San Francisco's political "disruptors" make hypocrites of us all
Last week was a good one for the San Francisco tech industry.
In the city’s municipal elections, Proposition F – seen by many as a referendum on the industry’s control of City Hall – failed to pass. In fact, as I reported after the polls closed, fourteen out of fifteen of the tech industry’s preferred ballot positions went Silicon Valley’s way.
The only bug in the code was the election of Aaron Peskin to the Board of Supervisors. Peskin is a long time progressive critic of SF’s tech mayor, Ed Lee (or, perhaps, Ed.ly) and a staunch opponent of the city’s tech-driven gentrification. His election means a rougher ride for the mayor and his tech supporters over the next few years. Poor old mayor.
Still, overall, the election result tells us a few things. Firstly that many thousands of San Francisco residents are perfectly happy with the sharing economy, as it’s represented by Airbnb.
Of course, the tech industry took no chances -- buying up 100 times more television ad time than the pro-F camp, and running an extremely aggressive campaign to get techies to the polls (more on that in a moment). But then again, the anti-tech movement was no slouch when it came to headlines: One rock thrown at a Google bus trumps any number of dull “vote no on F” posters. There can’t be a single San Francisco voter unaware of the effects that tech has had on housing rents and general cost of living.
Voter turnout played its part too: You might say that tech won the day, but you could just as easily say the anti-tech protesters blew it by failing to mobilize enough voters. As Airbnb pointed out during its victory lap, only 133,000 people voted in the election compared to 138,000 people in the city who use Airbnb.
Whatever your prefered explanation, or rationalization, last Tuesday’s vote makes it increasingly difficult to position tech as an unwelcome occupying force in the city, or to suggest that somehow the industry is at war with the “community.” Electorally speaking at least, tech workers are the community, and those who oppose it represent the unpopular minority. If the election was a referendum on the tech industry then SF has voted “yes” on disruption.
And yet. And yet.
With this election campaign, the continued use of that word, “disruption,” has shifted from jarring to just plain ludicrous. It conjures images of young nerds using technology to upend the status quo, to hack their way through government bureaucracy and special interests (witness the headlines framing the defeat of F as a defeat for the evil hotel lobby, or a blow for Luddite legislators), and to empower citizens in ways they have never before been empowered.
Any claim that Silicon Valley might make about disrupting government over-regulation... Any notion San Francisco tech companies may harbor of being fresh-thinking, or enlightened or committed to transparency.... Any boast the sharing economy might utter about empowering regular folks against entrenched industry cartels…. And certainly any suggestion that last Tuesday’s electoral results were a validation of any of those things...
...can all be rebutted with two simple words: Ron. Conway.
Throughout the campaign, and for a long time before, Conway – [Disclosure: a Pando investor] – positioned himself as the chief connector between the tech industry and the Mayor’s Office. Through his SF.citi group, and his large and influencial personal network, Conway has worked relentlessly to ensure that no legislation is passed in the city that might halt the expansion of the tech industry. He’s worked with the mayor to win tax breaks for Twitter and other mid-Market companies. And, of course, he has personally campaigned for Lee, and against the mayor’s opponents.
Right before the election, as I reported last week, Conway sent an email to his portfolio CEOs, politely ordering them to vote for a slate of candidates and ballot measures that aligned with his interests. This followed an earlier report by SF Magazine of Conway and Mayor Lee inviting donors to a closed-door meeting in which, after Lee left the room, Conway literally threatened dire consequences if they supported progressive candidate Peskin against the mayor’s choice, and his own, Julie Christensen.
“They were all sitting there at the head of the table, glaring at everybody,” recalls one attendee. “So it wasn’t lost on any of us what the message was.” That message: Any attendee who aids and abets Aaron Peskin in his District 3 race against Lee appointee Julie Christensen will be given “close attention”—and could face blowback when conducting future business in the city. “I was being threatened,” sums up another attendee...
Well, I think we heard it pretty clear from the mayor. We’d better not have anybody here give to Aaron Peskin, or there’ll be problems with Ed Lee.” Conway reportedly told the stunned room, as “political adviser” Alex Tourk sat squirming...
Conway then purportedly confided that he had contributed heavily to swamp David Campos’s 2014 assembly run, but feared that if he did the same for Christensen, it would bounce back on both of them. Conway then allegedly informed the assembled movers and shakers that they must pony up for Christensen. He would in turn make them whole by giving to their preferred causes...
You could tell [Tourk] was uncomfortable recalls a fellow attendee. “He had a look on his face like, ‘Please shut up, boss.’”
Tourk and Conway refused to comment to SF Magazine on the reports but anyone who has ever received AN EMAIL FROM RON CONWAY will know, Ron is more of a shouter than a shutter up.
He’s a guy who so believes in the fundamental “rightness” of the tech industry that, like some of the disruptive companies he backs, there’s no favor he won’t pull, threat he won’t make or electoral regulation he won’t just barely skirt in order to hector his friends, contacts and investees into voting his way. Last week, Tourk told me that Conway believed it was his “constitutional responsibility” to tell his portfolio CEOs and their employees how to vote.
The only thing Conway won’t do, of course, is actually show up to any political meetings, having declared himself “too busy” to actually mix with the electoral hoi polloi.
Most Pando readers might say “so what?” A glance at Conway’s slate shows a list of causes on which it’s hard to disagree. Parental leave for city employees, lobbyist disclosures, the “Clean Energy Right to Know Act”. Even on Prop F – the ballot measure that directly benefits Ron’s investment in Airbnb – San Francisco voters made clear at the polls that they are perfectly happy allowing homeowners to turn their apartments into hotels.
But I have to believe those same readers also see the flaw in that way of thinking. Turning a blind eye to Conway’s slow transformation from bumbling angel investing uncle into Rose Pak 2.0 carries with it clear risks.
The first is the traditional risk of ignoring or actively permitting someone’s bad behavior – particularly in politics – so long as it suits us. “First they came for the Aaron Peskin, but I work for Airbnb so I did nothing…”
That risk isn’t limited to San Francisco residents. Having prevailed in San Francisco, Airbnb has made clear it intends to go global with its winning political formula: “We’re going to use the momentum of what took place here to do what we did in San Francisco around the world,” said Airbnb’s own political spin doctor, Chris Lehane.
You’d have to be out of your mind to think that, having got a taste for political deal making, Conway won’t want to follow his portfolio company to Washington, D.C., and beyond. And he won’t stop at hotel regulations. Conway has already begun campaigning for “smart guns” as a solution to gun violence and, back in 2013, I wrote about the CIA fundraiser he co-hosted at his home with George Tenet and… uh… MC Hammer.
Whatever your views on Ron Conway as political kingpin, it’s hard to argue with the notion of Ron Conway as hypocrite. This is a man who sends outraged emails about the tech industry exposing “the gross collusion that occurred” in San Francisco politics while at the same time being one of San Francisco’s most effective colluders.
Worse, in doing so, Conway makes hypocrites of the entire tech industry. Or at least of those in it who continue to give him a pass on the grounds of his cuddly public persona and his fat wallet. How can companies like Airbnb seriously talk about the election as a victory for “power of people-to-people political networking” when their own victory was brought about in part thanks to Conway using his influence and money to silence critics? And when Airbnb’s message about people triumphing over politics is delivered by Chris Lehane, a seasoned opposition researcher who Karl Rove admitted he admired even after Lehane revealed George W Bush’s DWI.
How can any of the 546 “disruptive” companies in Conway’s portfolio feel good about having as their most vocal spokesperson and political lobbyist a man who has so much contempt for the electoral process that he would order tens of thousands of portfolio employees how to vote, without even doing them the courtesy of explaining why?
We’d already seen companies like Uber make a mockery of the concept of “disruption” by hiring David Plouffe, along with the former head of the CIA, to improve their relationship with the government. Uber, you’ll recall, is currently the biggest private lobbyist in the state of Nevada, spending more than the casino owners combined.
Now, with Conway’s transition from super angel to political super connector, and Airbnb’s national, and global, political ambitions, it can’t be long before other startups decide that, to succeed, they need to become part of the same machine they once vowed to disrupt. Pick a slogan: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or perhaps, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Here’s my favorite: “The disruptors looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
All of which leaves the tech industry, collectively speaking, with a choice to make. We could embrace the hypocrisy on the basis that, for now at least, Conway’s interests are largely aligned with our own. What’s good for his portfolio companies will likely benefit any of us who are building tech companies – and so what if we continue to call ourselves disruptors which we increasingly embrace the exact same behavior and corruption we were supposed to be disrupting. Certainly that’s the easiest path: Conway is a beloved figure and, as David Campos and Aaron Peskin will tell you, crossing him and his friends is a risky proposition. But for silence to be a sensible strategy, we have to be comfortable with being hypocrites, and also confident that Conway and his political cronies will continue to have interests aligned with our own.
Or we could go back to basics. To remember the days when the tech industry really believed what it said about disrupting government over-regulation and empowering users against special interests and corrupt local officials. To send a loud and clear message to Ron Conway and Ed Lee that closed-room meetings and threats to destroy political opponents is not how the game is going to be played this time around. Of course that would also require companies like Airbnb to stop hiring the exact same political manipulators who made the rules and set the tone the last time around. It’ll mean sticking a wedge in the revolving door between the State Department and tech boardrooms and… well… let’s just stop that fantasy right now. There isn’t a chance in hell.
Which just leaves the third option: The tech industry could start being honest, with itself and the world. Admit that economically, electorally, politically and socially, many of the companies backed by Conway and his friends are no longer the plucky Davids but are in fact the Goliaths. Admit that the speakers at events like TechCrunch Disrupt have just as much – if not more – money and power than the attendees of Davos or Bilderberg. Hell, admit that many of the people who speak at Disrupt are the exact same people you’ll find at Davos or Bilderberg. Let us grow comfortable in our new shoes and cars, and enjoy our new found wealth and influence. It’ll be a long time until another movement grows powerful enough to disrupt us and, if history has taught us anything, that movement will be easy enough to co-opt when the time comes.
But, whatever choice we make – and really it’s an individual choice, not a collective one – let’s at least agree on one thing: When it comes to the relationship between the tech world and politics as usual, the word “disruption” has to go.