati are training their animus on Mr. Sanders as he has surged in the early states that have voted.

Mr. Sanders has said broadly that “billionaires should not exist” — and in Silicon Valley, there are a lot of billionaires. He has also called for Google to be split up and criticized it for being antiworker. He has told Apple that it does not pay enough in taxes, and he has tapped Amazon employees to appear in a video criticizing the company’s environmental record.

Mr. Sanders also wants to raise the corporate tax to 35 percent. And in perhaps his most aggressive attack on the tech industry, he has proposed earlier taxation on stock options, the equity that has fueled the wealth of many in Silicon Valley.

“If your goal was to destroy the Silicon Valley ecosystem of creating new companies, this would be an effective way to do it,” Adam Nash, a tech investor and former executive at Dropbox, wrote on Twitter last week, referring to Mr. Sanders’s stock options proposal.

Ramesh Srinivasan, who is part of Mr. Sanders’s campaign and is focused on tech issues, said the senator was “not the foe of tech entrepreneurs.” He said that the policies would encourage job growth and support small businesses and that the campaign was about “just restoring balance.”

But Silicon Valley’s leadership suspects a coming war.

Among the donors to Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign in the last year were Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; Ben Silbermann, the chief executive of Pinterest; Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn; and John Doerr, a prominent venture capitalist, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Mr. Hoffman also donated to Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. And Eric Schmidt, Google’s former chief executive, donated to Mr. Biden.

Not only are Silicon Valley’s leaders giving money to Mr. Sanders’s competitors, they are lending their muscle to the campaigns.

Mr. Buttigieg’s national investment chair was Swati Mylavarapu, a former partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The Bloomberg campaign’s digital ad firm, Hawkfish, is being run by a former chief marketing officer of Facebook, Gary Briggs.

Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive who is now a venture capitalist, said he would like to see Mr. Bloomberg at the top of the ticket, paired with Ms. Klobuchar or Ms. Warren.

“Bernie is validation of an important wing in the party, but at the top of the ticket he would probably be McGovern 2.0 and Trump will win in a landslide,” he said, referring to the liberal 1972 Democratic nominee, George McGovern.

How Silicon Valley votes matters because it leans overwhelmingly Democratic and there is a tremendous amount of capital. What is striking about this primary cycle is the schism between the people who run the companies and their workers.

Consider that employees of Alphabet gave $499,309 to Mr. Sanders for the 2020 cycle, his second-largest total donations from one employer after University of California employees, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, Mr. Buttigieg’s 2020 run had raised $294,860 from Alphabet employees.

“There’s a massive split between leadership and rank and file,” said Luis Zamora, a co-president of the San Francisco Young Democrats. “Bernie wants employees to be able to take over some of the ownership of the company, and that’s not going to fly.”

For a group of California technologists dismayed by what they see as the populist turn of both national parties, the solution — albeit only a statewide one — is to ditch the two-party system altogether.

On a cool evening in Palo Alto, at the Stanford University Faculty Club in September, those technologists and activists launched the Common Sense Party.

It was a response, they said, to what they call the one-party monopoly in the state. They hoped to carve out Democrats who feel isolated from their party’s leftward lurch.

“One party is the puppet of the public unions and wants government to run everything, and the other party is the puppet of the religious autocrats who want us all to act in a certain manner,” said Tim Draper, a venture capitalist and a Common Sense supporter. “No party is supporting a moderate agenda of someone who wants freedom to prosper and freedom to act.”

The Faculty Club is a low-slung building, popular for weddings on the manicured Stanford campus.

“Many C.E.O.s are a little off-put by some of the current crop of candidates for president,” said Julie Meier Wright, one of the Common Sense Party organizers and formerly California’s first secretary of trade and commerce.

Common Sense has close to 20,000 signatures. To qualify as a new party on the ballot, they hope to get 67,000 by the summer.

Republicans see a different way through this morass — turning the disaffected moderates into full-fledged members of the G.O.P.

“California Democrats just really haven’t been good friends to Silicon Valley,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party.

For a long time, she said, many local conservatives felt despondent about the state’s politics. Now they find themselves surprisingly optimistic.

The state party raised more money online in 2019 than it did in 2017 and 2018 combined, rising from a few thousand dollars a month in 2018 to tens of thousands of dollars a month in 2019, Ms. Millan Patterson said.

“Darkness has turned into hope,” she said.

Republicans are making inroads in the tech world, Ms. Millan Patterson added. She cited state laws like A.B. 5, which went into effect on Jan. 1 and put strong regulations on freelancers, as another reason Republicans are gathering momentum. The goal behind the legislation was to push employers to hire full-time workers instead of contractors, but many freelancers have lost work.

Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist, has long been the tech industry’s dissident Republican voice. He spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention to support Mr. Trump, but few tech executives held high-profile fund-raisers for the president in the last election cycle.

That may be changing. In February, Larry Ellison, Oracle’s chief executive, hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Trump in Palm Springs, Calif. Some Oracle employees wrote a petition, which garnered nearly 10,000 signatures online, asking Mr. Ellison to cancel the event. When he did not, about 300 walked out of the office or logged off from work, a protest organized by the Oracle group Employees for Ethics.

Some tech employees are getting ready to be at odds with their bosses. In a crowded piano bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood recently, a few dozen young Democrats gathered to watch the candidates debate. Organizers tried to think if anyone in the room that night or in their group more broadly supported the two tech leader favorites at the time, Mr. Buttigieg or Mr. Bloomberg. It was hard.

“I’m hard pressed to even think of a young person who I know who is supporting one of those,” said Zhihan Zou, 25, executive director of the San Francisco Democratic Party. “I’m struggling seriously.”

“I know — me, too,” said Adam Miller, 28, who recently left a job at LinkedIn to run a start-up to sell tech tools to political campaigns. “Can’t think of one.”

The tech workers cited a geographic divide: Many employees live in San Francisco, while industry leaders tend to live in extremely wealthy enclaves like Los Gatos and Atherton, where homes often have gates and long driveways.

“They’re physically removed,” Mr. Zou said of the bosses.

Alek Chakroff, 35, a user-experience researcher at Google, said it came down to who has the most to lose from a wealth tax, which both Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren support.

He brought up Alphabet’s top boss, Sundar Pichai. He does not know how Mr. Pichai plans to vote, but guessed it would not be Mr. Sanders.

“How much stock did Sundar just sell? $500 million?” he said.

The group said they were excited about Mr. Sanders’s odds for winning the majority of California’s delegates on Tuesday.

Mr. Zamora was greeting people at the door of the piano club.

“It’s very much a young folks versus the old folks,” he said.

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