- This Week
Tech mogul Ron Conway is trying to buy San Francisco politics and sell his pro-business agenda
Ron Conway has spent more in the last two elections than any other San Franciscan.
Avalos complained that Conway (like many in his industry) disdains openness and public access. "It's all behind the scenes," he told us. "That's how he likes to operate."
In each of the last three years, Conway has doubled or quadrupled his political contributions. He's the first big spender to operate in the city in the post-Citizens United era, when one rich person can play an outsized role in politics, creating independent expenditure committees that can throw around unlimited amounts of money.
And right now, a lot of City Hall insiders say, this unelected, unappointed operative is helping undermine progressive policy and send city politics in a very different direction.
WEALTHY, CONSERVATIVE ROOTS
Conway declined to be interviewed for this piece, with his press spokesperson — Aaron McLear, who served as press secretary to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other prominent Republicans — offering up a canned statement for print. So what little we can glean of Conway's beginnings come from public records, other media reports, and Gary Rivlin's insightful book The Godfather of Silicon Valley: Ron Conway and the Fall of the Dot-coms.
Ronald Crawford Conway was born in San Francisco on March 09, 1951. The middle child in an Irish-Catholic family of 12 siblings, Conway also has a twin brother, Rick. Ron Conway went to St. Stephen's boys high school in San Francisco until he was 15, when the family moved to the wealthy nearby enclave of Atherton.
Conway's father was a top exec at the then-Oakland-based American President Lines, which today is a major shipping company for Walmart's goods. The elder Conway cashed out for what Conway described as "a couple million dollars," according to Rivlin.
Driving through Atherton, you get a feel for how starkly different it is from San Francisco. Stone walls 10-feet high surround most homes, many that look like Spanish villas or small castles to the eye of a San Francisco native. The Conways home there was valued at $18 million in 2001.
It was in wealthy, conservative Atherton that Conway found his political voice, according to Rivlin's book. "It was in high school where I became more outspoken," Conway told him. While studying political science at San Jose State, Conway served on the Atherton City Council starting at the age of 21, mostly to "counteract the noisy student protesters at nearby Stanford," Rivlin wrote.
While his father had been active in San Francisco politics as a Democrat, Conway got involved in local Republican politics as a teenager and worked on Nixon's 1968 campaign for president, telling Rivlin that he and his twin brother were "dyed-in-the-wool conservatives."
That ideology apparently stayed with Conway, who records show gave $50,000 to George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and $90,000 to Schwarzenegger, his "recover team," and the California Republican Party in 2005-06.
But, Rivlin noted, "he was hardly someone you would describe as politically engaged." On the issues, Conway told him, "I could care less." He cares about government, Rivlin noted, "to the extent it has an impact on the business climate."
GETTING HIS WINGS
Conway worked for National Semiconductor in the 1970s and cofounded Altos Computer Systems in 1979, selling it in the early '90s and using its proceeds to become an "angel investor," providing early capital in exchange for an ownership stake, in small tech startups in the early years of the Internet.
To Conway, being an angel seemed to be about helping the rich get richer by pumping up the first big tech bubble. His Angel Investors, LP consisted of Conway and a number of already wealthy Internet and film luminaries, from hardcore investors and disinterested tinkerers, each contributing to the pot that was controlled by Conway.