The plutocrat

Tech mogul Ron Conway is trying to buy San Francisco politics and sell his pro-business agenda

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Ron Conway has spent more in the last two elections than any other San Franciscan.

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On October 6, 2010, longtime civic leader and financier Warren Hellman stood before the Bay Area Council's annual dinner and announced the presence of a special guest. MC Hammer stepped forward to introduce the man of honor. His name was Ron Conway, and, according to the SF Business Times, he'd moved to San Francisco from Atherton six years earlier.

But now, he was acting like he owned  the place.

Former Mayor Art Agnos was in the audience, and he remembers the moment well. "This guy stood up and said that we have to take the city back from the progressives," Agnos told us. "I barely knew who he was. I've been in San Francisco since 1966, and here he comes telling us what to do."

Agnos minces no words about the man who is, by some accounts, now the most powerful unelected person at City Hall despite suddenly bursting onto the political scene just last year, shortly after that event. "He's come to San Francisco using his multimillions of dollars to buy systems and people to effectively mandate his views, to project his way of doing things onto liberal San Francisco."

So who is this guy? He's one of Mayor Ed Lee's closest advisors. He's poured more than $1 million into the last two local elections — dropping at least $625,000 in this year's election cycle (journalist Larry Bush reports this year's total at about $800,000). That includes $275,000 to help pass Prop. E, which lowered the business tax rates for technology companies in which he's invested, and $69,000 to help oust Sup. Christina Olague for defying Lee and Conway on a couple of key votes.

Conway is one of the Silicon Valley's preeminent angel investors since just after the dawn of the Internet, parlaying his early successes bankrolling Google, PayPal, and Facebook into investments with a vast array of SF-based tech companies, including Twitter, Digg, Airbnb, and Zynga.

His net worth is widely reported at $1.5 billion, but he disputes that he's a billionaire. Business Insider obtained a leaked list of his investments in 2011 and it included 228 companies. A report on his investments that appeared on Crunchbase.com quantified many of Conway's investments, including $10 million each in Square (the SF-based startup by a Twitter founder), Stitcher, Yammer, and Pinterest; $20 million in AddThis, $8.3 million in AirTime; $8 million in BuzzFeed; and $5 million each in Twitter, Friend.ly, and Magnetic, among more than 200 tech investments.

It's difficult to discern his precise financial worth — but nobody doubts that it's more than enough to funnel vast amounts into local politics, as Conway has been more willing to do than anyone in these last couple years.

There have always been wealthy people in San Francisco who have tried to throw their money — and political weight — around. Walter Shorenstein, the developer and commercial landlord, dominated Democratic Party politics for decades. Warren Hellman and Gap founder Don Fisher put money and time into political initiatives. The list goes on.

But most of them were fairly homegrown — they'd been active in the city for many years before they became political players. And they tended to make their mark in major charitable and philanthropic efforts as well as partisan politics.

Conway, while he does give money to charities like Ronald McDonald House, is a different type, part of the impatient tech generation that's right-wing on economic policy (Conway was a registered Republican before switching to decline-to-state as he became political active here in early 2011), wants things done his way, and sees no need for community accountability.

"Warren Hellman was interested in children's issues, public education, he wanted to invest in building community," Sup. John Avalos told us. "Conway is all about the bottom line of his industry, and nothing more."

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