Tech’s early-stage investment in Rep. Kevin McCarthy could produce a prominent payoff for both sides.
The good-natured California Republican and expected majority leader hasn’t devised many tech-related bills or even hammered away on the industry’s core issues. But he has made frequent pilgrimages to Silicon Valley, befriended prominent tech players and lauded the value of innovation.
Now the industry is counting on those ties as it carves out a more entrenched role in Washington.
“Since his freshman year in the minority party of the California statehouse he has been invested in Silicon Valley and the innovation economy,” said Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, who hosts the current House whip three to four times a year and considers him a long-time friend.
McCarthy preaches a tax-cut mantra tech loves, choosing Facebook in 2011 to decry the burden of over-regulation. He has reinforced a need for high-skilled foreign workers, backed surveillance reform legislation, promoted free trade and helped push through a patent bill last year that industry desired.
But the Bakersfield native’s accessibility, more than his voting record, have drawn admiration from the tech industry. McCarthy carts small groups of representatives with him on visits to Google and Engine Advocacy. He has called his office a “startup for ideas” and labeled Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk the “Wright brothers of the next generation.” His top aides have moved on to Northern California successes such as Uber, and he has close working ties with people that now represent companies like Apple and Facebook.
McCarthy has the only House leadership office with a staffer dedicated to coalitions. The Information Technology Industry Council named him Legislator of the Year in 2012, and this April he played host to 23 CEOs for TechNet’s annual Washington fly-in.
Never mind that the dusty agricultural town of Bakersfield sits 250 miles southeast from the manicured office parks of Northern California.
“Rep. McCarthy has his finger on the pulse of Silicon Valley,” said Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy, in an email. “He intuitively understands the industry’s culture of innovation, and knows what’s needed to protect it. He is also an early adopter of technology in both his professional and personal life, and there’s no better way to understand the Valley’s unique contributions to the economy.”
Tech companies increasingly have shown their support.
Oracle donated $31,500 to McCarthy’s campaign and leadership PAC during the 2012 campaign cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org, making the database company his fourth-highest donor in the last election. Microsoft gave $17,500 to McCarthy in 2012, and Google provided $20,000, up from $8,000 two years prior.
“He gets the fundamentals and the basics that makes explaining our priorities a lot easier,” said Andy Halataei, the industry council’s director of government relations.
It helps that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi shares the same home state.
“The go-to people for our state are in the top of their parties in the House,” said Jude Barry, a Silicon Valley-based political strategist who works with tech companies. “So I think you’ll see a greater degree of understanding of California issues on Capitol Hill. And it’s likely you’ll see greater activity from Silicon Valley now that we have friends in really good places.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor also courted the tech set, but McCarthy’s California background may give him an extra boost. “He’s from California and has spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley,” said Linda Moore, the CEO of TechNet, which counts Apple, Google and Yahoo among its members. “So his desire to really know the issues and the effort he put into it is different.”
Immigration, tech’s policy baby, still remains a tough sell. McCarthy’s district is more than 30 percent Latino, compared with Cantor’s at less than 5 percent. The Californian has backed a bill that would provide legal status to young undocumented immigrants who serve in the military. He’s spoken up in favor of high-skilled immigration but not endorsed a comprehensive overhaul –- what advocates consider the best chance of reform. Cantor’s failure to take a definitive stance on the issue may have played a part in his downfall.
Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican also running for the leadership post, once counted himself among eight House members working on an immigration overhaul. But he backed out as hope of a deal started to fade, and tech has had limited interaction with him.
Silicon Valley still struggles to incorporate itself into Washington’s established network of contractors. Musk’s SpaceX is suing the Air Force over a satellite launch contract, and Palantir, a Palo Alto software company McCarthy visited last year, has had similar trouble making inroads. Tech considers McCarthy’s knack for relationships a key selling point.
“He will certainly be in an elevated role setting the House’s agenda,” ITI’s Halataei said.
Companies also see one of McCarthy’s greatest assets as their primary advantage: His willingness to attend a meeting rather than dominate it.
McCarthy once brought lawmakers to a Sunnyvale company responsible for the da Vinci surgical robot, a system meant to revolutionize how surgeons perform on patients. They spent three hours learning about the machine, interacting with workers and holding a roundtable lunch with up to 60 CEOs.
“Silicon Valley never looks for somebody who is going to agree with us 100 percent of the time,” the leadership group’s Guardino said. “But we want someone who is willing to listen to us 100 percent of the time. And Kevin McCarthy does this.”
This article originally appeared in Politico and can be found here.