Tech donations don't follow usual patterns

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

WASHINGTON — Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive officer, made his first congressional donations this year and they defy the partisan giving patterns of traditional big contributors.

Zuckerberg donated to Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah, as well as Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

It's a model adopted by other technology entrepreneurs. Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff raised money for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and recently sent a check to a political committee for Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

David Drummond, Google's top lawyer, donated to Obama last year and wrote a campaign check in April to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican seeking re- election on a platform of opposing the president's agenda.

The bipartisan donations to sometimes feuding politicians show how technology officials are innovating as they enter the political arena by picking people they are convinced will pursue policies in sync with their own. It's a practice that leaves both parties grateful as the industry presses an expanding legislative agenda on such issues as trade and patents.

"For the tech industry particularly, because it doesn't break down along traditional ideological lines, the giving here is very pragmatic insurance money to ensure that you're a player in the discussion," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports campaign-finance laws.

Paul Herrnson, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, said one reason the donations are different is because the priorities are picked by an individual, not a committee.

"They're not an institutional unit with decision- making rules and formalized objectives," said Herrnson. "A PAC director will sit down and work with other people on the team to figure out a strategy and figure out what their goals are, whereas an individual often just gives for different reasons."

Benioff declined a request for comment on his donations, as Salesforce spokesman Andrew Schmitt referred to a 2011 appearance on the "Charlie Rose" show for insight.

"I have vacillated between being a Republican and being a Democrat," Benioff said then in an interview that aired on Bloomberg Television. "I'm now neither one, I'm not a Republican or a Democrat. I'm an American."

That's not the posture adopted by most major political donors, nor some other technology executives.

Billionaire investor George Soros has given millions of dollars to Democratic causes and candidates while David Koch, the executive vice president of Koch Industries, is among the biggest benefactors to Republicans.

Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who participated in a Dec. 17 meeting between Obama and technology executives at the White House, have focused almost exclusively on giving to Democrats — including the president.

Other executives lean in one partisan direction in their giving, while breaking the pattern from time to time. Investor Warren Buffett, whose donations skew Democratic, has given to Republicans, including Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who has occasionally broken with party leaders on fiscal policy.

"What I really admire about Scott is he's dedicated to getting a sensible relationship between revenue and expenses in this country," Buffett said in an interview on Bloomberg Television in January 2012.

The tech executives' contributions also reflect a recognition that bipartisan giving to a divided Congress is the best path to prod action on cybersecurity, data privacy, trade, and immigration law changes that would allow companies to hire more high-skilled workers.

"Overwhelmingly, CEOs and companies that are involved in policy from Silicon Valley are more pragmatists and problem- solvers than they are ideologues wedded to a particular political party," said Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group in San Jose, Calif.

"They're looking for folks who want to find solutions that are going to strengthen the economy, and believe firmly that there are good ideas on both sides of the aisle," said Guardino, whose organization's members include Google, Facebook, Apple and Intel Corp.

The policy agenda for the tech executives includes curbs to patent infringement litigation abuses by entities that license them and then sue for enforcement. The House passed a patent bill Dec. 5 with majorities of Democrats and Republicans supporting it. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

A patent law "would save them a lot of money as companies," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based policy think tank. "That would be something that would directly affect their bottom line."

Rubio and Hatch, who received support from Zuckerberg, were among 14 Republican senators who joined all Democrats in June to back the most significant revision of U.S. immigration law in a generation. That measure has stalled in the House.

Hatch backed the legislation after the adoption of an amendment making it easier for technology companies to hire more temporary workers. Hatch and Zuckerberg participated in a technology forum in Utah in 2011 and met again in August to discuss immigration policy.

Jodi Seth, a Facebook spokeswoman, didn't return an e-mail seeking comment.

Beyond cutting checks to candidates, some technology entrepreneurs are supporting both of the campaign committees charged with re-electing their party incumbents.

While that's common for many business political action committees, it's less so for individual donors and the difference can be a cash windfall for the committees. Traditional PACs, which give to multiple candidates, are limited to giving $15,000 annually to such committees; individual donors can give $32,400.

In May, Eric Schmidt sent a $32,300 donation to the political arm of Senate Democrats, who are defending their majority in elections next November.

Six weeks earlier, the Google executive chairman sent a matching amount to the rival Senate Republican campaign organization, which is trying wrest control from the Democrats.

"Technology issues are a big part of the current policy discussion in Washington," Niki Fenwick, a spokeswoman for Google, said in an email. "We think it is important to be part of that discussion and to help policy makers understand our business and the work we do to keep the Internet open and to encourage economic opportunity."

Schmidt's executive team is embracing the same strategy.

Alan Eustace, Google's senior vice president for knowledge, gave $32,400 matching — or off-setting — donations to the House Democratic and Republican campaign committees on Feb. 22.

Urs Hölzle, another senior vice president, donated $32,300 each to the DSCC and the NRSC on May 17. Nikesh Arora, also a senior vice president, gave $10,000 each to the two committees in September 2011.

Drummond, the Google attorney who contributed to McConnell and Obama, sent $15,000 each to the NRSC and DSCC on the same day in August 2011.

Google's PAC has sent $252,000 to federal candidates in the 2014 election, of which 52 percent went to Republicans and 48 went to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By the end of February, Google's PAC had already given the maximum annual donation of $15,000 to the Democratic and Republican House and Senate campaign committees.

The technology executives could be "using these contributions as a tool for their policy agenda," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the center, a Washington-based research group that tracks political giving.