SAN FRANCISCO — Top Democrats in Washington and on the 2020 campaign trail are taking technology giants to task, calling them too big, too powerful and too careless about privacy. “The era of self-regulation is over,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared on Monday.
But just as Ms. Pelosi was preparing to start an antitrust investigation, some of her party’s leading presidential candidates spent the weekend canvassing Silicon Valley to raise money from one of the nation’s wealthiest and most liberal bastions.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg filled his Saturday with no less than four fund-raisers in the Bay Area, with co-hosts that included a former top Facebook executive and Google official. It was at least Mr. Buttigieg’s third fund-raising trip to the region in the last three months. Senator Cory Booker was making his fourth trip to Silicon Valley to raise money since declaring for president in February. And Kamala Harris, California’s junior senator, was on her sixth tour of the Bay Area fund-raising circuit this year.
The Democratic Party’s intensifying alarms about the technology giants’ monopolistic behavior, social media misinformation and lax privacy protections pose an unexpected dilemma for the 2020 field.
In a contest where purity tests on the left have already propelled leading campaigns to disavow super PACs and reject money from federal lobbyists, is tech money still politically acceptable? And can those who take it still be trusted to rein in the industry’s excesses?
The progressive base has already soured on Wall Street, fossil fuel and pharmaceutical cash. Silicon Valley had been, until recently, one of the last relatively untainted wellsprings from which to draw campaign contributions. Now, some particularly on the left say, tech money is suspect, too.
“Many of the candidates are trying to have it both ways,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist from the party’s progressive wing, who recently called for campaign advisers to stop taking on corporate clients, “but it will be hard to be taken seriously as strong on this issue when you’re taking money hand over fist from Big Tech.”
The fraught Democratic balancing act came into sharp relief last weekend.
House Democrats and Ms. Pelosi announced plans for an antitrust investigation into the largest tech companies and Senator Elizabeth Warren posed in front of a San Francisco billboard calling for breaking up Big Tech. Meanwhile, more than a dozen presidential candidates arrived in the city for the state Democratic convention. That was the public side of their trips; many maintained a busy private itinerary of fund-raisers powered in part by the immense wealth of the tech sector.
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Ms. Harris all had finance events around the Bay Area on Friday (while Mr. Booker zipped to Seattle to raise money at the office of Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist and early Amazon investor.) Mr. Buttigieg blitzed the region on Saturday, attending an event co-hosted by Chris Cox, Facebook’s former chief product officer and one of its initial engineers, and Scott Kohler, a corporate counsel to Google and former bundler for Hillary Clinton.
On Sunday, Gov. John Hickenlooper raised money in the heart of Silicon Valley as Mr. Booker returned for an event at the home of Jeff Jordan, a tech investor who had previously served as president of PayPal and OpenTable.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. was not in California over the weekend. But his finance team is tentatively planning a Silicon Valley swing at the end of June. In May, one of his Southern California event co-hosts was Eric Schmidt, the former Google chief executive.
Democrats mostly appear to be banking that the cash raised at such events outweighs any risk of backlash.
Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist who advised Bernie Sanders in 2016 but is unaligned in 2020, said one reason is that most people still view tech giants “in a favorable light,” even if attitudes are shifting.
“They do not see these companies like Big Oil and the pharmaceutical companies,” he said. “There’s a distinction there.”
But as the Trump administration forges ahead with its own antitrust investigations into Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, the Democratic reliance on tech money could provide President Trump a political opening to depict the Democrats as beholden to the technology giants.
At a forum in San Francisco, the 2020 candidate Beto O’Rourke linked the industry’s money to a law signed by Mr. Trump allowing internet providers access to sell browsing data without explicit consumer consent. “If you follow the dollars, who paid for that access, that influence, and those outcomes, you begin to understand what’s at play,” he said.
Most of the 2020 Democrats are aligned on stiffening regulations and tech industry scrutiny.
But Ms. Warren, in particular, has gone much further, accusing companies like Amazon of improperly controlling the online marketplace and the items sold in it. She has shunned holding fund-raisers as a presidential candidate, though she has raised money from Silicon Valley in the past.
Ms. Warren has surpassed Senator Bernie Sanders as tech’s most insistent critic (he recently embraced breaking up Facebook and he has hammered Amazon for its low wages).
Ro Khanna, a California congressman who represents and has raised money heavily from Silicon Valley, serves as national co-chair of Mr. Sanders’s campaign, though he is not fully aligned with Mr. Sanders on tech matters. Mr. Khanna said “calling for a sledgehammer approach” to breaking up Big Tech was “bad policy” when a “scalpel” is needed.
“People should, in my view, be proud of having support from technology leaders,” Mr. Khanna said. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.”
Silicon Valley is not monolithic. Some companies profit from user data. Some make money selling hardware. Others hope to break into markets now dominated by the giants. While Ms. Warren’s unyielding rhetoric has alienated some tech leaders, political donors and executives in Silicon Valley said that there is a surprising sympathy for broader calls to increase oversight of the industry’s biggest players.
“It’s my sense that a lot of people in Silicon Valley think tech has gotten too big, that there’s overreach,” said Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder who has recently called for the company’s breakup, adding that the conversation on Big Tech has reached “a turning point.”
“There’s a sense that people know that mistakes were made and there’s a search for solutions,” Mr. Hughes added. “And there are some folks that are trying to patch things up, and there are some who are questioning the structural foundations of the way the internet has evolved.”
Mr. Hughes and his husband, Sean Eldridge, have contributed to four Democratic candidates this year: Mr. Booker, Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris.
Three of the most aggressive candidates chasing Silicon Valley money have been Mr. Booker, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Harris, according to interviews with donors and event invitations obtained by The New York Times.
All three have substantial ties to the Valley. Mr. Booker attended Stanford and once was an investor in an internet start-up (another investor, the billionaire LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, recently hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Booker).
Mr. Booker also worked closely with Mark Zuckerberg when the Facebook founder donated $100 million to revamp Newark schools, an undertaking that got mixed reviews.
Mr. Buttigieg, who as a Harvard undergraduate was one of Facebook’s first several hundred users, attended the university at the same time as Facebook’s founders and has quickly cultivated relationships across the Valley.
Ms. Harris, a Bay Area native, has raised the most of any 2020 candidate in the first quarter from employees of companies in the Internet Association, a lobbying arm of the tech industry in Washington D.C., according to an analysis of federal records.
Yet all have expressed concerns about Big Tech’s dominance.
Mr. Buttigieg recently went on record in support of Mr. Hughes’s called to break up Facebook, , saying his old schoolmate had “made a very convincing case” about “these tech companies as monopoly giants.”
“There needs to be tools to deal with that, up to and including preventing or reversing mergers,” Mr. Buttigieg said in a recent podcast.
Going back several years, Mr. Booker has questioned the dominance of companies including Google and Amazon. In a recent interview with The Times, Mr. Booker said he was planning to roll out an internet security platform and has deepening concerns about companies “able to use your data for your profit.” But when asked about Ms. Warren’s demand that big tech firms be broken up, he replied in a recent television appearance, “That sounds more like a Donald Trump thing to say.”
In the Senate, Ms. Harris aggressively questioned Facebook executives last year, and this year she said on CNN that government officials “need to take a serious look at breaking up Facebook.”
Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Market Institute and an outspoken critic of the consolidation of power in the tech industry, said there were clear differences in the deference that candidates gave to Silicon Valley leaders.
“Buttigieg and Harris treat them like they’re special,” Mr. Stoller said. “Warren treats them as they’re just citizens. Booker goes back and forth.”
Ali Partovi, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Booker this year, said he hasn’t seen evidence that donors are dissuaded by talk about a crackdown on Big Tech.
“I find that people vote and donate in service of their principles and beliefs about what they think is right, not just their self-interest,” Mr. Partovi said. “What I like about Booker in general is that he doesn’t pander to donors.”
The tech economy remains a crucial source of funds for congressional Democrats, too.
Later this month, Ms. Pelosi will collect checks at a San Francisco law firm that has represented tech companies, asking for as much as $19,600 to help seven of her vulnerable California colleagues. That same day, her political committee is holding an event at the home of John Thompson, the current chairman of Microsoft and the former chief executive of Symantec.
The price to chair the luncheon: $50,000.