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What Happens When Silicon Valley Gets Political? It’s BAD

Jul
14
2002

Editor’s Note:This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.
The ornate Julia Morgan Ballroom atop San Francisco’s Merchant’s Exchange Building has seen some lavish parties. The room, with its commanding views up and down the city’s financial district, is typical of the heavy California Gothic style favored by the state’s first generation of big spenders. It has floor-to-ceiling arched windows; a honeycomb ceiling of mahogany octagonals; carved paneling, and a creamy stone fireplace, tall and deep enough for a petite woman to stand in.
The Morgan ballroom was the site of Silicon Valley’s cherished coming-of-age ritual, the company launch party, held by entrepreneurs to celebrate their new wealth. One bash held in the Morgan room in June 1997 marked the inauguration of Crossworlds Software, a firm more famous for advertisements featuring its attractive CEO, Katrina Garnett, in a low-cut dress than for any breathtaking technological innovation. All style, no software, critics said.
On May 28, the Morgan ballroom was the stage for another debut: the launch of the Bay Area Democrats (otherwise known as BAD — and, yes, the acronym is intentional), a group started by young Internet millionaires (yes, some are still with us) to get the folks who changed the world with technology working on their next repair project, politics.
BAD is styling itself as something powerful and better than what’s gone on before. “We all know that National Democrats need to admit to some structural problems,” the Web site says in a pitch to people who believe that money and politics should not go hand in hand. “We have been burning the donor candle at both ends for the last 10 years. . . . ” How does BAD propose to fix that? With a network, of course, of “ordinary citizens.” Falling back on familiar lingo, the group’s Web site talks about “long-term growth” in membership, and “the productivity of the money” it plans to raise, which “will be leveraged because of a wiser asset allocation.” And it plans to do this in “new and cleaner waters” that will flow after the implementation of campaign finance reform.
It’s a sales pitch that’s worked before. Remember all the dot-this and e-that stock that sold like hotcakes because the Internet was going to make everything better, cheaper, faster, cooler, newer, somehow morally and intellectually superior? These people believed all that. It made many of them rich. It made them believe that they not only could change the world but that they are duty-bound to do so.
So they’ve come up with a slogan. “Politics without Cynicism, Issues Without Self-Interest,” says the banner over an area set up for a band. “There are people in America who are afraid of change, afraid of learning, afraid of ideas,” longtime Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee says as he introduces Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. “That’s scary.”
Talking about change is one thing. Bringing it about is another. Daschle and leading Senate Democrats came out in force to this event because, well, BAD members have some serious money.
That helps explain how these two radically different American subcultures — California techies and button-down Washington pols — have crossed paths. House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is air-kissing a line of mostly white, mostly male BAD donors. And while BAD’s mission statement talks about “engaging in policy in a sincere way” and “insisting that national politicians spend time here discussing issues with our members,” the Democratic senators — Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Pat Leahy (Vt.), Harry Reid (Nev.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) — deliver their usual stump speeches after arriving late.
Few people here realize the featured guests were busy dining in Palo Alto with deep-pocketed donors as part of a multi-state fundraising tour designed to scoop as much “soft money” as possible into party coffers before campaign finance reform kicks in. This stop was tacked on as an investment in the future, because it’s just possible that BAD, with its belief in the power of computer, personal, social and business connections, might be on to something that could help turn a senator into a president.
Changing politics isn’t the only challenge for BAD’s organizers. Many people attending this $75-a-person bash are just longing for those halcyon nights when the Nasdaq was cruising toward 5,000, the sushi was free and the martinis unlimited.
“I never voted in my life,” says Marc Lawrence. “My vote doesn’t count.” Tall and well-dressed, Lawrence is a former regional vice president for business development at ePocrates Inc., which developed Palm Pilot prescription software for doctors. Now he’s running a $2 million family-financed “hedge” fund.
So why is he here? For the oldest reason in the world: to meet women. “These are just substitutes for dot-com parties except now you have to pay,” he says. “It sucks.”
You can’t blame him for comparing this to other launch parties. The mahogany bar is open. There’s good food, too. One menu offers an “heirloom root” platter and chocolate truffles. There’s live music provided by the Flying Other Brothers, a Grateful Dead garage cover band started by McNamee. The Flying Other Brothers is a garage band the way a Ferrari is a car. McNamee has brought along his frequent playing partner, the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart. He, too, has signed on to help BAD.
“My day job is investing in technology companies,” says McNamee. “It’s really hard to do that right now. But it is easy to play rock-and-roll for a crowd like you.”
For political professionals, this deluxe style of politics is an eye-opener. “The fundraisers I go to don’t have open bars,” says Mike Farrah, an aide to a San Francisco supervisor. “Really?” says John Witchel, a BAD organizer and Gore supporter, who is holding a nearly drained martini glass. “The fundraisers I go to are all open bar. I don’t think I’d go to one that wasn’t.”
BAD’s job is to make politics seem cool so that this crowd will come back, and maybe even give real money to candidates and causes. “Like a lot of you, I was invited to my first political event a few months ago,” Crissy Yancey, 29, tells the crowd. “I went to this event back in February. I had a great time. I met great people. I had interesting conversations.”
E-mail can turn anyone with a send button into an effective direct-mail machine. But the Internet millionaires’ passion for networking must survive the rigors and yes, the cynicism, of politics as usual.
The 600 or so young people, with their straight teeth, nice haircuts and casual fashions, think of themselves as well-meaning and open-minded. They regard political liberalism as virtuous. But just as no one asked about who ultimately footed the bill at the lavish dot-com parties, no one at the BAD event is asking many self-examining questions.
In fact, the people here do have interests — special interests — in Washington. They want laws to increase privacy online so people will be willing to conduct more financial transactions on the Internet. That fight pits Silicon Valley against direct marketers, financial services business, anyone who gets customers (or voters!) through junk mail. Taking on Hollywood, Silicon Valley techheads want to change intellectual property laws so that music, movies and video games can be passed around more easily. They also want to keep the right to issue stock options without listing them as business expenses. Many of the people in this room are spending cash that they made selling those options.
A cynic might even call this an agenda. But there aren’t many cynics here.
“I’m a Jeffersonian Democrat,” says Craig Newmark, founder of the online bulletin board craigslist.org and a portly bespectacled fixture on the San Francisco tech social scene. A Jeffersonian Democrat? “I’m a great fan of the work of Thomas Jefferson, apart from his hypocrisy,” says Newmark. Hypocrisy? “He was a slaveholder.”
Newmark may be a political newcomer, but many BAD organizers have been around politics for a while. The martini-drinking Witchel (who made millions at a design and consulting firm he helped start), E-Loan CEO and millionaire Chris Larsen, and former NetNoir CEO E. David Ellington were part of a group known as the Gore-Techs. The Gore-Techs went to Washington, shook lots of hands, wrote checks and got credit for being able to talk about something besides bits and bytes. They have experienced staff, too. Kelly Crawford-Friendly, who worked with her husband, Andrew, at the Clinton White House, is talking to a group of young women. Across the room, former Gore staffer Tim Newell, a private-meeting kind of guy, is squirming. “Some of the people in this room know you have elections,” Newell says dryly as he surveys the crowd. A former Clinton economic aide, Tom Kalil , offers tips on talking to the press to former Federal Communications Commission staffer, Jamie Daves, Yancey’s boyfriend.
Where is this mish-mash of earnestness, apathy, experience and money leading? That’s the big mystery. So the pols play it safe and tell the BAD crowd what it wants to hear. “The Bay Area Democrats are the new breed of Democrats,” Daschle tells the group. “It’s no longer money. It’s grass-roots organizing.”
Easy to say when you’ve reportedly just raised $1 million over dinner. Besides, these people are well-educated, wealthy and, when they want to be, well-organized. That technology’s-gonna-change-the-world sales pitch sounded na├»ve, too. But it had pretty spectacular results, didn’t it?
“There’s lot of money in that room,” says former San Francisco supervisor Leslie Katz. She isn’t dismissing BAD’s organizers. Having done a stint at Petstore.com, Katz knows better. “You have a lot of talented and energetic people involved,” she notes. “They’re doers.” And you get the feeling they’re just getting started.

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