Why political operatives taking over Silicon Valley should scare the shit out of you
There was a time in Silicon Valley where Karl Rove expressing his admiration for your oppo research skills might send a shudder down the spine.
Today, at a handful of decacorns, the reaction is, “When can you start?”
Over the past four years-- through the passage of the JOBS act, the formation of FWD.us, Google emerging as the nation’s biggest lobbyist-- Silicon Valley’s political consciousness has more than been awakened.
As with most trends in the Valley, it started in venture capital, with Al Gore and Colin Powell joining Kleiner Perkins, Larry Summers later joining Andreessen Horowitz, and Condoleezza Rice becoming a well-heeled high tech board member. The ever-present angel Ron Conway became so entrenched with San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, he’s been called the new Rose Pak.
But those are the headliners. The potentially seedy underbelly are the companies spending millions to hire the people who get people like those elected.
Even the most “libertarian” companies in the Valley have enthusiastically embraced the ugliest tactics of DC. Consider Uber: To win in Nevada, the company hired more lobbyists than the entire state’s gaming industry. It’s lawyered and lobbyist’d up to the hilt: Some 40 people boast the title “general counsel at Uber” on LinkedIn. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates works for Uber.
And when David Plouffe-- the man who helped get Obama elected-- wasn’t politically aggressive enough, Uber sent him on the road to deal with the whole union thing, and hired the UK’s Rachel Whetstone to manipulate its image and push its core agenda. Whetstone is cleaning the corporate comms house with Jill Hazelbaker as her first hire. Hazelbaker had a short stint at Snapchat but before that ran comms for John McCain’s presidential campaign.
Lest you think all these political hires are a coincidence: Remember it was Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick who proudly said he wanted to run his company like a political campaign. Apparently with all the good and bad that implies.
When it comes to politics, Uber is no longer disrupter. It’s a joiner.
And it’s not just Uber. Airbnb has hired Chris Lehane as head of global policy and public affairs, a man whose tactics have drawn golf claps from Karl Rove. Even fuzzy little Lyft has hired San Francisco’s former Assistant District Attorney as its Director of Public Policy.
Here at Pando we’ve seen the effects of all these hires first hand. In addition to Uber’s plan to “go after” journalists with “oppo research,” we’ve also endured legal threats from Clinton’s former crisis manager Lanny Davis (who was working for the now defunct Beachmint) and when Paul wrote a story not long ago about Zenefits, he was surprised and amused to received an angry phone call from their spokesperson Kenneth Baer, former speechwriter for Obama’s Office of Management and Budget.
We should note the worst we’ve seen out of Lehane is astroturf organizing to push Airbnb’s ballot initiatives (Win!) and some testiness when Dan Raile quoted him for a story. But certainly he has the skills to be every bit as nasty as Uber’s political opps have been. We essentially have to trust that Airbnb’s brass just wouldn’t let him go there. OK.
It’s not the money in tech that’s the allure for this political opp goldrush. The money has always been there. It’s the power of platforms like these. Tech is the new global power, and these people chase power.
The flood of political players into tech might not be surprising, but it is terrifying. So far the playbook of grabbing power in politics has been far different than in tech. To understand how that might change in the next five to ten years if left unchecked, consider this from the New Republic’s chilling profile of Jeff Roe, the man behind Ted Cruz:
From his earliest days running state and local campaigns, he’s taken a scorched-earth approach to politics. Roe and his tactics have been blamed for damaging opponents’ lives and reputations, and even for contributing to a gubernatorial candidate’s suicide. (Roe doesn’t exactly hide from this reputation: His web site features headlines describing him as “ruthless” and a “leading practitioner of hard-ball politics.”)
…. and later in the piece…
The way Shettles sees it, trashing her name and reputation was all a game to Roe. “He felt that was absolutely 100 percent acceptable,” she told me. “And it was, in all reality, an overkill.” Graves beat Shettles with 62 percent of the vote.
The more notorious Roe became, the more extreme his tactics. The same year as the Shettles race, Roe injected himself into a Republican primary 250 miles away in which he had no client. The suburban St. Louis race pitted an incumbent state senator named Scott Rupp, who Roe preferred, against a more moderate county councilman named Joe Brazil. Roe had started a blog called The Source (now defunct), where he posted political analysis, gossip, and dirt he’d dug up on rival candidates, their staff, and their families. “Candidates and children of candidates—their Facebook and MySpace pages are the first thing we check,” he told a reporter.
How does he feel about these attacks even when they’ve had devastating personal consequences?
What came through most clearly was Roe’s lack of repentance. He sees no reason to apologize—quite the contrary, in fact. When a Kansas City Star column appeared in 2007, criticizing his tactics under the headline, “Voters Seem OK With Political Low,” he had the story made into a plaque for his wall at the Axiom office. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” he likes to say.
There’s even a bit where he describes to scrub names of clients he’s represented off his Web site because so many of them were so distasteful or even self-contradictory. Sounds a bit like this guy…
Roe certainly hasn’t lost his edge. In February 2015, nearly a year after Cruz had hired him, he produced a radio ad attacking a Republican primary candidate for Missouri governor named Tom Schweich. Roe was an adviser and friend of Schweich’s main GOP rival, Catherine Hanaway. The radio ad—which aired only a handful of times in the lead-up to the GOP’s annual Lincoln Days celebration—mocked the physical appearance of Schweich, who suffered from Crohn’s disease which kept his weight around 140 pounds, comparing him to Barney Fife, the bumbling deputy on The Andy Griffith Show, and painting him as a weakling. If Schweich were nominated for governor, the spot vowed, Democrats would “squash him like the little bug that he is.”
Even before the ad aired, Schweich had been fighting a war inside his own head. He believed that the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party had spread false rumors that he was Jewish (Schweich was Episcopalian, though he had a Jewish grandfather). Schweich wanted to out the chair as a liar and a bigot, but his closest friends advised against it, leaving Schweich feeling personally and politically isolated. (John Hancock, the chairman, told me he may have mistakenly said Schweich was Jewish, but doesn’t specifically recall doing so.) A few days after the ad ran, Schweich fatally shot himself in the head.
Roe’s words on the subject show a startling lack of any human remorse, according to the piece: “I live in the windshield, I don’t live in the rearview mirror.”
If there’s anything scarier than a Donald Trump presidency, it’s political strategists and opposition researchers becoming the norm of tech policy and comms in coming years. But unlike with a Trump presidency, it’s not clear anyone is interested in stopping them.