In San Francisco, tech investor leads a political makeover

Mon Oct 29, 2012 11:16am EDT
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By Gerry Shih

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - One morning in April, Ron Conway, the billionaire technology investor, sat in a conference room on the second floor of San Francisco's City Hall with about 50 representatives from the city's business community.

On the agenda was a sweeping proposal by Mayor Ed Lee to reform the city's payroll tax, a plan that would favor companies with many employees but little revenue — tech start-ups, namely — while shifting the burden to the real estate and financial industries.

The head of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce was arguing against the proposal when Conway abruptly cut him off.

"The tech industry is producing all the jobs in this city," Conway snapped, according to four people present, his voice rising as he insisted that old-line businesses "need to get on board."

In the end, they did get on board — and San Francisco voters on November 6 will decide whether to approve the change in the tax code.

Conway's success with the tax initiative demonstrates the profound transformation playing out in San Francisco's business corridors and its halls of power. As start-ups blossom, attracting a wave of entrepreneurs and investment dollars, the tech industry is wielding newfound clout in local politics — largely thanks to Conway, its brash, silver-haired champion.

The shift, local political experts say, harks back to the turn of the last century, when financial institutions like the Bank of Italy — forebear to present-day Bank of America — gradually eroded the railroad barons' grip over California politics.

Now the tech industry, led by Conway, is beginning to overshadow long-dominant local business lobbies, said Chris Lehane, a political consultant and former adviser in the Clinton White House.   Continued...

SV Angel's Ron Conway speaks during a question and answer session at the Tech Crunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, California, in this September 11, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach/files