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Why this Silicon Valley magnate is funding a new wave of political candidates

Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, at the Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference on Tuesday, in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Getty Images)
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Still reeling from Donald Trump’s election, a prominent technologist is taking a page from powerful donors the Koch brothers, who remade state politics by recruiting and funding a new generation of GOP candidates.

Sam Altman, president of the Silicon Valley start-up incubator Y Combinator, announced Wednesday that he would spend from his personal fortune to enlist candidates who want to run for statewide office in California on a platform of “technology, economic fairness, and maintaining personal liberty.” The next races will be in 2018.

Altman, whose fund has helped launch companies such as Dropbox and Airbnb, is part of a wave of tech elites who are now looking to extend their influence beyond Silicon Valley into the wider political spectrum. Many of Altman’s contemporaries, including Mark Zuckerberg, saw Trump’s victory as a wake-up call, pushing them further into politics. Zuckerberg and Altman have gone on listening tours this year with the goal of hearing from Trump voters and people outside the Silicon Valley bubble.

In the liberal Bay Area, where the tech industry is celebrated as an innovation engine and criticized for increasing housing and wealth inequality, the effort is bound to be controversial. The Switch sat down with Altman to discuss his political push. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is this project about? A few months ago, people were saying you might run for governor.

A: For a while, I’ve been trying to recruit somebody to run for governor. I talked to a lot of people. And what I decided would be best is a team of people with the same policy goals as I have. What I want to say very transparently here is that I am looking to back candidates that have a similar view of the world and set of priorities that I have.

Q: Looks like you are taking a page from the Koch brothers' playbook.

A: Sort of. Yeah.

Q: How much are you spending? (This I asked in a follow-up email)

A: On the money question I honestly don't know, and I don't think it's what will determine success or failure.

Q: Your new website, the United Slate, lays out 10 policy goals. Tell me about them.

A: Firstly, we’re focused on housing. Housing is super important. It should be as affordable as possible. We need to have more housing and discourage the use of housing as a way to make money. Then there is health care, reducing the age of Medicare so it can be available to all, and clean energy, getting to 90 percent clean-energy sources by 2050. Given my background, I think where I can make the biggest contribution is in areas where technology can make the most difference. That’s where I am in a different position than some others.

Q: Many people in the Bay Area feel that the tech industry is one of the prime causes of the affordable-housing crisis here. Do you think people will rally around pro-affordable-housing candidates that are backed by the tech industry?

A: I traveled around the state, and this came up a lot: “You’re a tech guy. Why are you doing this?” But also, a lot of people said, “Why can’t we use tech to build cheaper housing?” Outside of the Bay Area, many people are asking, “Can there be more housing tech jobs in my area?” Some people think tech is the cause of all evil. Some think tech is the solution to all problems. The majority of people are in the middle.

Q: You're a Democrat (mostly). Has the Democratic Party lost its way?

A: To me, yes. I don't think most Democratic leaders share these principles and policies (some do, of course). Generally I think it's either pro-growth or pro-fairness. I want both — don't think they work without each other.

Q: Why are tech leaders getting more involved in politics? Is it the shock of the 2016 election or the opposition to Trump? You have Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg traveling around the country saying he needs to get out of the gilded bubble of Silicon Valley and see how America thinks.

A: We are in the middle of this giant societal revolution. And the tech industry can sort of see what is coming next because we are helping to create it. There is this sense among some of us that we have this responsibility to make sure that everyone benefits. In December and January, I also traveled all over the country and talked to Trump voters. It was really interesting. After the election, I felt so out of touch with half of America, so I wanted to talk to people to get a sense of why they voted for this person who I thought was so unfit to be president. And how they thought different from me and how they saw the world.

Q: Should Zuckerberg run for president?

A: Hasn’t he said he doesn’t want to? I certainly don’t think anyone who doesn’t want to should run.

Q: Are you still thinking about running for governor? You recently said you weren’t very charismatic.

A: Right now I’m trying to find other people to run. I think I can have a bigger impact that way, and honestly I just really like my current job.

Q: Why California?

A: It’s my home. And we are the sixth-largest economy in the world, with a long history of leading the country. I’d like to do more later. But it’s good to start in your own place.

Q: Is this a super-PAC?

A: It could become a PAC. Right now I’m recruiting and funding candidates.

Q: If you could pick one person from the tech world to run for office, who would it be?

A: Well, my first choice is still considering it. I can’t say who it is because I promised them that I wouldn’t say anything publicly. It’s not a super, super famous person.