The Los Altos Shrink Taking Over Washington

Karla Jurvetson
Photo by Randy Vazquez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
September 21, 2021

About a month ago, Chuck Schumer was on the phone with the political group Voices for Progress, explaining to some donors and party activists the bind that Democrats like him were in when it came to passing a new voting-rights law. Things are hard, was his gist. Give me time. 

There was one person on the line, though, who was not the ordinary rabble-rouser, and who was particularly impatient with Democrats’ lackadaisical timeline for getting it done. And so when Schumer opened the conference call for questions, a little-known psychiatrist named Karla Jurvetson forcefully made her case to the Senate Majority Leader, expounding all of the reasons that democracy itself might be at stake if they didn’t move more quickly, according to four people familiar with the call, which was supposed to be kept tightly under wraps.

Jurvetson, despite being one of the party’s biggest donors and the financial muscle behind the Democratic push on voting rights, has closely guarded her privacy. Few regular people knew her name until she was revealed as the dominant $15 million funder of a super PAC that tried to inject life into Elizabeth Warren’s flagging campaign in February 2020. In the heat of the primary battle, the donation was caustically criticized by the Bernie left as a betrayal of Warren’s pledge to abstain from big money fundraising. Warren, who Jurvetson introduced at a fundraiser at her home in 2018, would later refer to her benefactor obliquely as a “stunningly generous woman.”

But Jurvetson is certainly recognized among the Democratic power brokers who cash her checks. When Barack Obama came for his sole Silicon Valley fundraising event of the 2020 cycle, Jurvetson was chosen to host the former president. I sat in Jurvetson’s living room as everyone from Steph Curry to wannabe ambassadors paid her their respects. When Nancy Pelosi hosted 200 donors for a retreat in Napa earlier this month, Jurvetson was seated at the speaker’s side at her table, next to actual ambassadors and quasi-royalty, according to one guest. In the carefully choreographed and ego-driven world of big-money politics, neither of these symbolic gestures are random occurrences.

After volunteering and donating small amounts to Democratic campaigns for two decades, Jurvetson was motivated by her disgust of Donald Trump to become a full-time mega-donor, putting her psychiatric practice on pause. But the timing of Trump’s election was also serendipitous. In 2016, Jurvetson filed for divorce from her wealthy husband, venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, eventually gaining sole control over a big political checkbook. Steve Jurvetson had made a killing by riding shotgun to Elon Musk—he still remains a close confidant of the visionary provocateur. Musk has stood by Steve’s side, too, keeping him on the boards of Tesla and SpaceX after he was accused of sexual misconduct, a messy saga that I reported on extensively at Recode. Jurvetson, who was forced out of the legendary V.C. firm named after him, admitted to infidelity but said the relationships were consensual. 

One of the questions before Karla Jurvetson in the coming years, and one that Silicon Valley insiders tell me they are already trying to suss out, will be how much she wants to try to tear down and reform the tech industry that made her rich, a mission that would put the Warren mega-donor into conflict with the Silicon Valley in-crowd, like Eric Schmidt, whom she knows socially. “I think at the end of the day Karla Jurvetson is going to have a much bigger impact on the world that her ex-husband does,” said one associate of hers, adding, just for good measure: “I hope that he knows that.”

Jurvetson, after all, is a rarity in the heavily-male world of Silicon Valley and its microcosmic stratosphere of political mega-donors. That matters, because philanthropy and political funding are personal decisions that reflect personal biases. Female candidates tend to have smaller pools of financial support, in part, because they have historically not looked like the donors who underwrite their campaigns.

Jurvetson has set out to change that. Much of her money has backed female candidates like Warren. She has also put more than $30 million since 2018 into Emily’s List, which works to elect women who support abortion rights (and added Jurvetson to its board). The advocacy group is so dependent on her that longtime Emily’s List C.E.O. Stephanie Schriock acknowledged Jurvetson in her recent memoir for having “single-handedly changed our ability to win more races.” In private conversations Schriock has gone further, joking that Emily’s List really should be renamed Karla’s List, according to a person who has heard the quip. (Schriock told me she didn’t remember saying that, but did recall the day when Jurvetson first committed several million to the organization: “I didn’t often get surprised by investments like that out of the blue and I literally cried.”)

“Having a woman donor like her give to women candidates and causes at the level that she does, it’s just a game changer,” said one operative close to Jurvetson. “I wish we could clone her.”

I thought I knew the full Jurvetson story—she has been on my radar since early 2018, when she started depositing her war chest into progressive politics. But my interest was piqued yet again, much more recently, when I spoke with a source who relayed a number that startled me: Jurvetson’s team had privately claimed to them recently that she had spent about $250 million, all told, on the 2019-2020 cycle. A second source said that Jurvetston’s team had separately privately claimed to them that it was at least $200 million. 

Perhaps these claims were mere spitballs, and Jurvetson’s team disputed those figures as overblown. $200 to $250 million is obviously an extraordinary amount, far exceeding the $80 million or so that Jurvetson has publicly disclosed between 2017 and 2020. “Karla Jurvetson has one focus: ensuring every American has access to the ballot box and upholding the promise of democracy. The fact is we’ve never added up her contributions,” her aide, Cooper Teboe, said. “She’s not in the business of comparing numbers, she’s in the business of rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work alongside the activists who really deserve the credit.” But no matter the exact figures, Jurvetson clearly isn’t going anywhere. And so I began talking with a dozen people in Jurvetson’s orbit to pull back the curtain on her power, influence, and aspirations. (Jurvetson declined to be interviewed for this story.)

As her back-and-forth with Schumer suggests, Jurvetson is increasingly comfortable battling in Washington. She may have come into politics somewhat exclusively as an advocate for female candidates, but she has since undergone a political maturation that isn’t uncommon as mega-donors wade further and further into the muck. Jurvetson is guided formally by Teboe, an on-the-rise political fundraiser in the Bay Area, and has also grown to become a close friend of another donor-adviser, Andrea Dew Steele, the founder of Emerge America. More recently, she added adviser Aaron Goldzimer, who is leading her work on voting rights. But I consistently hear that Jurvetson is known for being far more hands-on than other donors when it comes to researching what to fund, hopping on exploratory calls with operatives to learn about their groups in a way that is uncommon for a donor of her stature, for instance. 

Now that the fires of the Trump threat have been doused, at least temporarily, Jurvetson has found a new cri de guerre: democracy reform. Earlier this year, House Democrats passed a landmark voting rights bill, the For the People Act, which was promptly swatted down in the Senate. Democratic leadership are still trying to advance a pared-down version of the bill, but it remains virtually impossible to pass as long as moderate senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema resist reforming the filibuster. 

Still, some leading progressives haven’t felt that Schumer and Joe Biden are doing all they can to prioritize the legislation. Several major donors have lodged complaints with the White House and Democratic leadership about the lack of urgency, I am told, with some making vague threats about denying future funding to the party until some version of the voting rights bill becomes law. “It’s just good money after bad now. So much money and time went in, victory secured, and Dems can’t wield power,” one frustrated Democratic major donor told me. “So investing now is like an abusive relationship.”

A different group of more data-driven donors, including Reid Hoffman’s influential chief adviser Dmitri Mehlhorn, strongly disagrees. For months, on email and Signal threads, these moneymen and their advisers have been debating the opportunity cost of prioritizing the voting rights battle over, say, protecting abortion rights. “A lot of smart, involved people think it’s a death march—that it’s not going anywhere, and it’s going to piss off people by not giving to the party,” said one person close to major contributors who disagrees with the voting-rights push. “There’s a broader group of people who are annoyed at it, frankly. This is all bullshit … This is a huge waste of energy and resources. They would all love for something to happen. But they’re trying to be clear-eyed about its actual chances.”

These are the fault lines in Silicon Valley and Washington writ large: With just two years on the clock before Republicans may retake control of Congress, just how ambitious should Democrats be? Jurvetson, contrary to the received wisdom of more pragmatic peers in the tech industry and elsewhere, seems to want to lead with her heart and go for broke.

To her detractors, of course, that just means she is naive. Jurvetson had been known in some political circles as fairly easy money, expressing excitement about longshot candidates like Amy McGrath in Kentucky and Mike Espy in Mississippi. To her fans, that simply identifies her as a true believer. Like Masayoshi Son upon meeting a promising A.I. startup, Jurvetson has on several occasions come back to political groups offering funding well above what they actually asked for in order to fill a budget gap.

And as is true with her donations, Jurvetson does much of this legwork herself. Her personal involvement on voting rights reflects what Democrats say is her strikingly unusual eagerness to engage in the trenches on substantive policy debates. Other donors outsource that to staff; Jurvetson joins the calls. This summer, she traveled to Washington multiple times to meet with activists and lawmakers. 

But this is not a feel-good episode of The West Wing, and Jurvetson is not above political warfare when it comes to her No. 1 cause. Jurvetson has developed particular ire for Sinema—“fucking hates her” in the words of one ally—the moderate Arizona Democrat who has stymied liberals’ policy priorities, including on voting rights and on the reconciliation bill. What makes it feel more personal is that Jurvetson helped raise money for Sinema’s tough campaign in 2018. But the two have since fallen out. On a brusque private call in May that included Jurvetson and the Arizona senator, the two clashed over how Democrats could move on the filibuster, I hear, with the call ending rather abruptly. 

Jurvetson has since spoken widely to her network about her desire to find and fund a primary challenger when Sinema faces reelection in 2024—the sort of hardball tactic that other Democratic operatives may see as premature and even counter-productive, but certainly isn’t naive.