Democratic presidential hopefuls Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg (L) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (R).
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
Osman Baskaya, a senior data scientist at software maker Twilio, contributed $500 to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. The 34-year-old immigrant from Turkey supports the Vermont senator’s positions on universal health care and raising taxes on the wealthy.
Byron Deeter, a Twilio board member and investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, is a lifelong Republican and shares Baskaya’s desire to get Donald Trump out of office — but not with Sanders. In Tuesday’s Democratic California primary, Deeter is voting for Mike Bloomberg, who he says has the best chance at beating Trump while also pursuing a pro-business agenda.
The fissure within the walls of San Francisco-based Twilio mimics the broader divide in the tech industry. While almost universally anti-Trump, Silicon Valley is throwing its weight behind two candidates who couldn’t be further apart on the ideological spectrum. One is a self-described democratic socialist touting the need for a “political revolution” and the other is a businessman and ex-Republican who’s worth close to $60 billion.
For those in the Bloomberg camp, Bernie anxiety hit a fever pitch after the Nevada caucus on Feb. 22, which Sanders won to become the clear frontrunner and, some say, a clear and present danger to the future of the innovation economy. Sanders fanatics find it hard to imagine supporting Bloomberg, should he win the primary, and backers of the former New York mayor can be heard whispering about a contested Democratic convention in July if Sanders ends up with the most delegates.
“It’s inconceivable to me that we’re seriously considering a Democratic nominee that’s an admitted socialist and doesn’t have a coherent strategy for leading America forward,” said Deeter, who’s spent 15 years at Bessemer and was one of the first investors in Twilio. “He doesn’t stand a chance in the general election and we’re missing a golden opportunity to elect a moderate who can actually get things done.”
In a Facebook post on Feb. 18, Deeter wrote that Bloomberg is the first Democratic presidential candidate he’s been “hugely enthusiastic about,” adding that he’s on the Committee for Mike, which is aimed at raising “enthusiasm (not money!)” for the candidate. Bloomberg is self-funding his campaign and has thus far spent close to a half-billion dollars.
Baskaya can’t vote because he moved to the U.S. from Turkey just before the 2016 election and isn’t yet a citizen. Still, he and his wife, who works at Google, are preparing to take time off from their jobs to volunteer in competitive states if Sanders is the nominee, or if it’s the similarly progressive Elizabeth Warren.
They’re not alone in their enthusiasm. Among tech employees, Sanders has received more money than any other candidate, topping Warren and Pete Buttigieg and way ahead of Joe Biden, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. President Trump is far behind all of them.
Sanders is prepping for a rally on Sunday afternoon in San Jose, near many of the biggest tech companies in the world, and this week a group of DJs held a fundraiser for Sanders at a bar in San Francisco’s Mission district.
It fits a broader theme for Sanders: he appeals to the youth. A January Quinnipiac poll showed that 53% of likely Democratic voters under age 35 are for Sanders, a demographic that only gives 2% of its support to Bloomberg. The same poll showed that for respondents age 65 and older, Bloomberg leads Sanders 14% to 7%.
The tech industry has helped Sanders build a big polling lead in California. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average as of Feb. 28, Sanders is favored by 33.5% of voters, followed by Warren at 13.9% and 13.3% for Biden, who scored a big victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday. Bloomberg is fourth at 11.3%, though he picked up a key endorsement in January, when San Francisco Mayor London Breed told the San Francisco Chronicle that Bloomberg “has the ability to beat Donald Trump this November, and that is of the most concern to me.”
At stake in California are 415 delegates, the most of any state and a big portion of the 1,991 needed to capture a majority and win the nomination.
Sanders has been a staunch critic of tech’s power
Sanders is not an obvious choice for tech. He regularly criticizes the industry for its excesses, and the biggest companies face the likelihood of greater regulation in a Sanders administration, namely with a Federal Trade Commission that will review big acquisitions.
“Bernie has made it very clear that when he is in the White House he will reinvigorate the FTC and appoint an attorney general who will aggressively investigate and break up tech giants,” said Anna Bahr, the Sanders campaign’s communications director for California. “I don’t think anyone is surprised that folks who might not benefit from those changes are concerned about him taking office, but he’s focused on supporting the workers who have really suffered under a lot of these corporate practices and we will continue to stand with them and are grateful for their support.”
The Bloomberg campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Baskaya recognizes that he would pay more in taxes if his candidate wins and that he could lose some health-care benefits if private insurance were eliminated under Medicare for All. But Baskaya says he’s inspired by Sanders’ effort to narrow the dramatic economic gap between the very rich and the poor while calling for higher pay for nurses, teachers and other critical but lower-paid professions.
Meanwhile, there’s a glaring gap within tech companies. Apple CEO Tim Cook made 200 times the amount of the median-salaried employee at the iPhone maker in the latest fiscal year, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella earned 249 times above the median salary at his company.
“We have short-sighted reasons for not supporting Bernie, but we need to address this pay gap,” said Baskaya, who hopes to be eligible to vote in the next presidential election. “These are things that executives at tech companies and rich people don’t want to hear.”
Alyssa Fetini, a senior human resources business partner at Dropbox, says she’s donated about $1,000 to the Sanders campaign (the maximum amount allowed is $2,800) and also supported him in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won the primary. Fetini describes herself as historically “on the fringes when it came to voting,” preferring left-wing candidates like Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich, who never had a shot of winning.
“This is the first time that the candidate I’m most passionate about is also viable, and that’s deeply, deeply exciting to me,” Fetini said. “These issues are no longer fringe issues, they’re really at the forefront.”
Fetini, 34, lives and works in San Francisco, where the homeless problem sits right at the doorstep of the very multibillion-dollar companies that are printing money for investors and top executives. Like Baskaya, she supports greater pay equity and universal health care so that people without insurance or with limited coverage don’t have to choose between going to the doctor and putting food on the table.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have what we have but I would rather everybody have health care instead of keeping everything at the status quo so I can keep getting acupuncture through my work,” Fetini said.
Thanks to employees like Fetini, Sanders has raised $6.8 million from communications and electronics companies and $1.6 million from internet companies, topping all other candidates, according to the CRP. He’s the leading recipient of funds from employees at Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet, and almost 22% of contributions have come from people in California.
They’re largely undeterred by Sanders’ promise for expanded regulation. As a candidate, he’s taken on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for not doing enough to combat climate change and slammed the e-retailer for not paying enough in taxes. He also criticized Apple for paying too little to help fix California’s housing crisis.
The backdrop is a global economy that’s increasingly dominated by Big Tech. The five most valuable companies in the U.S. are all in the tech industry and located between Seattle and Silicon Valley.
“You really do need an external force, some sort of external watchdog that pushes back against these industries,” said Andre Stackhouse, a software engineer at Microsoft who donated the maximum amount to Sanders. “I think a lot of what Sanders talks about would be good for the industry.”
Patrick Michaelsen, who works as a mid-level software engineer at Amazon in Arizona, was registered as a Republican in 2016. But he switched his affiliation this election cycle so he could vote for Sanders in his state’s Democratic primary on March 17. Michaelsen donated more than $2,000 to the Sanders campaign after a friend encouraged him to take a deeper look at the candidate’s positions, including on Amazon’s taxes.
“Amazon people believe that we’re all leaders and we’re all vocally critical of our leaders to make sure we make the right decisions,” Michaelsen said. “So when Bernie calls out Amazon for their zero tax dollars, he’s really calling on them to be a leader in the corporate space.”
Democratic presidential candidate, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks to supporters at a rally on February 20, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
George Frey | Getty Images
Bloomberg supporters worry about more divisiveness
Even Bloomberg favors raising taxes, a necessary position for any Democrat who hopes to win on a national stage. Bloomberg supports repealing Trump’s tax cut to high-income earners, and he and Sanders are both in favor of raising the capital gains tax rate so that it’s treated like ordinary income. That means venture capitalists and private equity investors, who make much of their money on the profits from their investments, would see a steep tax hike, though Bloomberg’s increase would only apply to people who make $1 million or more in income.
That’s all fine by Josh Wolfe, co-founder of venture firm Lux Capital. Wolfe is a Democrat who says, “I personally abhor Trump and I’m public about it.” He’s not worried about paying more in taxes, but he is concerned about the radical nature of Sanders’ proposals and, perhaps more importantly, the extreme rhetoric.
Wolfe says that when he talks to friends, family members and colleagues, everyone he knows is exhausted from the divisiveness of the Trump era and he worries that Sanders represents an equally dangerous swing in the opposite direction. He wants a return to civility and to be able to go to work without feeling the drain of such negative discourse.
“I pine for a time when people’s productive attention was not consumed by the daily chaos,” said Wolfe, who’s lived in New York his whole life, including during Bloomberg’s 12-year tenure as mayor. “I saw a mayor that was rational and surrounded himself with people who were confident, not corrupt and held to high standards.”
Asked whether Wolfe would support Sanders if he wins the nomination, he said, “I’m holding out the hope for a mano-a-mano DNC between Bloomberg and Bernie.”
Christopher Benham, a sales manager at a software start-up called Workato, has a front-row seat as the battle between tech workers and Silicon Valley money heats up. His dad works at a private equity firm and “is very anxious about Bernie,” even though he doesn’t vote Republican, Benham said.
Benham is 31, single and lives with roommates in San Francisco. He supported Sanders in 2016 and has already voted for him ahead of Super Tuesday. He said he’ll do phone-banking for whoever wins the Democratic primary, but his preference for Sanders is based on what he calls 30 years of a consistent message around economic justice.
The populist message, the appeal to blue-collar workers and the enthusiasm are critical to winning in November, he said.
“It’s going to be necessary for the Democratic party to harness that to beat Trump,” Benham said. “Business as usual is not going to be an electable strategy.”
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