Bill & Melinda Get Political

Bill and Melinda Gates
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty
Theodore Schleifer
January 4, 2022

It is January, and it is officially an election year. One of the big questions I’ve been reporting on over the last 18 months or so is whether Silicon Valley is done with politics—or is it just getting started? Donald Trump is no longer on the ballot, at least this fall, but there are a few telltale down ballot campaigns on my radar. They’re not the typical races that national media outlets will be covering, but they are races where, for one reason or another, some of the tech industry’s most influential players are asserting their will.

Plus, read all the way through for a little insight into Ron Conway’s latest tiff with the White House over pandemic readiness. Because the midterms aren’t the only big story of 2022—we know, sadly, that Covid will remain one, too.

The Gates-Kristof Vortex

For decades, Bill and Melinda Gates cultivated a reputation as above mere partisanship. They were, after all, one of America’s most celebrated non-celebrity couples, philanthropy rock stars knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and they had quite intentionally avoided descending into the earthly, oft-ugly world of political patronage, where contributions can recoil on billionaires who, above all else, want to maintain their status as citizens of the world. 

But in recent years, they’ve quietly begun to drop that posture. Their newfound largesse caught my attention thanks to Nick Kristof, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist whose focus on global human rights issues frequently intersected with the interests of the Gates Foundation. Kristof is now running for governor in his native Oregon, and late last year, he gained the support of the world’s second wealthiest woman: Melinda French Gates donated $50,000 to Kristof, making her one his campaign’s biggest donors—and more importantly, constituting her single largest donation ever.

The gift to Kristof hints at some evolution in the Gateses’ political philosophy. For as long as they’ve been public figures, the couple (when they were a couple) have consistently and independently said that they are uninterested in bankrolling campaigns or political groups, calling themselves a “bipartisan couple” that, whether with their words or their dollars, didn’t want to make endorsements. “I choose not to participate in large political donations,” Bill said in late 2019. “We never endorse a candidate,” Melinda said of Hillary Clinton before 2016. Yet more important than their official statements is what they started doing with their money. Because without much fanfare or press attention, they started writing real checks to candidates and political committees.

From 1998 through 2016, Melinda had made just $200,000 in 30 disclosed federal donations, with some of that directed toward Microsoft’s political action committee. But beginning in the fall of 2018, Melinda started cutting max-out checks to dozens of candidates and PACs, totalling 186 contributions and three-quarters of a million dollars over the last three years. She has donated to campaigns, PACs, and groups supporting female candidates or paid family leave, such as Emily’s List, but also to groups backing more surprising causes, including Republicans like Todd Young in Indiana and anti-Trump Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. In September 2020 alone, Melinda cut over 100 checks to these down-ballot groups and PACs, an explosion of political activity that funded everyone from Katie Porter to Elise Stefanik and Bill Cassidy. Bill Gates himself donated to some of those same people; he has undergone a similar about-face, if not quite as dramatic. Gates had donated a grand total of $610,000 in disclosed federal money before September 2020, when he exceeded that entire lifetime amount in a single month with $670,000 in 170 checks of his own.

To be sure, the combined $1.5 million that Bill and Melinda have spent from late 2018 to today does not rank them among the pantheon of big donors—they’re still not donating to super PACs, where the real money is. Maybe that sum doesn’t count, in Bill’s view, as “large political donations.” But Bill and Melinda have clearly made a shift, and are increasingly comfortable with weighing in on politics via their checkbooks. “Bill supports a bipartisan group of federal policymakers who have demonstrated commitment to the issues he cares most about,” a spokesman for him said when I asked if there was some strategy to the late 2020 deluge. “While Bill doesn’t support all the positions of these members, he believes it is important to support the policymakers who are working to advance the things he cares about most, including supporting continued U.S. leadership on foreign aid, tackling climate change, and providing educational opportunities for every American.”

That brings us to Kristof. Over his many years as a journalist, Kristof has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the Gateses, where he alternated between being a friend of the couple and an often gushing interlocutor. As a news reporter in the late 1990s, Kristof’s moving coverage of diseases like dysentery and malaria in India helped inspire the Gateses to spend billions on global health. After jumping to becoming a columnist, Kristof later traveled with the Gates couple on a fact-finding mission to Mozambique and Botswana to learn how to combat AIDS. Over the next 15 years, their relationship became almost incestuous: They interviewed each other at conferences; Kristof landed scoops for his columns on the Gates Foundation’s philanthropy; the couple blurbed his book. (“Nick has a long-standing professional relationship with Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates; one based on their shared interest in global health, human rights, reproductive health, and empowering women,” a campaign spokeswoman said. “He appreciates them joining the thousands of Oregonians who support his campaign for governor.”)

Now Kristof has capitalized on that relationship with a big check, one of the single biggest he’s received to date (other $50,000 donors include Reid Hoffman, Connie Ballmer, and WeWork’s other founder, Miguel McKelvey). I don’t mean to suggest that Kristof is unfairly trading on his past journalistic access—there’s no doubt that he and the Gateses became genuinely close, and Kristof was for most of that time an opinion journalist, not a news reporter. While $50,000 is obviously not a lot of money in modern politics, Melinda’s support reflects the importance of proximity to the Davos set. Kristof may portray himself as just another apple farmer from the Willamette Valley, but it pays to have a few friends in Seattle.

The Peninsula Comes to the Prairie

Another blue-state storyline with tech mega-donors is emerging in Illinois, which has developed a recent bipartisan habit of electing gazillionaires to the governor’s mansion, from Bruce Rauner to J.B. Pritzker. Could millennial venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan be next? Probably not, but the race is a prime example of how a few high-return relationships with Silicon Valley moneymen can effectively legitimize an otherwise random, no-chance-in-hell candidate, even if you’re not a columnist for The New York Times. Because that’s a trend that is only going to accelerate.

Sullivan’s biggest donor is Chris Larsen, the serial entrepreneur and crypto billionaire whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. Larsen is a Democrat, and a somewhat liberal one—as I explained, he’s one of the few tech industry leaders backing controversial progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. But Larsen is also a very well-connected Silicon Valley insider, and generous with his network … and that’s how he ended up cutting a $5 million check to Sullivan, a Republican, late last year. Larsen confirmed to me that his donation— constituting almost half of Sullivan’s $11 million in disclosed fundraising to date—is his single biggest political donation ever. (There are no contribution limits in this race. Sullivan also took in $4 million from Asurion founder Kevin Taweel.) Larsen said he first met Sullivan through connections at Stanford Business School, and he began supporting Sullivan’s nonprofit work, and then his seed fund. Larsen sent me a gushing statement about Sullivan, calling him, among other things, “easily among the highest integrity people I know.” The two had “talked about how Illinois has the potential to become a top-five global financial center with the right resources and leadership.”

Sullivan is hardly a prominent name in the industry. (For what it’s worth, I had never heard of him or his firm, Alter Global, before this.) But that’s sort of my point—with so many HNWI patrons and permissive campaign finance systems across the country, even a bit-player can leverage a relationship or two into immediate relevance. Sullivan’s campaign was circumspect when I asked them why he had been so successful at fundraising with the tech industry—the candidate “is proud to receive support from people who have known and worked with him for years,” I was told. But he was much more explicit about the value of milking the Silicon Valley teat in a fundraising deck that leaked to Politico. “STRATEGIC IMPERATIVE: FUNDING TO BECOME THE EARLY FRONTRUNNER” read one slide, noting that any early money “provides instant credibility to a political newcomer, while raising name ID” to “unlocks the next round of large Chicago donors who will back the leading candidate.” Indeed, that early money has made it possible for Sullivan to be the first to air in the TK media market, for instance. But as anyone taking big Silicon Valley money these days knows, tech contributions are also a potential liability. Sullivan’s opponents have already whacked him for feasting on the “big checkbooks” of “Silicon Valley elites.”

Ron Conway Asks Biden to “Step Up!!”

In addition to the midterms, another big story of 2022 will be the infuriatingly neverending pandemic. That’s been an ongoing priority for tech elites, who have benefited disproportionately from the pandemic-era boom in tech company valuations but have also been trying to use their resources and relationships to broker solutions. The Gateses shifted almost all of their work to fighting Covid; Dustin Moskovitz and Sam Bankman-Fried are spending their millions to pressure the White House and the state of California into allocating more money for pandemic preparedness. Equally as involved has been Ron Conway, the Silicon Valley elder statesman and Democratic macher, who flashed a little anger on Twitter over the New Year’s weekend, calling on Joe Biden and the C.D.C. to “step up!!” their efforts to build a national system to notify citizens when they have an exposure to someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

Conway’s plea for better contact tracing was notable if only because he felt the need to go public with his criticism. Conway, who has given millions to Democrats over the years, enjoys some access to the White House, and presumably could be making that case behind the scenes. Conway told me that was right—he has “made appeals privately as well.”

Late last year, Conway helped lead an effort by technology leaders in California to accomplish something similar—CA Notify—but it was widely seen as having been unsuccessful, in large part because it was poorly marketed to the public and few people signed up. Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, there is arguably even less urgency for the kind of system that Conway is promoting. Someone involved with the CA Notify effort told me they didn’t understand why, when it feels like everyone has Covid, Conway would be spending his political capital for an exposure notification system, which is more helpful when outbreaks are rarer and more easily traced. “It just seems like such a weird thing to prioritize in this moment, when the general consensus is that is not an appropriate tool for times of widespread community transmission. It’s basically like an alarm that would be going off constantly,” my contact involved with the California effort told me. “I’m very happy that he’s using his platform to urge for more robust pandemic response at the federal level. I’m also very curious why exposure notifications are his focus at this time.” 

When I put that question to Conway directly, he argued that it was the state-by-state approach to contract tracing that had limited its effectiveness. “The Biden administration has done far more to direct and coordinate a national response to the pandemic than the last one, but we can do more. We need a national exposure notification application, not a patchwork of state systems that will never achieve a critical mass of users needed for effective notification,” Conway said. “The virus is now endemic—it is here to stay. A national exposure notification application should be an important part of the long-term strategy to help us ‘live’ with the virus without shutdowns, lockdowns, and ongoing economic disruption.”