Dan Walters

Opinion: California’s tech hubris falls short in politics

California’s Silicon Valley may be the world capital of hubris, where 20-somethings with the right idea at the right time can become instantly wealthy.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that some of those who make it big in transformative technology – or financing Silicon Valley startups – believe they can be equally potent in politics. It’s that hubris gene.

The last couple of decades have seen a steady stream of Silicon Valley techies and venture capitalists who try politics, with only very modest success.

Two made it briefly into low-level statewide office, Republican Steve Poizner as insurance commissioner and Democrat Steve Westly as state controller, but that’s been about it.

The most spectacular failure was Republican Meg Whitman’s bumbling, $180 million campaign for governor (after defeating Poizner in the primary) against Jerry Brown in 2010.

Republican Ron Unz didn’t spent nearly as much in a losing bid for governor in 1994 but scored four years later with a measure to abolish bilingual education. He now publishes an online magazine.

Speaking of which, Reed Hastings became obsessed with reforming public schools after selling his startup technology company.

He secured an appointment to the state Board of Education, later becoming its president. But after being reappointed, he ran afoul of Democratic senators on the bilingual issue and was denied confirmation.

As Whitman was losing to Brown in 2010, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was failing to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. Whitman now has Fiorina’s old job at Hewlett-Packard.

A new election season is looming, and Republican Fiorina, having failed in California politics, is raising her sights to the presidency. Westly, meanwhile, appears to be planning a run for governor in 2018.

Then there’s Tim Draper, another Silicon Valley tycoon who yearns to have a political impact.

In 2000, Draper placed on the ballot a measure to give parents vouchers to send their kids to private schools.

It failed, but Draper tried again recently, proposing a ballot measure aimed at fragmenting California into six states, including one called Silicon Valley.

His goal, he said, was to improve the state’s often dysfunctional governance – a worthy goal, certainly – but while it provided much fodder for pundits inside and outside the state, it never had a chance of making it.

Draper, however, is not to be deterred from his self-proclaimed mission. He’s now sponsoring a new campaign called FixCal.org to solicit ideas for making California “awesome again.” He terms it “venture governance.”

It is, in a sense, endearing, even heartening, that rich people in Silicon Valley want to fix California, either by running for office or proposing ballot measures. But so far, their business success doesn’t compute for politics.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.