Politics

He made millions as an L.A. investor. Now, he may run for president to fight poverty

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 19, 2019 - Joe Sanberg, millionaire investor and anti-poverty activist who i
Joe Sanberg, millionaire investor and anti-poverty activist, may join the very crowded 2020 Democratic presidential field.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Joe Sanberg was a bit flummoxed. He was trying to list all the Democrats running for president and, after naming 12 in fairly quick succession, was temporarily stuck.

“Holy smokes,” he muttered, “who am I missing?”

After 2 minutes and 25 seconds, the Los Angeles-based investor identified the whole field, 18 at the time. The candidates, like cells in a petri dish, have multiplied further since, but even with 23 contenders, Sanberg thinks there just might be room for one more.

“Who is running a campaign to end poverty?” Sanberg asked, the unspoken implied answer being, in his mind, “no one.”

“I would uniquely talk about poverty,” he said of a potential presidential run. “About poverty every hour of every single day and in a different way, which is poverty [for] the eight out of 10 Americans [who] are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Sanberg, 39, has never held political office, or even run for one. He’s not officially in the race, but has been making frequent trips to the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina and airing TV ads in the general election battleground of Ohio. He plans on making a decision by July.

If he jumps in, it will be on the audacious premise that Democratic voters are craving yet another option: a Gen X liberal Jew with a financially fraught childhood and a Wall Street pedigree, a successful investor who has ruled out putting his own money into a campaign, a political neophyte who has fixated on tax code intricacies to get more cash to poor people.

The question is whether that uncommon biography and an earnest message will be enough to overcome a growing sense of candidate fatigue.

“It’s almost a universal opinion of folks that they can’t believe how good the candidates are, even the ones you haven’t heard of,” said Tim Bottaro, a Democratic activist in Sioux City. “People are also now asking: ‘OK, who are the ones that really have a shot for it?’ … Honestly — and I don’t mean to be harsh — but how do some of the people who are in this race really think they have a snowball’s chance of winning the nomination?”

Sanberg’s anti-poverty prescription would include Medicare for All, which he said would spur entrepreneurialism by untethering workers from their employers for healthcare. He similarly backs the Green New Deal, which he said would spark innovation for clean energy jobs. He says he would break up the monopolies that have led to fewer employers and lower wages. Most of all, he would aim to redefine poverty, broadening it from the bureaucratic definition of the federal poverty line to a more widely shared experience of living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Born and raised in Orange County, Calif., Sanberg lived on the financial precipice. His parents split when he was young and because of his father’s spiraling debts, his mother lost their home to foreclosure.

“Joe was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. As a matter of fact, it was probably wooden with splinters in it,” said Micah Ali, president of the Compton Unified School District, who befriended Sanberg when they were both teenagers.

After attending Harvard on scholarship, Sanberg went to Wall Street and earned enough to feel monetarily secure. He was uneasy working in an industry that he said “totally divorced service from profit,” and shifted to investing in start-ups, including the meal delivery outfit Blue Apron and Aspiration.com, an online banking service that lets clients choose their fees.

Now solidly among the 1%, he turned his focus to a passion project: The Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable credit for the working poor, which Sanberg’s mother claimed on her federal taxes when he was growing up. In 2015, he started pushing California to create a companion tax break. He hired a well-connected lobbyist and helped secure a $380 million credit in the state budget that year. The state credit has since expanded to make more people eligible.

Sanberg founded a nonprofit, seeded with $3.5 million of his own money and six-figure contributions from donors, including the Annenberg Foundation, the Streisand Foundation and civil rights attorney Molly Munger, to launch an advertising campaign to make sure people eligible for the money got it.

“He was a believer that if big business can get [research and development] tax credits, if growers can receive tax credits, why can’t we give tax credits to poor families?” said Kevin de León, the leader of the state Senate at the time.

Sanberg flirted with politics in 2018 when he weighed running for governor or challenging U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Instead, he formed Working Hero, a political action committee that gave about $30,000 to Democratic congressional candidates across the country.

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Now he’s taken that work on the road, setting up Working Hero satellite groups in key Democratic primary states. The mission was multipronged: raise awareness of the working poor tax credit in the lead-up to Tax Day and inject poverty into the presidential race by hosting forums with declared candidates such as Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders.

Rania Jamison, who runs the South Carolina effort, said the group was filling a niche in the presidential race.

“We have so many candidates on the Democratic side who are talking about poverty in a very broad scope, but they’re not addressing it head on,” she said. “They’re not using the word ‘poverty.’ ”

Other White House hopefuls, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders, have made income inequality a central aspect of their campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris often laments how almost half of Americans could not afford an unexpected $400 expense.

But Sanberg says poverty requires more attention. His on-the-ground efforts can be seen as a launchpad for his own presidential ambitions, putting him in touch with voters in states that have disproportionate influence in the Democratic primary process.

Among those is J.D. Scholten, a Democrat who narrowly lost to GOP Rep. Steve King in a deeply conservative Western Iowa district last year. Scholten, who runs the Working Hero operation in Iowa, has been courted by Democratic presidential candidates — and he knew from the outset that Sanberg may join the race, too. He says Sanberg is doing more than just currying favor and building a brand.

“People gave to my campaign who are … running for president, and that’s the only reason,” Scholten said. “But you see us on the ground doing work that matters.”

On an April evening in Scholten’s hometown of Sioux City, the Working Hero team hosted a truncated Passover Seder in an apartment complex’s basement ballroom that once featured acts like Elvis Presley. Faith is central to Sanberg’s activism. He has said the most important part of his identity is his Reform Judaism.

The religiosity of that evening was light — a brief rundown by Sanberg on the Passover lessons of slavery and freedom followed by a rabbi explaining the elements of the Seder plate. Sanberg spent most of the evening in conversation with dinner guests, asking them about their own financial circumstances and how they felt things had changed since they were children. Afterward, the group’s members delivered leftovers to neighbors and homeless people

One of the few politically minded guests was Penny Rosfjord, a Sioux City Democratic activist who gets constant calls and face time with presidential candidates. Rosfjord is a Sanberg fan, citing his inquisitiveness and sincerity.

“He could easily just sit behind a desk and sign checks, but he is much more than that,” Rosfjord said.

But that admiration stops short of wanting him to jump into the race.

“I hope that he doesn’t do it now,” she said. “There’s just so many out there. He just gets lost.”

But the unruly nature of this Democratic race also means Sanberg has a simple rejoinder to the question — why run? In this unpredictable climate — why not?

“Pete Buttigieg is a mayor of 100,000-plus citizens,” De León said of the candidate who governs South Bend, Ind. “If he can run for president, why can’t Joe — or anyone else?”