May 06, 2020
The American Prospect
One narrative from the money side of the 2020 Democratic primary held that Joe Biden just wasn’t popular with Silicon Valley mega-donors, who gravitated toward the Pete Buttigiegs of the world. But now that Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, one Big Tech giant is leaning on an old hire to affect what’s arguably Biden’s most important decision at the moment: picking a vice president.
On April 30, the Biden campaign announced to surprisingly little fanfare that it had selected a committee of advisers who’d help pick his running mate. The only non-politician of the bunch is Cynthia Hogan, Apple’s top lobbyist since April 2016.
While Hogan hasn’t registered to lobby herself since 2018, as Apple’s vice president for public policy and government affairs, she oversees every part of the company’s Washington influence strategy. Maybe she doesn’t personally tell politicians that they should vote in one way or another on a given bill, but she manages who does the telling. Under our excessively narrow political-influence laws, this technically doesn’t count as lobbying, though it certainly fits any colloquial definition of the term: If you tell a subordinate on your payroll to chat up a senator about XYZ bill, but don’t chat the senator up yourself, you are directing lobbying, even if you’re not technically a lobbyist.
It’s an old trick that political operatives have used to comply with the letter, but not the spirit, of lobbying bans for years. Notably, Biden’s current campaign adviser Steve Ricchetti revolved between government and K Street twice before he became the then-vice president’s chief of staff in 2013. Because Ricchetti deregistered as a lobbyist in 2008, even though he continued to oversee lobbyists for four years after that, the hire didn’t technically violate President Obama’s ban on lobbyists in the White House.
Like Ricchetti, Hogan had close ties to Biden for years before she joined up with Apple in 2016. Hogan was Biden’s chief counsel in the Senate, and then as vice president. Hogan lobbied for the National Football League before joining Apple, where she reports up to a fellow revolving-door figure—former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, who is now Apple’s VP of environment, policy, and social initiatives.
Having a corporate influence strategist help to pick the Democratic nominee’s vice president would be bad no matter what, but giving Apple a seat at the table is particularly worrying. Apple is one of the “Big Four” currently facing federal antitrust investigations (in Apple’s case, from the Department of Justice). The Supreme Court also ruled against Apple last May by allowing a separate antitrust case to proceed through the courts. That one is focused on Apple’s app store, through which the company takes a 30 percent cut on any apps sold, and which app developers have no choice but to sell on if they want (or need) to reach the billions of iPhone users around the world.
Apple is also the clearest example of Big Tech’s double-game on federal privacy legislation: CEO Tim Cook loves to laud his company’s staunch commitment to consumer privacy, but behind the scenes, Apple has undermined state-level efforts at tough privacy laws while shoveling money at groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology that push measly bills to preempt, or override, stronger state efforts. The trick here is that Apple never clearly defines what it means by “consumer privacy.” It wants to make it hard for governments or hackers to break into its products, sure, but if consumers want to keep data private from corporations—like Apple—the company will leave no earth unscorched in its opposition efforts.
Hogan is also on the board of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a centrist group whose president (and perennial revolver) Robert Atkinson literally wrote a book called Big Is Beautiful: Debunking the Myth of Small Business. Three guesses where they fall on anti-monopoly policy. Indeed, ITIF published a paper defending the consumer welfare standard, a bedrock of lax antitrust enforcement, back in 2018. A similar paper appeared just yesterday from Trump transition official and Google ally Joshua Wright. So at the height of the modern anti-monopoly movement, one of the women picking Biden’s vice president sits on the board of a think tank that pushes exactly the same anti-monopoly policy as Trump.
Biden, like most of the 2020 candidates, made a few appeals to popular anger at Big Tech on the campaign trail, in particular citing Amazon’s failure to pay federal taxes. (Apple’s tax-dodging is the stuff of legend.) But Biden was certainly nowhere close to Elizabeth Warren’s or Bernie Sanders’s calls for breaking up or extensively regulating companies like Apple. Biden now recognizes that he needs to bring in progressives and populists to win in November, so tech-bashing could be back on the menu. To influence Biden away from such heavy-handed activity, Big Tech is certainly looking to place allies across Biden’s campaign and potential executive branch. Having Hogan help pick his number two is certainly part of that effort.
Having a corporate influence strategist help to pick the Democratic nominee’s vice president would be bad no matter what, but giving Apple a seat at the table is particularly worrying.
Four women are most frequently discussed as likely potential vice-presidential picks for Biden: Warren, who despite popularity among workaday coders, is anathema to Silicon Valley billionaires; Amy Klobuchar, who our data shows had 17 prominent backers in the tech industry; Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who does not appear to be well connected in the Valley; and Kamala Harris, the junior California senator. Dozens of prominent figures in the tech world were major supporters of Harris. This is no big surprise—to rise in California politics, Harris developed relationships in the Valley early and often. Her breakout campaign for San Francisco district attorney was managed by a woman who would go on to become a major Google lobbyist, Rebecca Prozan.
Jackson, to whom Hogan directly reports, maxed out her personal contributions to Harris’s presidential campaign. Other Harris funders from Apple included Vice President of Technology Kevin Lynch and Senior Software Product Designer Greg Niles. None of Harris’s disclosed bundlers—the wealthy fundraisers who bring in at least $25,000 apiece for a campaign—worked at Apple. Her tech-industry bundlers included Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky and Microsoft President Brad Smith (both of whom also backed both Klobuchar and Biden); LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; venture capitalist Ron Conway; and GlassView founder and CEO James Brooks.
Many of these bundlers later flocked to other candidates in the 2020 cycle, especially Pete Buttigieg. Harris’s biggest betrayal came from bundler Swati Mylavarapu, who later became Buttigieg’s “national investment chair,” meaning she ran his big-dollar fundraising efforts. While the causes of Harris’s flameout range from campaign mismanagement to awkward debate performances, losing key parts of her big-dollar financial support to some no-name mayor from Indiana surely stung.
If Hogan tries to cut a deal with Harris during the veepstakes, it’s possible she won’t be as receptive to entreaties from the tech industry. But she is their home-state senator, and Silicon Valley has surely maintained relationships with Harris even after she dropped out of the presidential race. If committing to Apple’s bidding will help her get ahead, there’s little reason to think Harris wouldn’t take the offer.
The tech industry has been trying hard to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis by bolstering its public image. A torrent of headlines declared the death of the techlash, and the industry proclaimed itself essential to communication in the 21st century. For the industry to not just win back the public, but also win over skeptical lawmakers, it will need to maintain influence at the highest levels. Seeding one of its own on the vice-presidential selection team gives Apple a head start on this project and indicates that Biden is certainly not willing to excommunicate the industry from his team just yet. Should Hogan steer him toward picking a Big Tech ally as vice president, it will be that much harder for the public to seek justice against these 21st-century titans.