Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pledged tens of millions for an advocacy… (JOSH EDELSON, AFP/Getty…)
SAN FRANCISCO — For years, Silicon Valley companies wanted as little to do with Washington as possible. Hiring lobbyists to promote and protect their interests was about as far as they went.
But a new generation of technology entrepreneurs believes it can no longer afford to ignore the Beltway, and is setting its sights on Capitol Hill.
Leading the way is Facebook co-founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who with other tech executives is starting a political advocacy group that plans to push an ambitious legislative agenda, people familiar with the plans said.
Zuckerberg has pledged tens of millions of dollars to what is expected to become a $50-million war chest for the group, which is scheduled to launch in a couple of weeks, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Topping the agenda: comprehensive immigration reform that would raise work visa caps to address what they say is a shortage of engineers in Silicon Valley.
"It is a reflection of the next generation of valley giants looking to play in impact politics," Democratic political consultant Chris Lehane said. "They have transformed how we live, and they have transformed our economy. Can the same transformative views and successes be translated into politics? It will be interesting to see."
Zuckerberg, 28, is one of a growing number of Silicon Valley young guns increasingly unafraid of confronting the hard political realities in the nation's capital. And they aren't just pulling out their checkbooks. They are harnessing social media and new online community organizing tools to influence public opinion and pressure lawmakers.
This new willingness to engage Washington is a political coming of age for Silicon Valley.
In 1977, Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard pushed Silicon Valley to engage in the political process by forming the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. "Our jobs as CEOs is not to sit on the sidelines and cheer or jeer," Packard said at the time. "Our job is to get in the game and move the ball forward."
Under threat of increased rules and regulations, Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr in 1997 brought together technology executives to found TechNet and educate Washington on the importance of "the Internet, freedom and self-regulation."
But only in recent years have companies here become far more active in Washington, creating political action committees and stepping up lobbying. Now the industry led by some of its youngest members is focusing on setting the agenda rather than responding to Washington.
They have used the online tools they have created, such as Facebook, to boost Silicon Valley's "outside game," making sure lawmakers hear from constituents in their inboxes. A key victory was an online campaign to defeat anti-piracy legislation championed by the entertainment industry, the first real test of this generation's political clout in Washington.
Increasingly, these Silicon Valley executives and start-up entrepreneurs are rolling up their sleeves not just to defend against threats but to take on policy fights to further their interests.
"It's a very good thing for prominent people in Silicon Valley to engage in organizations where we can be part of the solution," Silicon Valley investor Mike Maples said. "I like the fact that the issues Mark Zuckerberg cares about are the issues that are important for economic growth."
For years Zuckerberg has shown a keen interest in public policy — but has shown no overt interest in politics. He made a $100-million donation to Newark, N.J., public schools in 2010 shortly before the opening of "The Social Network," a movie that cast him in an unsympathetic light. In December, he said he would give nearly $500 million in Facebook stock to a Silicon Valley foundation to provide funds for health and education issues.
Zuckerberg has met President Obama several times and hosted a town hall for the president at Facebook's headquarters in 2011. He took part in a recent event organized by TechNet to press Obama and Congress on immigration reform. In February, Zuckerberg threw a fundraiser at his home in Palo Alto for Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
But the latest move to create a policy advocacy organization represents a new level of engagement from Zuckerberg, who, according to close associates, has come to realize that Silicon Valley's opening up wallets and holding five-figure fundraising dinners were not advancing high-tech's pet issues on Capitol Hill.
"This is different. This is about political work, which is new," said one person familiar with the project. "This is the next generation of political groups."