Five years ago this week, a relatively obscure Stanford law professor named Barbara Fried hit send on an email that would transform her life. The subject line: “Proposed meeting on election project.” At the time, Fried was merely a curious and concerned academic, a polymath from a family of ubermensch intellectuals known for following their academic passions in a manner that seemed to almost parody a Saul Bellow novel or Woody Allen film. Fried’s husband, Joe Bankman, was a fellow Stanford law professor who had gone back to school midcareer to become a clinical psychologist who specialized in helping students manage their law school pressures. The couple’s eldest son, Sam Bankman-Fried, had graduated from M.I.T. and landed a job at the cutthroat hedge fund, Jane Street Capital, before founding some relatively obscure cryptocurrency exchange in Hong Kong. Barbara, for her part, occasionally moonlighted from her academic career to write fiction. Now she was at it again with a new obsession: politics.
As with many people in Silicon Valley, the Bankman-Frieds were galvanized by Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 victory. They hosted an election night watch party for 50 or so friends at their house, just off the Stanford campus. TVs were blaring results in multiple rooms, the tables laden high with snacks and drinks. Then the mood turned from splendid to somber as the results came in. Faculty and friends shuffled out to their cars in a stupor.
Fried was determined to do something. Over the next year or so, she underwent a midlife reawakening, pivoting from legal scholarship to the arcane study of campaign finance. On January 17, 2018, she sent an email to a small group of Democratic consultants, progressive donors, and university colleagues laying out her modest goals for what she described as a “risk-neutral” donor network.