They come from different worlds — the buttoned-down political culture of Washington and the entrepreneurial, socks-optional, let’s-do-this-faster ethos of Silicon Valley.
But where those worlds overlap, that’s where you find President Barack Obama and a wealthy segment of his Democratic donor base.
Obama was to attend two high-dollar Democratic Party fundraisers Thursday hosted by Silicon Valley executives, drawing attention to the complicated relationship between the president and the high-tech industry.
The revelations of National Security Agency data collection made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have created an outcry from tech companies whose data have been gathered by the government. Obama has had to reassure Internet and tech executives that he is committed to protecting privacy.
Still, Obama remains a popular political figure in Silicon Valley, and the wealthy tech entrepreneurs appear willing to part with their money to support the party, especially if the president is making the pitch.
Obama was to attend a fundraiser hosted by Anne Wojcicki, a biotech entrepreneur who founded the personal-genomics startup 23andMe. The event is advertised as a Tech Roundtable for 20, with tickets set at $32,400 — a $648,000 haul for the Democratic National Committee.
He also was scheduled to be the featured guest at an event hosted by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Sam Altman, the 29-year-old president of Y Combinator, a venture capital firm that seeds tech startups.
“One of the dynamics that people on the East Coast and particularly in Washington, D.C., may not fully appreciate is that these folks are in a space that is growing,” said California-based Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. “That adds an entire pool of fresh donor blood into the mix.”
Obama was spending two nights in California. On Wednesday he was the star attraction at a fundraiser for House and Senate Democrats at the Los Angeles home of Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn. On Thursday he was also to attend two other Democratic events, including one at the La Jolla home of billionaire and former Qualcomm Chairman Irwin Jacobs.
The role of the computer and Internet industry in politics has grown sharply over the past 10 years, increasing political contributions and expanding its lobbying presence. Executives and employees in the industry favor Democrats, yet the political action committees set up by individual tech firms tend to split their money more evenly.
So far this election cycle, computer and Internet industry political action committees have contributed about $3.5 million, with about 54 percent of it going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Counting political action committees and individual donors, the industry has donated more than $14 million to federal candidates, giving $3 to Democrats for every $2 to Republicans, according to the center.
In addition to cybersecurity, Silicon Valley executives also have been pushing for an overhaul of immigration laws, partly to secure more H1B visas for high-tech workers but also in support of giving immigrants who are in the country illegally a chance to achieve citizenship.
Among the major tech players, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been an especially high-profile figure. He launched an advocacy group that has been among the most active on the immigration issue.
And he has been a vocal critic of the NSA’s data collection, calling Obama to voice his alarm. Shortly after, Obama met with Zuckerberg and CEOs from Google, Netflix and other tech and Internet companies, pledging to safeguard privacy rights.
The administration has since issued recommendations asking Congress to pass new privacy laws that would provide broader data protections for Americans from both the government and the private sector.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic political adviser also based in California, says he doesn’t see Obama suffering any permanent political damage with the tech community over the NSA revelation, but concedes that “obviously there was concern and it got expressed pretty vocally.”
Still, Russell Hancock, the chief executive officer of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a policy organization focused on regional issues, says the gridlock in Washington is hard to comprehend in a region that is constantly upgrading and acting on ideas. On the other hand, he said there is a libertarian streak in Silicon Valley that eschews government.
“There are different sets of sensibilities, there’s a different set of priorities and they’re not shared,” he said.
“We like the president. We want to like him even more,” Hancock said. “We wish he would spend more time here and not just to raise money.”
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