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There is a reason reporters don’t often get invites to Congressional fundraisers: The politicians raking for cash don’t want anyone to know what goes on. But something different happened last month at a North Beach restaurant in San Francisco, when Ro Khanna, a Democratic candidate for California’s 17th District, worked a room filled with about 100 tech luminaries. As captured by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carla Marinucci, the event came off less as a fundraiser than a product launch.
The person speaking in that video is Sean Parker, age 33, net worth $2 billion, founder of Napster, former president of Facebook, the guy Justin Timberlake played in the movie, the one who agreed to a $2.5 million fine for building a crumbling castle wall in a redwood forest for his wedding last weekend. “We feel for a long time that Silicon Valley hasn’t been properly represented at a federal level,” Parker said, explaining his support for Khanna.
To back up a bit, it is worth knowing about Khanna. He is not your regular Congressional candidate, but a Silicon Valley lawyer, a veteran of the Obama Commerce Department and a 36-year-old who has already hired much of Obama’s 2012 campaign talent to run his race. (Grassroots organizer Jeremy Bird, bundler Steve Spinner and ad-man Larry Grisolano are all on board.) To make matters more interesting, Khanna’s target is a well-liked fellow Democrat in good standing, Mike Honda, 71, who has held federal office a dozen years without ever facing a serious challenge. “What has been missing has been Silicon Valley being a thought leader,” Khanna told me.
So what’s going on? Parker puts it well in the video. Silicon Valley is “starting to come into a realization of our own power” in politics. And the evidence is everywhere. In 2012, for the first time, the Democratic candidate for President raised more from Northern California (read: Silicon Valley) than Southern California (Hollywood). Google in 2012 spent more on lobbying in D.C. than Pfizer, Exxon Mobile and Boeing. (In fact, only General Electric spent more as an individual company.) The biggest buzzing new soft-money group of 2012, Fwd.us, is funded by wealthy tech investors and CEOs, like Parker, Mark Zuckerberg, and Ron Conway.
High tech, the fastest growing, newest, (some-say) coolest American industry, is in short turning its sites on government, and this shift is the subject of my story this week in TIME, which is available here for subscribers. (Really, you should subscribe. Good things aren’t free. And paper is a revolutionary technology. $2.99 a month. $30 a year.) The reasons for the growing interest in Democracy are not just altruistic. They also have a lot to do with the changing business models in Silicon Valley. The days when high-tech companies just turned out chips and desktop boxes are fading fast. The new tech makes taxi-hailing apps, driverless cars and ways of tracking your every move online. And more and more, what is possible is constrained by what is legal. Here is Google’s Larry Page at his company’s recent developers conference: “There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do because they’re illegal, or they’re not allowed by regulation, and that makes sense, we don’t want the world to change too fast.”
How are politicians handling this influx of interest? With bear hugs and fundraisers of course. This week, President Obama fulfilled a longtime dream of Silicon Valley leaders when he took executive actions to crack down on so-called “patent trolls,” just a few days before he jets west for another fundraiser in San Jose. Republicans have also learned to get into the game too. My favorite quote in the magazine piece comes from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a longtime friend of Silicon Valley, who told me about his efforts to convert the leaders out there. “They are terrific human beings, but a lot of them, because their wives are pro-abortion, think they have to be Democrats,” he says. “I just point out how stupid they are to support one party.”
There is more in the magazine story, but no need to spoil it. The rest you can read when it arrives in your mailbox, or when you buy it on the iPad, or snap it up at the newsstand. Or subscribe.
Click here to read Michael Scherer’s full story on Silicon Valley’s young disrupters, available exclusively for TIME subscribers.
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