Paul Spencer, a Congressional candidate in Little Rock, Arkansas, has never worked at a tech company. He doesn’t represent tech industry issues. He doesn’t even own a laptop or smartphone. He typically dictates the tweets on his campaign’s official Twitter account; occasionally he’ll type them out on a campaign staffer’s computer. Sometime last year, he was tagged in a tweet with someone going by the handle of @Pinboard, who was telling Spencer that he could raise money for him.
“I don’t know who this @Pinboard guy is,” he said to his staffers. The campaign ignored the tweet for a couple of days before someone decided they might as well send the guy a message. “We like to say it’s the most lucrative DM we’ve ever sent,” Reed Brewer, a spokesperson for the Spencer campaign, told me.
Spencer was being invited to be a beneficiary of the Great Slate, a fundraising campaign that raised nearly a million dollars in 2017, mostly through Twitter, for eight seemingly random congressional candidates from across the country. The Great Slate has no splashy slogans, no slick logos: just a bare-bones website, a donate button, and a lot of jokes on Twitter. It isn’t being run by the candidates, a PAC, or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The fundraising is almost entirely driven by rank-and-file tech workers — some working for big companies like Google — living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The candidates they’ve chosen are often thousands of miles away, and most don’t even discuss issues specific to the tech industry. None of the candidates are tech workers: they include school teachers, veterans, and a nurse. They are running in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Maine, Iowa, New Mexico, and more rural areas of California.
What they have in common is that they’re progressive candidates running in less-affluent, often rural Republican-leaning districts, who have trouble raising money locally. And now, the funds have come to them, without them asking for it.
Maciej Ceglowski, who runs a grassroots organization called Tech Solidarity that aims to connect tech workers with their communities, cobbled together the Great Slate after meeting Jess King, a candidate running for office in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Ceglowski was struck by King’s approach: a fieldwork-focused, populist campaign that goes door-to-door and aims at voter expansion.
After successfully raising money for her campaign from the tech community, he began to look through FEC filings for other candidates like her in districts with similar political leanings. Ceglowski, who is perhaps best known for creating the bookmarking site Pinboard, originally pitched the candidates individually to tech workers. Many in the community either know Ceglowski personally or are familiar with him through his quirky internet presence, and it became apparent that donors preferred to give money across the board to all his picks. They were willing to trust candidates who he had met with and personally chosen, and so the Great Slate was born.
The Great Slate siphons money to candidates through ActBlue, a Democrat-affiliated campaign payment processing service. Campaign finance laws mean that when you donate to the Great Slate’s ActBlue page, you’re asked to then enter separate amounts for each individual campaign. Ceglowski has no control over how the funds are divvied up. But the donors we spoke to tended to donate evenly to the candidates, seeing the Great Slate as a larger cause than just individual candidates.
“There are a lot of people who work in tech who are very progressive-minded, who believe in a strong social safety net, who have very different political beliefs [from the libertarians], and they don’t have a face when we talk about the tech industry,” says Ceglowski.
This isn’t surprising, says Ceglowski. He says that the average tech worker is an “NPR-listener” and that the “weird libertarian” ideology is mostly represented on the venture capitalist side. (Peter Thiel, the face of Silicon Valley techno-libertarianism, backed Trump in the last election.) “When you look at auto workers and the airline industry, you don’t just hear from the owners of the companies,” says Ceglowski. “The workers have their separate voice, and sometimes they agree on issues and sometimes they’re diametrically opposed.”
The project, Ceglowski says, has been driven by tech workers who are sick of the Republican-run government. In late 2016 and early 2017, tech workers began to sign the Never Again pledge, promising to never build technology that would aid the Trump administration in making a Muslim registry. The creation of Tech Solidarity, a grassroots organization working against Trump, overlapped with the pledge. Toward the end of 2017, Tech Solidarity organized around the Great Slate.
“Everyone is really tired of the Trump show and that feeling of having no agency and nothing that you can do,” said Ceglowski. “We all kind of repeat that our votes matter and we’re all going to go to the polls, but whether I vote or not, Nancy Pelosi [who represents San Francisco] is going to win either by a hundred thousand votes or a hundred thousand and one.” The donors of the Great Slate, he says, would probably be donating to the Democratic Party or the ACLU if not to the Great Slate. It’s just another beneficiary of anti-Trump anger.
But the success of the Great Slate has come as a surprise to the candidates on the receiving end of the largesse. Mad Hildebrandt, who was inspired by the Women’s March to run for office in New Mexico’s 2nd district, said she was a “little hesitant” when she first got an email out of nowhere from Ceglowski. “But my son is an engineer. My son-in-law is a software engineer. That’s kind of how they would do it,” she laughed.
“It sounds really shady to the candidates,” says Ceglowski. When a “random computer guy shows up out of nowhere” and starts promising them free money, the candidates react with understandable suspicion. “I would say their first impression of me is not very positive.”
It doesn’t help that Ceglowski is insistent on giving the candidates briefings on information security. He carries YubiKeys — hardware authentication devices that are the gold standard of two-factor authentication — with him to meetings with those running for office. Beefing up security practices in political campaigns is important, especially given the email hacking that dominated the 2016 cycle — but a strange man showing up to explain two-factor authentication to you is probably a little off-putting nonetheless. After raising nearly a million dollars combined last quarter, “they’re being a lot friendlier to me,” says Ceglowski.
“I think the Great Slate is an amazing new thing that’s happening,” said Hildebrandt. “It’s part of the Blue Wave is really what it is.”
The money raised by the Great Slate changed the game for the candidates we spoke to.
Hildebrandt just opened another field office with the help of those funds, which will help her campaign do more footwork in the area. Her district in New Mexico is sprawling and includes sparsely populated rural areas; a lot of her campaign money, she says, is going toward the cost of just driving around.
“It’s been a godsend,” says Little Rock’s Paul Spencer. As a campaign finance reformer, Spencer doesn’t take PAC money. This left his campaign so cash-strapped they only had the money to boost a few Facebook posts. After the Great Slate’s fundraising, they now have yard signs, billboards, and additional staffers. Being able to wake up every morning to money in their ActBlue account means that Spencer spends less time planning fundraisers in people’s homes or on phone calls with prospective donors, and more time going door-to-door and holding town halls — which is exactly what Spencer would rather be doing. “The fundraising is the most godawful thing in the universe,” he told me.
Because candidates for Spencer’s district typically come from the most affluent neighborhoods, they fundraise in those same neighborhoods. As a result, huge swathes of the district — particularly neighborhoods that are predominantly people of color — don’t have their interests represented. The district may lean Republican in elections, but Spencer’s theory is that you don’t have to be “Republican-lite” to win.
The candidates of the Great Slate are progressive, but there’s no ideological litmus test. Some are advocates for universal health care, others are driven by immigration reform and the well-being of DACA recipients. There are Catholics on the slate, which raises some questions about how those candidates will approach reproductive issues. (Spencer himself is a devout Catholic, but a campaign spokesperson told me he opposed any restrictions on a woman’s right to choose or her ability to procure birth control.) Ceglowski says he was looking for viable candidates who were focused on opening field offices, canvassing, knocking on doors, and expanding the voter base — building grassroots structures that, even if they ultimately didn’t win, would become resources for future elections.
Ceglowski picked candidates in Republican-leaning, economically strained districts that he thought had a chance to flip in favor of a local populist, progressive candidate. All of the candidates, he says, are “outsiders.” They aren’t professional politicians; they have day jobs. According to Ceglowski, they aren’t “Harvard lawyers” or “Stanford grads,” and they don’t have Rolodexes of rich friends to turn to. (One of the candidates is a lawyer with a UC Davis degree; presumably, this doesn’t count.)
Ceglowski believes these candidates are being overlooked by the DCCC’s policies. In order to get backing from the DCCC, “You’re supposed to have a Rolodex that can raise a quarter of million dollars,” says Ceglowski, “and they actually go with you through your list of potential donors, and you’re not a viable candidate if you can’t prove to them that you can raise that much money.” In the last two months of the election, all that money gets flooded into advertising and consultants. But to raise that kind of money, candidates have to spend their time on the phone fundraising, rather than getting on the street and connecting with constituents. This approach, says Ceglowski, doesn’t work in rural districts where the money isn’t there.
When I asked the DCCC if this was, in fact, their policy, spokesperson Tyler Law told me via email, “While we are certainly encouraged by a surge in small-dollar, grassroots donations to Democrats this cycle, it’s also important that candidates are mobilizing the base, building coalitions with progressive allies on the ground, and building robust campaign infrastructures.”
Robust campaign infrastructures need money. Ceglowski and the DCCC are, at the very least, in agreement about that. So the Great Slate, in other words, is a logical proposition, an invitation to left-leaning monied techies to invest in candidates that might not otherwise have a chance. It’s a proposal that’s been met with enthusiasm by progressives in Silicon Valley, particularly by those who resent how their industry is represented by the likes of Eric S. Raymond, Peter Thiel, and more recently, James Damore.
In the first quarter of 2018 alone, the Great Slate has raised over $140,000, primarily through word of mouth on the internet. The donors I spoke to seemed to give mostly in amounts of hundreds, sometimes less. A good chunk of that was driven by security researcher Thomas Ptacek’s promise to stop tweeting about Eric S. Raymond, a notorious figure in the open-source community whose bizarre and abundant ramblings on everything including race and sex could be considered early forerunners of current alt-right strains in the tech community.
Raymond, popularly known as ESR, is a “philosophical leader of open source” who has long been pilloried for his controversial views — statements like “Gays experimented with unfettered promiscuity in the 1970s and got AIDS as a consequence” or “Police who react to a random black male behaving suspiciously who might be in the critical age range as though he is an near-imminent lethal threat, are being rational, not racist.”
“I’ve been torturing Twitter with lurid Eric S. Raymond quotes for years,” says Thomas Ptacek. “Every time I do, 20 people beg me to stop.” So Ptacek held his followers hostage: pay up, or the ESR quotes would keep coming. It’s estimated that Ptacek has driven somewhere around $30,000, just by threatening to post eye-searing screencaps.
“ESR is a talentless hack whose reputation is entirely built on self promotion and being in the right place at the right time. His attempts to define the culture that gave him everything he has have been repugnant,” says Matthew Garrett, a security engineer at Google who donated to the Great Slate. “So am I enthusiastic about performatively associating these things together in a way that also says fuck you to his political views? Yes, yes I am.”
Many donors I spoke to were long-time critics of ESR who were amused by the ESR drive, but all were serious about the basic mission of the Great Slate. “These two things don’t seem related, but in a way they are,” said donor Kate McKinley, a information security professional in San Francisco. The ESR drive is a reflection of the culture war inside tech, an insular battle that means little to the candidates who are now reaping a windfall because of it.
In interviews, the Silicon Valley donors and national campaigns sounded as if they’d come from two different planets. Hildebrandt, who was previously in the Coast Guard, talked to me about how her district was heavily populated by veterans — not because of an army base, but because of simple demographics: the military is often seen as the only way up for working class kids. Paul Spencer talked to me about the lack of internet access in Arkansas, and the desperate need for broadband. These are communities that couldn’t be further away from an arcane and long-running internet beef with some open source blog guy.
Although they might find it baffling, the candidates have a lot of good will towards the Great Slate — Spencer called the techies behind the effort “civic-minded.” In Spencer’s district, the median income is 39,000, which is still wealthier than the rest of the state. But although the donors of the Great Slate may belong to income brackets several steps above their constituents, they’re “thousandaires,” not plutocrats, and the money they’re sending comes with no strings attached. Working with the Great Slate brings daily surprises. “You never know when you’re going to have an influx of money to be honest,” said Brewer, the spokesperson for the Spencer campaign. “Sometimes it’s driven by a tweetstorm that some person I’ve never even met goes on.”
The tech workers who are helping to buy these campaigns office chairs and gas money might be distant from their local concerns, but they, too, identify with the Blue Wave.
Ceglowski isn’t a typical political organizer, and none of the donors I spoke to fit the profile of a dedicated Democratic political donor. Garrett told me that giving to progressive candidates seemed like an obvious thing for him to do since he supported progressive causes, but acknowledged that these eight campaigns were the only ones he’d donated to so far.
“I have no idea what works and why it works. Sometimes money just pours in, sometimes the thing I think will work has no impact at all. I’m completely in the dark about what I’m doing,” says Ceglowski.
In the end, everyone involved is just doing what they know best, even though the result is something that looks like nothing that anyone’s seen before. “I don’t think it’s particularly strange,” said Spencer. “I think it’s extra-ordinary. Great Slate isn’t the ordinary way of doing something but maybe this will become the ordinary way of doing things.” And after all, even if the Great Slate is weird, it won’t be the weirdest story of the 2018 election.
As the midterms ramp up, the Great Slate is seeing unexpected success. Jess King, the candidate that inspired Ceglowski to form the Great Slate in the first place, won the Democratic endorsement last week.