A wealthy young Silicon Valley venture capitalist hopes to recruit statewide and congressional candidates and launch an affordable-housing ballot measure in 2018 because he says California’s leaders are failing to address flaws in the state’s governance that are killing opportunities for future generations.
Sam Altman, 32, said in May that he was considering a run for governor. But he said in an interview with The Times this week that he has no plans to run for office — at the moment — and will instead roll out an effort Wednesday to enlist candidates around a shared set of policy priorities — including tackling how automation is going to affect the economy and the cost of housing in California — and is willing to put his own money behind the effort.
“I think we have a fundamental breakdown of the American social contract and it’s desperately important that we fix it,” he said. “Even if we had a very well-functioning government, it would be a challenge, and our current government functions so badly it is an extra challenge.”
Altman is the president of Y Combinator, a technology incubator that has provided start-up funding to hundreds of Silicon Valley companies, notably Airbnb, Dropbox and Stripe. He first made his mark by co-founding a social media app called Loopt when he was 19 that later sold for $43 million.
He said he hopes to recruit a slate of four candidates to run for office — possibly for governor, lieutenant governor, mayor of a major city in California and Congress — and could provide technology platforms and seed money for their campaigns.
Though Altman said he is not specifically targeting Democratic politicians, he made clear he is not happy with incumbents such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein or the current gubernatorial field, which includes Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“I’m not satisfied with the current choices,” Altman said. “I don’t want to make this about dumping on specific people, [but] I don’t think any of the current candidates are the best we could do.”
He would not be the first wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur to try to shake up California politics based on his tech resume. Among them are former eBay chief Meg Whitman, who spent $144 million of her own money on an unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2010, and former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, who ran for Senate in 2010 before running for president in 2016.
In recent years, tech industry executives have played notable roles helping candidates get elected to top office, including Google parent company Alphabet Inc. CEO Eric Schmidt, who backed former President Obama, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who supported President Trump.
Altman declined to say how much he was willing to spend on his effort but said he would prefer to invest heavily on a cause rather than underwriting individual campaigns.
“That’s always felt gross to me,” he said. “I’m happy to spend a lot of money supporting the movement.”
Over the years, Altman has been registered as a Democrat and as having no party preference, and his political donations swing between liberal and center-left.
Last year, he donated $100,000 to a San Francisco group working to elect moderates to the county Board of Supervisors, and $50,000 to an Airbnb committee that backed an increase in the city sales tax. He has also spent thousands of dollars backing Obama and national and local Democratic groups, as well as congressional, legislative and local candidates.
On a website that launches Wednesday, Altman lays out his concerns and policy goals. He argues that the state’s priorities have become unbalanced, resulting in inequality, stalled growth and declining opportunity. And it will only become worse because of an upcoming economic shift driven by automation, he says.
“We need to figure out a new social contract, and to ensure that everyone benefits from the coming changes,” Altman writes on the site.
Altman lays out 10 principles including lowering the cost of housing, creating single-payer healthcare, increasing clean energy use, improving education, reforming taxes and rebuilding infrastructure.
He has few specific policy edicts, and floats proposals that will generate controversy, such as creating a universal basic income for all Americans in an effort to equalize opportunity, public funding for the media and increasing taxes on property that is owned by foreigners, is unoccupied or has been “flipped” by investors seeking a quick return on an investment.
Altman said he recognizes he faces an uphill battle.
“Maybe this will go nowhere,” he said. “There’s always the possibility I put this out and there’s exactly one person who believes in this stuff and it’s me.”
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