When Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his choice for a running mate earlier this week, the mainstream business press was unanimous as to what it meant for Silicon Valley executives: relief.
A sampling of the headlines that followed Biden’s announcement: “With Sen. Kamala Harris ascending to become former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate, Silicon Valley can breathe a little easier, at least for now” (CNN business). “Silicon Valley Sees Kamala Harris as One of Its Own” (Wall Street Journal). “Kamala Harris could be the best thing that ever happened to Big Tech” (Fortune). “Kamala Harris is a friend, not foe, of Big Tech” (MarketWatch). “Kamala Harris: the First Candidate of Silicon Valley” (Forbes). “Kamala Harris Has Wall Street and Silicon Valley’s Support” (New York Times).
For all the talk of Harris’s supposed ability to unify the Democratic Party, some of her strongest backing comes from a narrow fraction of US capital. Donors to her failed presidential bid included Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky, Microsoft president Brad Smith, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, Oracle NetSuite executives Evan Goldberg and Dorian Daley, Cisco CFO Kelly Kramer, former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos, and venture capitalist John Doerr.
As Politico reports, “Other past Harris funders include Tony Fadell, co-founder of smart thermostat maker Nest; Jony Ive, the design guru at Apple; Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder and former Facebook president; and Brian Chesky, chief executive of Airbnb, the home-sharing service.” TechNet, a tech industry trade group, quickly applauded Biden’s choice, stating that “TechNet has worked with Senator Harris since her days as California Attorney General, and we know her to be a person of great intellect, integrity, and ability who fights for those who need a strong voice for justice.”
Having risen to her current position in the Senate by ascending the ranks of San Francisco society, Harris has made building relationships with tech executives a well-honed skill, and her ties to the industry date back to her early years in California politics. Recode’s Teddy Schleifer, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, ex-Yahoo executive Marissa Mayer, and ex-Apple executive Jony Ive, among others, fundraised for Harris’s 2014 California attorney general reelection bid.
Tony West, Harris’s brother-in-law, is chief legal counsel for Uber, a company that is openly threatening to engage in a capital strike — temporarily shutting down its operations and throwing thousands of drivers out of work during an economic crisis — in response to a court ruling mandating that the company classify its drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. While Harris is not responsible for the actions of her family members, West previously helped direct Harris’s 2016 Senate transition operation, and, having served as associate attorney general in the US Department of Justice — the DoJ’s number-three position — has been viewed as a possible candidate for a position in a Biden-Harris administration.
(It should be noted that despite these ties, which extend to Harris’s niece Meena, who worked at Uber until recently, Harris publicly endorsed AB5, taking the opposite side of Uber in the company’s ongoing fight with the state. As a US senator, of course, Harris has no direct role in California labor policymaking, and as Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and former president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, told the Los Angeles Times last year, it would have been particularly difficult for Harris to oppose the legislation: “Not just because labor is in favor of it, but because she’s going to look otherwise like she’s making a decision to benefit her family.”)
Mere moments after Biden announced Harris’s place on the Democratic ticket, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — whose best-selling book Lean In Harris helped promote — celebrated the decision as a “huge moment for Black women and girls all over the world.” “Joe Biden you made a great choice!” tweeted Laurene Powell Jobs, a billionaire philanthropist and Steve Jobs’s widow.
As for Harris’s own record on tech issues, while she’s stated that she’s in favor of regulating companies to protect consumer privacy, she is no advocate of Elizabeth Warren’s anti-monopolist line that calls for breaking up companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google, nor Bernie Sanders’s calls for a radical redistribution of wealth.
“I believe that the tech companies have got to be regulated in a way that we can ensure, and the American consumer can be certain, that their privacy is not being compromised,” she told the New York Times when asked about the subject. When pressed about breaking up such companies, she evaded the question, responding that her “first priority is going to be that we ensure that privacy is something that is intact, and that consumers have the power to make decisions about what happens with their personal information and that it is not being made for them.”
During her time as California attorney general, Harris did little to stand in the way of Silicon Valley’s massive centralization of wealth, preferring to work with companies rather than against them. As Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, told MarketWatch, “It was deeply troubling that as AG, she oversaw the growth of the biggest sector in America that dominates our privacy and our choices, and didn’t file a single case to take on that power.”
“Ultimately I have to guess she will be a quiet ally for [the tech industry] behind the scenes,” Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist, told the Washington Post.
All of this reinforces fears that Harris’s ascent will come at the expense of working-class people, whose labor rights, livelihoods, and privacy are viewed by Silicon Valley companies as impediments to their business models. It’s also likely part of the reason Harris trumped her competitors for the role of vice presidential candidate. As Cooper Teboe, a Democratic Party fundraiser in Silicon Valley told Vox, “She is the safest pick for the donor community.”
It’s incontrovertible that Harris’s addition to the ticket has indeed enthused donors — just look at what it’s done for fundraising over the past forty-eight hours — but we should consider what strings are attached to that support.