Silicon Valley Sees Kamala Harris as One of Its Own

Kamala Harris with Facebook’s operating chief Sheryl Sandberg in Menlo Park, Calif., in 2015.

Photo: robert galbraith/Reuters

Silicon Valley has a potential ally in its future with Kamala Harris, a California senator who has strong ties to executives behind the nation’s technology giants and has been largely silent about the antitrust issues currently plaguing them.

Ms. Harris, named Tuesday as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate, counts prominent figures such as Facebook Inc. operating chief Sheryl Sandberg and Salesforce.com Inc. co-founder Marc Benioff among her supporters. Boldfaced Silicon Valley names including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and venture capitalist John Doerr raised money for her presidential bid that ended in December. And her brother-in-law is Tony West, general counsel of Uber Technologies Inc.

“She grew up around a ton of innovation and realized how important that is for the California economy,” said Charles Phillips, former Oracle Corp. president who is also co-chair of the Black Economic Alliance, a political-action committee.

The first Black woman and the first woman of Indian descent selected to run for vice president on a major-party ticket, Ms. Harris is far from a tech apologist. The 55-year-old Oakland, Calif., native has criticized social-media companies’ handling of political speech and election misinformation. Last year, the former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general backed the state’s so-called gig-economy legislation that requires companies like Uber and Lyft Inc. to reclassify their independent contractors as employees, a law they strongly oppose and are now fighting in state court.


Kamala Harris’s Path to Being Joe Biden’s Running Mate

 
 
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris make their public debut in Wilmington, Del.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
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But Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden haven’t called for tech giants such as Google and Amazon.com Inc. to be broken up, a hot-button issue that has garnered support among some Democrats and Republicans. Last month, the chief executives of Facebook, Apple Inc., Amazon, and Google faced relentless criticism at a more than five-hour long congressional antitrust hearing in which lawmakers challenged their companies’ business practices.

When pressed on the matter in an interview with the New York Times during her run for president, Ms. Harris deflected and said her first priority in the White House with regard to Big Tech would be to safeguard user privacy, an area Facebook and others have sought to improve.

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Mr. Biden told the Associated Press in May 2019 that breaking up Facebook is “something we should take a really hard look at,” while Ms. Harris that same month described the social-media giant on CNN as a utility that had gone unregulated. Other former Democratic presidential candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have drawn a firmer line, describing tech giants as monopolies. Last year, Ms. Warren’s campaign went as far as to plaster her image with the phrase “break up big tech” on a billboard outside a San Francisco rail station frequented by Silicon Valley commuters.

Despite such criticism, many Democrats in recent years including Ms. Warren succeeded in raising funds from tech elites. Ms. Harris’s Silicon Valley backers during her presidential bid included Twitter Inc. board member Omid Kordestani and his wife, Gisel Kordestani, who each gave the maximum amount allowed by the Federal Election Commission for the primary election. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, did the same. Mr. Kordestani and Ms. Jobs also donated to other primary candidates.

“When she meets people she comes across as qualified, a tough prosecutor—we saw her as our attorney general and before that a district attorney,” said Marc Nathanson, a former cable executive and longtime Democratic donor. “More importantly, she listens,” he said.

Kamala Harris at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on social media influence in the 2016 elections in November 2017.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

Mr. Nathanson pointed to a coming virtual fundraiser his wife Jane Nathanson is co-hosting under the Women for Biden banner. Other co-hosts include former U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas Nicole Avant, who is married to Netflix Inc. co-chief executive Ted Sarandos, and movie producer Florence Sloan. Tickets range from $500 to $250,000, according to an invite reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris share some donors but her pick may invigorate fundraising efforts with people she has known for years, supporters of Ms. Harris told the Journal.

Mark Pincus, founder and chairman of videogame company Zynga Inc., said the vice presidential candidate is the perfect person to navigate the relationship between Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley. Mr. Pincus, a longtime supporter of Ms. Harris who co-hosted a fundraiser for her Senate campaign in 2016, said he is confident she would make smart decisions about whether the industry’s biggest players should have to overhaul their businesses.

“I don’t know where she’ll end up and she probably doesn’t have a firm point of view on it yet and that’s good,” he said. “We need someone who’s going to want to take more of a lawyer’s approach in a way of wanting to get into the facts of data and arguments, and not just looking for political solutions.”

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Heidi Messer, co-founder and chairwoman of New York-based Collective[i], which offers artificial intelligence and predictive technologies for sales teams, said Ms. Harris will help shape Mr. Biden’s tech policy agenda.

Ms. Harris has expressed concern about facial recognition and other AI technologies that could perpetuate racial bias, highlighting the issue in public appearances and in the criminal justice plan she released as a presidential candidate. Ms. Messer said there is a place for regulation, but technologies like facial recognition have applications that are positive, such as cracking down on human trafficking.

“My experience with Senator Harris is that she is very thoughtful and wants to learn,” she said. “Hopefully she’ll bring that approach to tech given the chance we have to embrace the opportunity underlying the massive economic, technological and social changes underfoot.”

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at [email protected]

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