Yuri’s Red Line & The Chesa Money Bomb

Chesa Boudin
Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty
Theodore Schleifer
March 15, 2022

Over three short weeks, Yuri Milner has gone from hyper-cautious to hyper-critical on the delicate matter of Vladimir Putin. Milner, as I wrote earlier this month, is the Silicon Valley leader with the closest disclosed ties to the Kremlin, and so has been under pressure to say something about the regime that helped bankroll his career in venture capital. Milner has since become an Israeli citizen, and relatively little of the total money he has raised, by this point, can be tied back to Moscow. Still, a now-sanctioned Russian oligarch provided pivotal early backing for Milner’s firm, DST Global, that made it possible for him to make a spectacularly successful bet on Facebook. And so as corporate America grew louder and more unanimous in its opposition to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed a safe prediction that Yuri—now a bona fide tech celebrity with a $100 million mansion in the Los Altos hills—wouldn’t be able to stay silent without facing some kind of backlash in the media, if not from his peers. 

Even so, I confess that I was surprised on Monday when Milner’s team released an unequivocal, finger-wagging condemnation of the government that made his American dream possible. “The Breakthrough Prize Foundation strongly condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its unprovoked and brutal assaults against the civilian population,” reads one of two statements released Monday, this one by Milner’s signature philanthropic effort. “We wholeheartedly endorse their stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in support of their unqualified right to peace, security and self-determination.”

An initial statement from the foundation, issued earlier this month, offered a more cerebral, even poetic, commentary about how wars thwart science and endanger refugees. But it was pretty wishy-washy about why there was said war or who was fueling the refugee crisis—the word “Russia” did not appear anywhere, for instance. The foundation merely lamented “the devastating war and tragic humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine.” At the time, I read that statement as a genuine attempt by Yuri to use his wealth to address a humanitarian catastrophe that I’m sure pains him—the foundation announced a $3 million emergency donation—while at the same time avoiding saying anything that might risk family, friendships, or financial partnerships back home. Those generous to Yuri might argue that the wishy-washy version was the best he could do, given just how delicate the situation was for him.

Over the course of the last several days, however, the Russian invasion turned vastly more violent—indiscriminate bombing of civilians, threats to shoot down civilian aircraft, fears that Putin could unleash biological or chemical weapons—making the initial statement, in my view, increasingly untenable. The second, more forceful statement, was like the first issued in the name of the Breakthrough foundation and its chairman, Pete Worden. But make no mistake—Milner is the foundation’s founder, serves as its president, and has donated almost all of the money that the group has raised in recent years. This is Yuri speaking.

If there was any ambiguity, it was erased a few hours later, on Monday afternoon, when Milner’s venture firm, DST, added a strong statement of its own. “DST Global condemns Russia’s war against Ukraine, its sovereign neighbor,” the firm said. “Like so many people and institutions around the world, DST Global is deeply concerned about the terrible humanitarian disaster and the desperate plight of fleeing refugees.” DST also said it would donate $3.5 million to a humanitarian GoFundMe campaign organized by Ashton Kutcher and his Ukrainian-American wife Mila Kunis, making for a total of $14.5 million dedicated to the refugee crisis by Milner and his firm.

I’ve always tried to be clear in my writing that Milner is not, by any normal definition, a Russian “oligarch” himself. He is, if anything, merely a beneficiary oligarchs, or at least one specific oligarch, Alisher Usmanov. If Usmanov himself had been investing his money in Silicon Valley, I’m sure that startups would be sprinting away from him faster than you can say superyacht. With Yuri, there was at least an arms-length—perhaps many arms-length—distance between DST Global’s original oligarch L.P. and the armada of portfolio companies that his money helped to fund. And as Yuri succeeded, more money flowed into his coffers from more noble sources.

And yet, it’s precisely that distance that developed between Milner and Russia that has made me wonder whether his dilemma was truly as tricky as it appeared at first blush. The other week I remarked to my friends Tom Dotan, Katie Benner and Eric Newcomer on their podcast that perhaps it shouldn’t be so difficult for Milner to speak out now, given what a small percentage of DST’s funds the firm claims come from foreign L.P.s. What would he really be sacrificing at this point? With these statements on Monday, I suspect that Yuri reached the same conclusion—that the goose was cooked. The Russian economy has been vaporized, its oligarchs’ funds have been frozen or seized, and it may be years, if not decades, before money flows freely again between Moscow and the West. For Milner, like many expats, there’s no going back now.

Biden’s Ambassador Bingo

There are few storylines that I mischievously find more entertaining than Ambassador Bingo, in large part because of the amazingly large delta between the real significance of these vanity diplomatic appointments and how much they matter to the 43 people who obsess over them (all of whom probably receive this column). The “bingo” in question, of course, is the more-than-a-little-hyped, more-than-a-little gross, bipartisan tradition of giving plum ambassadorships to big campaign donors—not by auction, but not not by auction, if you know what I’m saying. Hence the simmering drama among Democratic mega-donors over President Joe Biden’s apparent reluctance to reward his most loyal patrons. There are currently dozens of vacancies for luxury postings in places like San Marino, the Seychelles, Trinidad and Tobago, and so on.

It’s a dynamic that has struck donors as either laudable, politically maladroit, or both. After the rope-a-dope diplomacy of the Trump era, Biden wanted to usher in a new era of professionalism in the foreign service—and giving donors these gigs, no matter how qualified they may be, is awful politics to a middle-school math teacher in Milwaukee. And yet there is an equally logical, more realpolitik argument that doing so is actually good politics—that spurning these donors, who Democrats need to host chicken dinners again and again, may backfire. Some have mused openly to me that the only explanation for Biden’s reluctance to reward his supporters must be, naturally, that he is not running for reelection in 2024. 

That strikes me as a stretch, but it speaks to the very real sense of hurt among the party’s financiers that they haven’t received more ego stroking from the White House. Biden’s outreach to the bundler set has been widely seen as underwhelming; out here in San Francisco, I have been surprised that Biden himself hasn’t done a political or a fundraising trip here to date. (While Jill Biden raised money here last week, the president only held his first in-person fundraiser last night, in Washington.)

The hullabaloo has been on my mind of late because of the weekend news that Shefali Razdan Duggal, the San Francisco fundraising impresario, managed to nab a coveted nomination to serve as U.S. envoy to the Netherlands. As I previewed for early Puck readers, Duggal and Jonathan Kaplan, were seen as two of the likeliest Silicon Valley bundlers to succeed in landing gigs (Kaplan was since nominated for Singapore). And yet their ability to overcome Biden’s foot-dragging is a credit to their individual political gamesmanship. 

Asking around among Shefali’s peers over the weekend, I encountered a mix of eye-rolling—her legendary effervescence rubs some people the wrong way—and genuine respect for her hustle, given the odds. (Others, true to form in this world, just wanted to know whether she had raised more than they did.) Duggal’s true genius, though, was choosing the right candidate: She was one of the few major Biden bundlers in the Bay Area in early 2019, and stuck with him even when the campaign seemed on life-support. But she didn’t only deserve it—she also worked it, getting the right people to pitch her candidacy to Biden’ decision-makers. A year-plus later, her loyalty and pluck has been rewarded.

Awaiting the Chesa Money Bomb

The recall election of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is now just three months away, but will the anti-Chesa campaign money actually arrive as promised? Back in December, I described how Chesa’s criminal justice reform agenda had fueled an intense backlash among wealthy Bay Area residents who want a tougher approach to rising crime. Color me surprised, then, that more cash hasn’t yet flowed into this race, given the high stakes and potent national symbolism that will be read into the results. 

We haven’t gotten an update on where big donors stand since new disclosures came out at the end of December, but last Thursday we entered the period where each and every donation of more than $1,000 will have to be disclosed in real-time. I’ll provide updates on the fundraising in future columns.

The media narrative surrounding Chesa—the child of infamous 1970s radicals—has become a national cause celebre, thanks in no small part to massive right-wing hyperventilating over the supposedly crime-ridden, drug-addled state of the once great San Francisco. (Jim Cramer, not a San Franciscan, absurdly claimed on live television last month that you can no longer walk along the Embarcadero in broad daylight without fearing for your life.) But while tech personalities like Michelle Tandler—and plenty of ordinary people, too—may rage about Chesa, what they have not done yet, in any serious way, is contribute much to an election that was predicted to carry a $10 million price tag. 

Again, contributions from the first 10 weeks of this year won’t be disclosed until mid-April. So it’s possible that the big anti-Chesa money is just coming in late. In the meantime, it’s certainly the case that the Chesa controversy has driven a fissure through what was a criminal justice reform-friendly establishment in Silicon Valley. Some lefty, pro-reform donors, like Karla Jurvetson, have chipped in to support Chesa; equally lefty, equally pro-reform donors including Nicole Shanahan, the wife of Sergey Brin, have donated to the recall campaign. Still, the dollar signs have been small. Jurvetson and Shanahan, for instance, have only given $5,000 and $2,000 respectively, despite the lack of contribution limits. The only mega-donor seemingly to take this race seriously, when it comes to pure political brawn, is Republican businessman Bill Obendorf, who is in for $600,000 to an anti-Chesa group. Many Silicon Valley heavyweights are sitting this one out altogether.

Now, sometimes in races the money can come very gradually and then all at once. Chesa has taken steps to better appeal to the tech community, for instance, attending a salon in December with several more-lefty tech entrepreneurs, I’m told. Meanwhile, the pro-recall side is pressing the advantage this month: A quintet of donors with ties to tech—Andy Schwab, Bryan Giraudo, Joe Cannata, Monty Woods and Patrick Malkassian—are hosting at least four $1,000-plus ticketed events this month, according to an invitation I’ve seen. Anti-recallers have only raised about $1 million, according to the most recent disclosures; the pro-recall groups have collected $2.5 million, but then again, they had to spend $1 million or so on signature-gathering just to make the ballot. 

What surely worries the Chesa camp more than the money race is what happened in the last recall election, just last month, when nearly three-quarters of San Francisco voters cast ballots to eject three progressive members of the school board—a throw-the-bums-out attitude that obviously portends poorly for the next incumbent to face the electorate (although turnout will be higher in June). The other big shoe to drop is where San Francisco Mayor London Breed stands, although if you listen to her public rhetoric, it’s hard to believe that she will be endorsing Chesa for reelection. If Chesa is recalled, you won’t just have to hear Cramer moan about a bygone San Francisco; prepare for more Tucker Carlson, an actual native San Franciscan, inveighing like he did after the school board results about a too-woke Democratic Party.