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Politics as Incubator: The Venture Capital Model Finds the Ballot 

Tuesday, Oct 21 2014
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Venture capitalist Ron Conway made his emergence on San Francisco's political scene in 2010 when he supported the city's sit-lie law, and has since dropped serious dough on a number of causes, including Ed Lee's mayoral campaign and, most recently, a David Chiu for state Assembly campaign that paints Chiu's opponent, David Campos, as soft on domestic violence.

Conway even helped mold tech's newest political big spender, Sean Parker, coaxing the Napster founder-turned-investor to donate $100,000 to Lee's 2011 race. Parker first contributed to California political campaigns the year prior, according to the California Secretary of State's campaign finance data. That year, Parker spent $100,000 on a measure to legalize marijuana in the state and $250,000 on Million More Voters, which aimed to convince young adults to vote. Parker escalated his contributions in 2011: In addition to his Lee expenditure, he also gave money to the Democratic State Central Committee of California and Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom — a guest at Parker's lavish Medieval faery-themed wedding.

But this year, Parker's donations are different. He's given more than $1 million to campaigns from Sacramento to Los Angeles, with particular focus on San Francisco. His local donations are a marksman's grouping that looks less like a rich guy funding pet political causes and more like a seasoned venture capitalist making a series of business investments.

Of the 44 political candidates and ballot measures facing San Francisco voters this November, Parker has funded at least nine of them. Conway has also funded at least nine, but favored San Francisco supervisors over statewide measures. In other words, Parker is keeping pace with Conway quite well for his first big year on the local political scene.

It's the VC approach to politics: Invest in a variety of companies — or ballot initiatives — and see what sticks.

Although Parker was unavailable for comment, his increased interest — and spending — in local politics can be seen as part of his effort to remake himself as an agent of the democratic process.

Earlier this year, Parker joined forces with Conway and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, collectively investing $9.5 million to launch Brigade, a company that aims to leverage technology to increase civic engagement. In June, Brigade acquired Causes.com, a social fundraising site geared toward political causes.

"Brigade will serve as a tool to empower people civically, enabling any person -- regardless of ideology or political affiliation -- to participate in their democracy in a way that is easy, social and enjoyable," says Andrew Noyes, Brigade's vice president of communications.

Parker's political debut is no accident. As he follows in Conway's footsteps to shape the future of politics in San Francisco, he also reinforces the model by which other venture capitalists can do the same.


Parker's Contributions*

Brown for Governor: $54,400

Kamala Harris: $13,600

Marshall Tuck for State Superintendent of Public Instruction: $6,800

Prop 1: $500,000

Prop 2: $500,000

Prop 47: $100,000

Prop A: $200,000

Prop L: $49,000

Prop J: $50,000

Committee for Working Families: $25,000


Conway'S Contributions*

Marshall Tuck for State Superintendent of Public Instruction: $113,600

San Franciscans to Hold Campos Accountable: $74,900

Prop A: $50,000

Prop C: $50,000

Prop J: $124,000

Mark Farrell: $500

Malia Cohen: $500

Scott Wiener: $500

Gov. Brown: $54,400

Committee on Jobs Government Reform Fund: $10,000

Govern for California Action Committee: $25,000

San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee: $25,000

San Francisco Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth PAC: $10,000

Mayor Ed Lee for San Francisco Committee: $15,000

*Tallied from the 2013-2014 election cycle as of 10/17/14, based on filings with the California Secretary of State. Excludes contributions to campaigns not on the San Francisco ballot.

About The Author

Kate Conger

Bio:
Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.

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