Politics & Government

Tech leaders lining up behind Elizabeth Warren

Technology has been credited with helping President Obama, then an upstart senator, defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton and win the presidency 2008.

Now, a group of tech leaders who worked on his campaign are lining behind another upstart who could challenge Clinton in 2016: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

They are quietly tapping Silicon Valley talent to join Tech for Warren, a coalition of digital natives who are trying to convince voters that Warren is the best candidate. But first they will have to convince Warren, who has repeatedly said she is not running.

The latest “no’s” from Warren came Tuesday in a Fortune magazine interview with her friend Sheila Bair, the former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and in an e-mail to The Chronicle from her press secretary, Lacey Rose.

“As Sen. Warren has said many times, she is not running for president,” Rose wrote.

To the true Warren believers – including those in Tech for Warren – the key word in that statement is the word “is.” As in Warren currently is not running but perhaps could be persuaded.

“It doesn’t change anything,” said Erica Sagrans,who served as Obama’s digital campaign director for northeastern states in 2012. Sagrans now works as a campaign manager of Ready for Warren, which is helping organize Tech for Warren. “We exist to convince her to run.”

Last month, more than 300 Obama campaign alums signed an open letter asking Warren to run, and the left-leaning online hub MoveOn.org said it is ready to spend $1 million on the progressive favorite.

Even if the tech world can’t persuade Warren to run, her backers hope their efforts will challenge Clinton to take more liberal positions.

“If Warren jumped in, then what I like to call the ‘progressive tech wing' would have a voice in the primary,” said Tim Wu, a Columbia University professor and Warren supporter who coined the term “net neutrality.”

Tech for Warren is expected to formally roll out a list of its members in the next few weeks. Its ranks already include Obama’s key tech advocates, including his 2012 campaign’s chief information officer, Rajeev Chopra.

Having the same operatives who helped the Obama campaign twice succeed using technology could help convince Warren that she has a chance against the better-funded and better-known Clinton campaign, her boosters believe.

“It would show her that there is a group of people out there who are ready to jump in and really make something happen,” Chopra said.

Early members of Tech for Warren say the campaign already reminds them of Obama’s efforts.

“I’m calling 50 to 100 people right now,” said Sean Knox, a San Franciscan who was Northern California data director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “She speaks to me in the same way that Obama did when he first ran.”

Like many in the group, Knox said he was attracted to Warren because she has taken on Wall Street executives and talked about the nation’s income inequality like few other politicians. Last month, a nine-minute video of Warren pointedly criticizing Citicorp’s inordinate influence in Washington went viral with more than 600,000 views on YouTube.

The tech crowd favors Warren because she, like many of them, is seen as disrupting the status quo in Washington.

“Tech people see themselves as that outsider, disrupting force that likes to speak truth to power,” said Catherine Bracy, a San Franciscan who was director of the Obama campaign’s tech field office in San Francisco in 2012. “And that’s what she is like, too.”

It won’t be easy. Clinton hasn’t formally declared, either, though her supporters are preparing for her to announce her candidacy this year. A group called Ready for Hillary raised $12 million in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. One of the nation’s largest left-leaning super PACs, Priorities USA, is being chaired by Obama 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina, and has begun raising money for the former secretary of state.

But Warren’s Silicon Valley supporters say that with a little tech help, the Massachusetts senator could put a scare into Clinton.

“This is obviously a treasure trove of tech talent here” in Silicon Valley, Bracy said. “They’re just waiting to be asked.”