You can't get more establishment than the 102-year-old U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Its Main Street persona and Republican political leanings would seem to embody everything that the Bay Area's new wave of high-tech entrepreneurs are trying to disrupt.
David Chavern knows this. But as he's about to open the chamber's first major, outside-of-Washington office in San Francisco to better serve the fastest-growing part of the U.S. economy, he's offering something that the techies' own fledgling crop of Capitol Hill advocates can't: The chamber's 500-person army of lobbyists and lawyers camped across the street from the White House who spent $74.4 million on lobbying last year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
"I'm not running away from the establishment thing," said Chavern, who was the chamber's chief operating officer in Washington before heading west. His pitch to Bay Area tech leaders: "I have the infrastructure to help Washington understand you better."
The chamber is doing a bit of rebranding to help smooth its path to the West. The West Coast outpost is called the Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation. The image on its new brochure is a melding of its past and future: President William Howard Taft, who inspired the idea for the chamber more than a century ago, wearing Google Glass.
But quietly, some are questioning what the chamber can offer. There are already 14 tech-related industry groups in Washington, many of which represent the same member companies. Plus, over the past few years, many Silicon Valley companies have developed their own modest presence in the capitol, with Google's lobbying presence growing to rival those of the city's major players.
Culturally, Chavern's challenge is that many tech leaders are dubious about the power of government or political operatives to create change in the way that technologists can. And politically, the chamber's political arm spent $35 million on federal races in 2012 - almost exclusively against Democrats or in favor of Republican candidates, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Disconnect in Bay Area
That's a bit of disconnect in the politically deep blue Bay Area.
Not only did voters in each of the nine Bay Area counties support President Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by at least 25 percentage points in the 2012 election, but upward of 80 percent of the political contributions from the top 10 Internet technology companies supported the president's re-election, according to political statistician Nate Silver.
But some analysts say there are plenty of libertarian-leaning techies who won't be put off by some of the chamber's political stands.
"The chamber is being smart by going after the voices and voters it can grab - the disaffected techies who are socially liberal and turned off by the state GOP, but not necessarily liberal in any real sense about taxes and finance issues," said David McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University. "Thus, the chamber can make some political hay talking to those voters. Oh, and yeah, these same voters happen have to money to burn. Not a bad combo if you are the chamber."
Chavern points out that he's opening an office in the capital of the tech world to talk about policy, not politics. And he understands, after spending four months meeting with the industry's major players, what his challenges are.
"If you're in the tech sector, your whole psychology is being a disrupter. Whoever is the establishment player in the space is ripe to be disrupted," Chavern said. "And who is an establishment player in the political space: One of them is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And so there is some hesitancy about seeing us as who will drive innovation.
"But if you look at our history," the 51-year-old Chavern said, "we always try to stay ahead of innovation and drive policy."
On policy terms, the chamber's history is mixed on some high-profile issues that the tech industry holds dear. In 2010, it was one of the top supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act, better known as SOPA, and its counterpart in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA.
Many Internet firms - including Google and Yahoo - vehemently opposed the measures, saying they gave the government too much power to shut down online sites that posted pirated content. Yahoo quit the chamber because of its position and Google considered bailing.
More recently, the chamber has taken no position on the biggest political fight of a generation in the tech world: the battle over net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposed rule change that would no longer force Internet service providers to treat all online traffic equally. Tech companies of all sizes oppose the change and want to preserve what they call net neutrality. Telecommunications giants like Verizon and Comcast say that because they built the network they should be able to manage its costs.
Part of the challenge for the chamber is that it has member companies on both sides of the issue.
On immigration reform, the chamber hews closer to what many valley companies want - a comprehensive package of reforms. However, the chamber stops short of calling exclusively for a pathway to citizenship, as many tech firms do. A chamber spokeswoman said it "does not oppose a pathway to citizenship, but recognizes that a pathway to legal status may be a necessary compromise."
On July 17, the chamber's new office will host one of its first major events in San Francisco - a screening of the new documentary "Underwater Dreams." The film is about four teenage boys, the children of Mexican immigrants, who entered a robotics competition and challenged the engineering elite at MIT. Chavern will lead a panel discussion on immigration reform afterward.
It's an outgrowth of some of the conversations Chavern has had over the past few months, quietly listening and trying to find common ground with those who are driving the fastest-growing part of the economy. On many issues - like corporate tax reform, increased education standards and the need for better infrastructure - the chamber is very much in tune with what the tech business community wants.
"We found that there are several places where we agree," said Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association that represents 375 of Silicon Valley's top companies and a frequent presence in Washington. Guardino met with Chavern last week and foresees working together. "There's always room for people to be advocating for the needs of the technology community. C'mon in, the water's warm."
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle