You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Will Silicon Valley "Disrupt" Politics With a Candidate for Congress?

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, May 20 2013

Sean Parker, of Napster fame and now executive general partner at venture capital firm Founders Fund, has invested in political startups before. But last week, he went a step further — co-hosting a fundraising event for a candidate for Congress.

Parker and SV Angel co-founder Ron Conway organized a crowd of Internet industry luminaries to support Ro Khanna, a former assistant deputy secretary in Barack Obama's Commerce Department. Khanna is preparing a challenge to Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), whose newly redrawn congressional district encompasses Silicon Valley. As he prepares a re-election campaign, the septuagenarian lawmaker has drawn support from party-line Democrats and the president himself — but little love from his new constituents in the technology industry. Matching faces with names at Khanna's fundraiser late last week was an exercise in identifying the playmakers in technology and finance who are agitating for a change in Silicon Valley's representation to Congress.

Many people, Parker told a small but well-heeled crowd that gathered Thursday in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, believe "Silicon Valley hasn't been properly represented at a federal level."

"We haven't had the young, dynamic, hard-driving candidate that really understands the unique issues facing Silicon Valley right now at a moment in time when there are a series of important political milestones," he said, "and political turning points in front of us. To a certain extent I think we're starting to coming to a realization of our own power, and our own capability not just as innovators and technology pioneers, but in a political sense."

Apple CEO Tim Cook's Cupertino corporate headquarters is now in Mike Honda's district, and Cook will be on the other side of Capitol Hill Tuesday to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on the issue of tax repatriation. Rather than tap into its $102 billion pile of cash parked overseas and incur tax liability, Apple decided to issue bonds to shareholders — causing controversy amidst a struggle to reconcile the national budget. Apple lobbyists have floated the idea that those funds might make their way back into the U.S. — and into the IRS' purview — if they were taxable at a lower rate than normal.

An attendee at the Thursday event asked Khanna about getting American companies to bring their finances in from far-flung havens.

"I'm for repatriation -- with caveats," he said.

It is this syncopation with the mind of tech industry figures that has so enamored them to the idea of backing Khanna for Congress.

"Ro also thinks like technologists do," former Tech4Obama national co-chair Rusty Rueff, a startup advisor and philanthropist, told me in an email, saying the former Commerce official's "'know no barriers attitude' matches the entrepreneurial makeup of the Valley."

"He is looking 20 years ahead," Rueff wrote later on in the email, "and wants to make sure that our economy and social supports are foundationally ready for the next floor of the building to be built upon the current floors."

Khanna outlined positions broadly in favor of increased immigration — "we should have an open society," he said — and for more competitive education.

"We have to be honest about how difficult it is going to be to get a job in the future," Khanna told his audience. He recalled his own parents, immigrants from India, who would ask him what happened to the other eight percent when he scored 92 percent on his exams.

In response to a question about teachers, Khanna said that teachers should be subject to peer reviews like lawyers and offered to "engage with the forward thinkers" in labor unions to "work organically towards reforms."

At one point, Khanna said he was asked why companies couldn't just train an American worker for nine months instead of hiring a foreigner on an H-1B visa. Khanna said that he told his interlocutor that acquiring such an expertise in coding starts in 2nd grade.

Other than Founders Fund's Sean Parker, others who attended Khanna's event included Steve Spinner, Khanna's campaign chair, who is an angel investor, and the Obama campaign's 2012 California finance chair, Napster co-creator and tech entrepreneur Shawn Fanning, Grateful Dead lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, and venture investor Data Collective's Zach Bogue. M.C. Hammer, Topher Conway and Optimizely's Co-Founder & CEO Dan Siroker also attended. Fanning, like some other attendees, said that he was there because of Ron Conway. The SV Angel co-founder couldn't attend, organizers said, because of a minor health issue.