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Pressing Fwd.us: How Silicon Valley’s $50 Million Bet on Immigration Stalled

Mark Zuckerberg's split with a Harvard roommate leaves the immigration group with an uncertain future.

1776dc/Fwd.us

When President Barack Obama decided in early September to postpone immigration reform, it marked the beginning of the end of Joe Green’s tenure as the head of one of Silicon Valley’s most ambitious political groups, playing into a stereotype that often surrounds the tech industry’s efforts at Beltway dealmaking: They’re amateurs.

Green had been in charge of Fwd.us, one of the industry’s most well-funded nonprofit advocacy groups, which was started by some of tech’s most powerful executives, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Immigration reform is one of the group’s main issues, partly because it affects how Silicon Valley companies can hire qualified engineers, many of whom come from outside the U.S.

Two weeks after Obama decided to temporarily shelve any moves on immigration policy, Green was pushed out. Zuckerberg, who was once his roommate at Harvard, informed investors of the decision in an email. “While FWD.us has achieved important milestones in the fight to reform immigration laws, Joe and I agreed a change in leadership was necessary,” Zuckerberg wrote.

He didn’t praise Green’s efforts in the note or in an accompanying blog post about the ouster. In a call with funders, Zuckerberg promised to discuss “FWD.us’s work with the Administration on the possibility of some immigration reform via Executive Action.”

But Green’s ouster from the immigration reform PAC he founded less than two years ago didn’t just mark an awkward split between former college roommates. It highlighted the latest failure by some of the tech industry’s richest power players to make a difference in Washington, despite spending tens of millions of dollars to push Congress to pass an immigration reform bill.

Former Fwd.us president Joe Green
Former Fwd.us president Joe Green

Silicon Valley is a favorite spot for politicians to fundraise. Possible 2016 presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul is already planning to open an office there. But the industry has a weak record in Washington. This year alone, tech lobbyists have failed to get two big items on their to-do list — patent troll legislation and National Security Agency mass surveillance reform — passed.

Of course, Green’s departure from Fwd.us may just be the case of a visionary founder struggling with a perception of immaturity and the more mundane requirements of running a growing political organization. But it also may show a growing impatience by some Silicon Valley luminaries to see their multi-million dollar investments in changing Washington actually change Washington.

The Roommate

Despite launching in April 2013 with a campaign war chest of up to $50 million, Fwd.us couldn’t help push immigration reform over the finish line. Obama’s decision to defer action until after the election — at the request of nervous Democratic lawmakers — appeared to be the last straw for investors funding the operation.

Fwd.us’s well-heeled tech industry backers — including more than four dozen high-profile CEOs, senior executives and venture capitalists — wanted results, and several privately questioned whether Green was the man to get them. A Facebook spokeswoman said Zuckerberg declined to comment.

“I had misgivings about Joe. I think a lot of people felt that way,” said one Fwd.us donor, who, like several others, declined to speak on the record about the group.

One big issue: While the 30-something’s enthusiasm for tackling the immigration reform debate was evident, his lack of experience in Washington led some to question whether he was the right person to lead the high-profile group.

Green is a well-known fixture of the Silicon Valley startup scene, an affable, floppy-haired bon vivant with a penchant for mentioning he was one of Zuckerberg’s college roommates. You know — the one who turned down a job at Facebook to graduate and co-found Causes, an online activism platform, in 2007.

While Zuckerberg was building Facebook, Green became a “social entrepreneur,” focused on Causes. He spoke eloquently about how technology can empower people to create political change and become more involved in the governing process.

“He’s a really passionate guy who cares about this stuff,” said another Fwd.us donor, who also declined to speak on the record about the organization. But Green appeared unable to translate that passion into long-term success at the companies he’s led.

Green abruptly left Causes in 2012 and soon landed at NationBuilder, a bipartisan campaign software startup, as president. Green negotiated a “co-founder” title after helping CEO Jim Gilliam land a $6.25 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz with the help of Facebook investor Sean Parker, who co-founded Causes with Green.

That co-founder title disappeared from NationBuilder’s company history after Green left the startup in 2013, less than a year after joining it.

Dropbox’s Drew Houston, CFO Sujay Jaswa and Palantir Technologies co-founder Joe Lonsdale pose with Green and former Florida governor Jeb Bush in August.
Dropbox’s Drew Houston, CFO Sujay Jaswa and Palantir Technologies co-founder Joe Lonsdale pose with Green and former Florida governor Jeb Bush in August.

Within two months he had launched Fwd.us, largely with the assistance of Zuckerberg, who helped bankroll the project and personally helped convince an elite mix of Silicon Valley CEOs and investors to fund the group. Among the original backers were Parker, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston and venture capitalist Ron Conway.

“Everybody makes mistakes.”

Fwd.us had a rough start.

Even before the group launched, Politico obtained an early prospectus which incorrectly suggested the high-powered tech executives who would be funding it could use their companies to “control the avenues of distribution” to support the group’s lobbying efforts. It also listed Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Marc Andreessen as early members even though they hadn’t signed on. (Gates eventually joined. Andreessen did not.)

Meanwhile, the group almost immediately offended some of its wealthy, socially-liberal backers by quickly launching a television and online advertising campaign aimed at helping key lawmakers by praising their support of issues like the Keystone XL pipeline via its affiliates, Americans for a Conservative Direction and the Council for American Job Growth.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHuJkHge-sw

Because of that, two original backers — Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and investor David Sacks — severed ties with the group. The ads drew protests from environmental and left-leaning groups, which questioned Fwd.us’s tactics.

“Those initial ads weren’t the right beginning,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigration policy group, who has worked closely with Fwd.us. “Everybody makes mistakes. We make mistakes.”

A majority of TV ads that Fwd.us has run over the past year were about immigration reform, says Fwd.us interim president Todd Schulte, a veteran Democratic political operative who previously ran Priorities USA, an influential super PAC that aired anti-Mitt Romney ads during the 2012 presidential race.

But Green was also failing to impress some in Washington.

He showed up late and had little to say at a meeting of Democratic House members who’d gathered in September 2013 to talk with Zuckerberg, who was visiting lawmakers on Capitol Hill to rally support for immigration legislation, according to one person who attended the meeting.

Mark Zuckerberg meets a computer science student at a September 2013 immigration event in Washington, D.C.
Mark Zuckerberg meets a computer science student at a September 2013 immigration event in Washington, D.C.

At another meeting, one former Hill aide recalls watching Green explain the need for immigration reform to a House member who is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “None of it was targeted like he knew who his audience was,” the former aide said.

Fwd.us officials told reporters that the group had raised about $50 million to push for immigration reform. But the group didn’t actually have that much money in the bank, one source said. Zuckerberg offered to match donations to the group by the investors, according to several funders. They could either make a large one-time donation or smaller, more frequent donations, which were counted as part of that $50 million figure.

By June, the group had burned through a lot of money, sources said. The group spent at least $2.1 million on television and national cable ads since 2013, according to an analysis for Re/code by Kantar Media’s CMAG unit, which tracks political TV advertising. Overall, the group has spent about $10 million on TV, cable and digital ads, a Fwd.us spokeswoman said. The group also spent nearly a million dollars on lobbyists trying to push reluctant Republicans to vote in favor of an immigration reform bill.

The Senate passed legislation in June 2013, but House Republican leaders struggled to find a compromise that would appease Hispanic voters without upsetting Tea Party conservatives.

At a dinner organized by Zuckerberg in early June, Green made another appeal to a small group of Fwd.us funders, asking them to give more, according to several sources. Green assured them that Fwd.us was making a difference, sources said. House Republican leaders were trying to find a compromise and Fwd.us could help.

Two weeks later, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his rural Virginia House seat. He was defeated by virtually unknown Tea Party candidate David Brat, who had attacked Cantor for his somewhat limited support of immigration reform.

“Eric Cantor losing is a bombshell that no one here saw coming,” Green posted on Facebook the next morning. But the push for immigration legislation was essentially over for the year.

“In the end, you can argue all the work they did couldn’t bring along the House Republicans. But no one could,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration nonprofit, who worked with the tech group.

Fwd.us and other immigration advocates then turned to the White House for help. But after mulling how taking action might affect the prospects for Democrats in November, President Obama announced last month he’d defer any action until after the election. Green was gone two weeks later.

“I think he is a very smart, very well-meaning guy,” said one Fwd.us donor, who declined to speak about the group on the record. “Being a founder and a CEO are not always synonymous.”

Joe Green’s Facebook post about his departure from Fwd.us
Joe Green’s Facebook post about his departure from Fwd.us

Green declined to speak to Re/code for this story. In a Facebook post, Green said his two years there had “been one of the most exciting, challenging and rewarding periods of my life.”

A Path Forward

Ironically, the impatience of Fwd.us’s wealthy funders with the group’s accomplishments doesn’t appear to be shared by many in the immigration advocacy community. (Although, to be fair, they are far more used to Washington’s inaction on the politically-divisive immigration issue than the high-octane tech billionaires.)

“When they showed up on the scene, they were like the cavalry,” said Sharry. “Fwd.us showed up with the resources and the feasibility and the wherewithal to do things the other corporate lobby shops weren’t willing to do. Most important was putting money into advertising.”

While Green might not have had much Washington experience, Fwd.us’s professional staff includes several veteran political operatives, including Schulte, a Democrat, and Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The group employs about 40 people across the U.S., including several community organizers.

“We’re very excited about moving forward,” said Schulte, in an interview after Green’s departure. “There’s going to be a legislative solution, it’s not a question of if but when.”

Schulte is now leading the group as acting president. Since Green’s departure three weeks ago, Fwd.us has continued its organizing activities, launching a new chapter in Philadelphia and holding a meetup of local supporters in San Francisco. Other than a brief blog post on Green’s departure, the organization has remained silent on the issue. Fwd.us’s Facebook and Twitter accounts never mentioned it.

Last week, the group launched a roughly $700,000 ad campaign in New Hampshire to help Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who voted in favor of immigration reform. She is being challenged by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican. A Fwd.us spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the group would get involved in more races before election day.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGVG9ZHJSyU

“I think under Joe’s leadership, Fwd.us quickly established itself as a very important group in Washington and, going forward, that means a lot,” said Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary and Facebook PR honcho who’s now managing director at D.C.-based PR firm Glover Park Group. “Their top-flight professional staff is crucial going forward.”

The question now is how does the group help achieve the results that Zuckerberg and its other wealthy backers want, even though congressional action on immigration seems unlikely in the near future.

“We think we have a real opportunity over the years ahead to push for immigration reform,” Schulte said. “We’re focusing ahead at this point.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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