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Examining Cory Booker's Tech Ties

The mayor of Newark and candidate for Senate is paving a new road to the national political spotlight. And it runs straight through Silicon Valley.
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When I met Cory Booker in March, he was surrounded by programmers and entrepreneurs, and was waiting to judge a hackathon with Lady Gaga's manager and Sean Parker. The next time I chatted with him he was joking around with venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar, and preparing to go on stage at an exclusive dinner for the exclusive f.ounders conference (only company founders, VCs, and a handful of journalists are invited) in New York. 

It's not exactly where you'd expect the major of a city best known for its massive airport and gruff attitude (Newark was just voted the world's least-hospitable city--you know, right above Islamabad.)

But Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is embarking on a campaign for U.S. Senate, graduated from Stanford University, just like a lot of the Silicon Valley elite. Booker is tech-savvy, has a start-up, and is hugely into social media. He's the son of entrepreneurs (his parents started a restaurant when he was in grade school; it failed, but Booker told me it was a formative experience for him). And there's another big connection here: The tech world big shots also have big potential--which is already partly realized--to bankroll the Booker campaign.

The New York Times today headlined a story "Tech Magnates Bet on Booker and His Future," but the piece is most significant in its examination of the health of Booker's own company--and how he enlisted the help of Eric Schmidt, Oprah Winfrey, and Jeff Weiner to fund it. The piece cites a May 2009 meeting with Booker at the Silicon Valley office of LinkedIn, quoting a start-up founder and venture capitalist saying what a lot of the tech start-up scene has been apparently thinking: "It feels like he's one of us." It continues:

Two and a half years later, some of those same Silicon Valley leaders joined forces again on Mr. Booker's behalf. But this time, their efforts resulted in giving Mr. Booker, until then an admired outsider, the equivalent of full-fledged membership in their elite circle: an Internet start-up of his own.

Mr. Booker personally has obtained money for the start-up, called Waywire, from influential investors, including Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. A year after its debut, Waywire has already endured a round of layoffs and had just 2,207 visitors in June, according to Compete, a Web-tracking service. The company says it is still under development.

Yet in a financial disclosure filed last month, Mr. Booker, 44, revealed that his stake in the company was worth $1 million to $5 million. Taken together, his other assets were worth no more than $730,000.

That revelation, with just a week left in Mr. Booker’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate, shows how a few tech moguls and entrepreneurs, many of them also campaign donors, not only made a financial bet on the mayor’s political future but also provided the brainpower and financing to help create a company that could make him very rich.

Waywire has also provided jobs for associates of Mr. Booker: the son of a top campaign supporter and his social media consultant, who is now on his Senate campaign staff.

Gawker Wednesday pointed out more cynically the fact that Waywire backer Jeff Zucker's 14-year-old son was given equity in the company in exchange for a spot on its advisory board, saying, "Booker is using his foundering video startup Waywire to make friends and little else." Also: 

With money flowing from Schmidt, it's easy for Waywire to get by without doing much of anything at all. Its description is nebulous, even by startup standards: TechCrunch recently described it as "Pinterest for video," though it has loftier self-visions as a more democratic YouTube, a voice for the disenfranchised. It's all of these! It's none of these! It's also already had a round of layoffs in its very short life, zero signs of revenue, and had to flee its Manhattan office in favor of everyone working from home.

What does that come down to for Booker? He's amassed nearly half-a-million dollars in mayoral candidacy campaign contributions from tech executives and employees, and nearly $700,000 for his Senate bid from the same crew, according to the Times. Some of his biggest fans have the biggest names: Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, along with Marc Andreessen and Laura Arrillaga-Andreesen, held a fundraiser for him.

Who knows: Even if Booker's start-up goes the way of Pets.com, the support of Silicon Valley is well on its way to propelling him to a national stage. 

[Update: Booker has said he was "not involved at all" in bringing Andrew Zucker, Jeff Zucker's son, into an advisory position in Waywire. Courtesy of Fortune:

New Jersey senatorial candidate Cory Booker was "not involved at all" in the addition of Andrew Zucker to the advisory board of a tech startup that Booker co-founded, according to a company spokesperson. And now it may not much matter, as the youngster has resigned from the board -- effective as of earlier this afternoon.]
Last updated: Aug 7, 2013

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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