Sam Altman thinks health care is too expensive, housing in California is too hard to find and the U.S. government needs to commit to funding cutting-edge research and combating climate change.
And he’s ready to spend big, he told Recode, on a new political movement that aims to put those issues on policymakers’ radars.
After months of speculation, the leader of one of Silicon Valley’s most well-known startup incubators, Y Combinator, is not mounting his own disruptive bid to run for governor of the Golden State. Rather, Altman has launched The United Slate to advocate for fixing U.S. infrastructure and tackling other policy matters — and to find candidates for state and federal office who will carry that banner.
For the moment, Altman’s nascent effort — first reported earlier this month by the Los Angeles Times — is still rather nebulous. He isn’t creating some new political party, for example, and he’s not presently launching a so-called super PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums to boost (or boot) aspiring members of Congress. This isn’t some new attempt to do for liberals what the Koch Brothers have done for conservatives, at least not yet.
Nor has Altman announced his support for anyone running in 2018, when the composition of the U.S. Capitol is up for grabs. Those endorsements — and donations — will come in time, he told Recode.
But Altman’s effort does now have a platform, a 10-point plan that includes early interest in universal basic income. His first effort will be to challenge California on housing policy, he said in an interview. And with it, the Y Combinator chief has money and influence to spare: He stressed last week he didn’t “have a number in mind” on how much he would spend to advance his political priorities, but that he’s “willing to put a lot in.”
“I’m more interested in how we build the seeds of a really long-term movement, starting in a set of people who believe in these ideas in 2018,” Altman said.
In some ways, The United Slate is not exactly part of the so-called “resistance,” the catch-all term that’s come to define the groundswell of groups dedicated to fighting Trump and his agenda. Like his peers in Silicon Valley, though, Altman does seek to shake up Democrats a bit, believing they have plenty of lessons to learn from the defeat of their 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
“To the degree the Democratic Party is aligned on getting these policies and principles implemented, then I see myself aligned with them,” he said in an interview.
“I still identify personally as a Democrat,” Altman continued, but added: “I think the Democratic Party had a catastrophic failure of delivering a cohesive, positive, economic message for Americans over the last decade. I hope the Trump administration is enough of a wakeup call.”
Altman had been sharply critical of Trump during the 2016 election campaign, even as he acknowledged the GOP candidate’s allure — a belief that “many Americans are getting screwed by the system,” he wrote in June 2016. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, however, the 32-year-old Valley venture capitalist essentially encouraged tech engineers to sound off and push their bosses, the heads of Apple and Facebook and Google, to challenge Trump’s agenda in the White House.
Altman himself soon embarked on a road trip of sorts: He left the Bay Area for the Midwest, part of a quest to figure out exactly why voters supported Trump in the first place. Privately, he even began to urge some tech executives to consider running for office — though he’s declined to say who he’s targeted. And Altman himself appeared to flirt with a more formal berth into politics — a bid for the governor of California — earlier this year. He later changed his mind, he told the LA Times.
Now, he seeks to channel his energy into finding and boosting political candidates who share his views on climate change, universal basic income, federal research spending and housing policy.
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To start, though, Altman has his eye on his own backyard: Among his many concerns is the ever-rising cost of living in California — an issue, he told Recode, that came up time and again as he solicited voters’ views in focus groups held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fresno and Orange County over the past few months.
In an attempt to fix it, Altman plans to put forward four housing policy proposals over the coming weeks — with an eye on potentially turning one of them into a ballot proposition that will be put before the state’s voters. His first idea is a “foreign buyers’ tax,” as he weighs whether to target the “huge uptick in foreign buyers buying property they aren’t even living in, often as a way to buy a tax-favored asset in U.S. dollars,” Altman has said. Cities like Vancouver and Toronto already impose such a tax.
Outside of California, Altman said he also hopes through The United Slate to “surface some candidates that are not ones chosen by the Democrats” and offer them help, from financial resources to the sort of tech and digital tools he knows well from his time at Y Combinator.
“It seems most of the candidates I support would either be Democrats or Independents,” he told Recode. “But one thing I don’t like about the existing process is the Democratic Party basically chooses which candidates to put up.”
Altman is hardly alone in seeking to introduce new faces and issues into — and, well, maybe disrupt — American politics. Organizations like Tech for Campaigns are beginning to arm candidates with the digital organizing tools they might need to battle back Republicans in 2018, while political veterans — many associated with Clinton and former President Barack Obama — are trying to rethink how the Democratic Party uses tech.
Still others, like Mark Pincus, the co-founder of Zynga, and Reid Hoffman, the brains behind LinkedIn, are preparing to spend big bucks in an attempt to force the Democratic National Committee to revise its platform. They, too, seek to recruit candidates to run as soon as 2018, when the composition of the U.S. Congress is up for grabs.
All of those efforts are works in progress, and Altman’s new United Slate is no different. The state and federal candidates he backs, the form his “support” takes and the nature of the organization itself are still coming together, he told Recode.
“If what we do is run a ballot initiative and fund five candidates, it will be a committee for the ballot initiative and donations to the candidates,” Altman said. It “will really depend on the specific candidates and the specific races we decide to support, which I suspect we won’t know for a few more months.”
—By Tony Romm, Re/code.net.
CNBC’s parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode’s parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.