Political strategist Bradley Tusk on his fast rise in Silicon Valley

Bradley Tusk has long been known in political circles. He was once deputy governor of Illinois, working for the now-incarcerated former governor Rod Blagojevich. He also worked for Michael Bloomberg during one of his tenures as mayor of New York City and in 2009 ran Bloomberg’s successful, third re-election campaign.

In fact, thanks to a generous bonus check from Bloomberg, Tusk was able to start a consultancy in 2010 that helps Fortune 500 companies launch political-style campaigns to achieve a particular end. A year later, in another stroke of luck, Tusk became the first outside consultant to Uber and accepted his pay in equity. Since then, through a separate outfit that only accepts its payment in equity,  Tusk has become a go-to source both Silicon Valley VCs and startup founders needing help in persuading regulators to let them have their way. (Among its other 22 clients: Eaze, AltSchool, Lemonade, and Handy.)

At a StrictlyVC event last week, Tusk talked about his work in Silicon Valley, whether he is interested (as sometimes rumored) in running for office himself, and what certain startups can expect from the Trump administration. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity; you can watch the broader interview below.

TC: Why go into business for yourself after the Bloomberg campaign?

BT: I knew that the skill set that I had was really devising and running campaigns, and because my work had taken me all over the country, I knew I could do it in lots of places. And those two things were a little different from what anyone else in that market was doing.

And Mike is a generous man, and he gave me a bonus at the end of the campaign, and I took a look at the amount left after taxes – it was all the money I had — and I looked at my wife and was like, “When this gets down to $50,000, I’ve got to go get a job.” And luckily it didn’t come to [that].

TC: What did you learn from Bloomberg that you’re replicating?

BT: The [most important] thing for Mike is his culture. So our business in some ways is a microcosm of Bloomberg, where we’re all in a bullpen and [operate in a] very flat hierarchy with total transparency and we try to treat people really well and pay them really well, and we assume that we’re going to get great talent and it’s going to pay off. If you look at almost all of his businesses, and as mayor, his real skill set is that he attracts [talented people], he knows how to recruit them, how to support them, and how to give them the confidence they need to take risks.

TC: There are other political strategy firms working with tech companies, but Tusk Ventures is the only one that everyone knows of because you’re so high profile. Why not operate behind the scenes? 

BT: Deal flow is the lifeblood of any VC, and that’s true for us, too. And in some ways, because I didn’t come up through this world at all, there had to be a way to say “Hey, here’s who we are, here’s what we do. If you have a really interesting company with a really big problem, we’re willing to take it on and we’re willing to do it for equity and be part of your team.” But it took being out there enough for people to realize it.

TC: Are other political strategists starting to emulate your approach?

BT: I hope not. It’s a challenge in a sense that first, we’re able to do all of it for equity — though I pay my people in real dollars — so there’s a lot of financial risk that you have to be willing to take and I’m able to do that. Also, typically, if you’re someone like me and you’re five years into your political consulting firm, you sell it to one of these big holding companies like WPP or Omnicom. And they’d never let you do something like this. So I’d like to think there are some barriers to entry to replicating our model, but I’m sure someone else can come in and do it, too.

TC: Are you interested in running for public office?

BT: No, I mean, the only job to me that’s worth having is being mayor of New York City. It’s a great job. I did launch a super-PAC about a year ago to get rid of our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, just because I think we deserve better than a mayor who’s under seven separate federal corruption investigations and who comes to work at 11 a.m and doesn’t work on Fridays and doesn’t care about substance. But that’s different than saying I want the job. Also, I’m an independent – another thing I got from Mike Bloomberg. And kind of like in San Francisco, in New York City, if you aren’t a Democrat, it’s exceptionally hard to win.

TC: Anyone you’d get behind right now for president in 2020?

BT: I would really like for it to not be a U.S. senator . . . When Mike was thinking about running [for U.S. president] last year, I made the case internally that Sheryl Sandberg should be our VP. He wanted someone with national security experience and picked Admiral [Michael] Mullen and I don’t know that she would have taken it anyway. But I felt like she would be the kind of person who could really connect with voters in a way that would complement Mike’s skill sets. So I still think she would be great.

TC: What about a ticket with Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg?

BT: Yeah. [Laughs]. It would be an interesting ticket. There’s this talk of Tom Hanks, maybe he’d be good; we have had an actor president before. [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz plays footsie a lot with running for president. I think one of the things that Trump proved is . . . rather than working your way up the political ladder, you’re much better off saying, “Here’s the job I want” and running for it as an outsider. My guess is the strongest candidate for the Democrats will not be a politician, and that’s the best shot of taking on Trump.

TC: One thing you’ve done with great success is mobilize the user base of some of your clients like Uber and FanDuel, making it easy for them to click on a link and pressure their local representatives into acquiescence. What do you do in cases where that’s not possible, where the user base isn’t necessarily consumers but maybe patients or other?

BT: [S]ometimes you have that passion and you really harness it and sometimes you don’t and you’re running more of an inside game. In any given campaign . . . there’s always a political decision-maker, and what most furthers their ambition or heightens their insecurity is what you want to play on to get to where you want to go. If you can do that with emails and tweets, and they say, “Holy shit, I don’t care that much about fantasy sports and they let something pass [as with FanDuel], great.

If you can’t, and you’ve got to hire a bunch of lobbyists, that’s what you do. It not just varies by company but by jurisdiction [and] by fight. People are always asking me, “Do I ask for permission or beg for forgiveness?” and it depends. Who are you begging for forgiveness from? If it’s from some taxi regulator and you maybe get fined $100 because you have the wrong license plate, that’s one thing. If you’re asking a U.S. attorney for forgiveness, and you’re looking at three to five [years in prison], that’s a different issue.

TC: Let’s talk quickly about some issues that are front and center for some founders. First: contractors versus full-time employees. Top of mind for this administration or not so much?

BT: It’s top of mind for the [House] speaker. I know Paul Ryan and his office care a lot about this issue. I think there are Senators like [Marco] Rubio who engaged in this on the campaign, too. I don’t think the White House has any real awareness of this one way or the other.

TC: Self-driving cars and trucks?

BT: If you think about it, the politics of autonomous are fascinating. In Pittsburgh, [Pittsburgh Mayor] Bill Peduto’s entire political future is based on [being] the guy who transformed Pittsburgh from a rust belt manufacturing city to a knowledge economy city, so therefore, the optics of autonomous Ubers are amazing for him.

[H]ere in San Francisco — I’m going to generalize here – you people don’t vote in municipal elections and therefore your voice is irrelevant in municipal elections. And the people who do vote in municipal elections don’t like tech, right? So for [SF Mayor] Ed Lee or [SF Board of Supervisors member] Aaron Peskin, it’s great politics to go after tech companies. So a lot of it still comes back to: what does the individual office holder need and care about? What are the inputs? And that will help you figure out what the outputs are.

TC: The Affordable Care Act. Obviously, it won’t be gone in a flash as President Trump first suggested. What should health care startups be doing while they wait?

BT: First, if you believe your model could be significantly improved by whatever Washington does eventually pass, then you’ve got to get into the game. And you have to have a good lobbyist in D.C. and a good strategy.

Second, it seems a likely scenario that they throw a lot of it to the states and the states decide. That will create chaos, but that also means there’s opportunity. I think you can look at it and say, “Okay, here are states where we think they may like our model. Let’s get in there now and start working them so that when they make decisions on Medicaid funding, for example, or insurance mandates, our position is front and center.”

TC: What about Trump’s immigration ban [which some worry will lead to another executive order that impacts H-1B visa holders]?

BT: There’s the executive order, there’s broader immigration policy, there’s the wall [that Trump wants to erect between the U.S. and Mexico], then there are H-1B visas. I think with H-1B visas, the trick is to work with the Republican Congress to reject it. You can do a lot of harm through executive orders, and so far, this president seems to be trying as hard as he can. But most of the big stuff has to happen legislatively. . . [E]veryone is spending so much emotional energy on Trump, but don’t forget about Ryan and [Senate majority leader Mitch] McConnell and all those people because they can be a pretty good bulwark against stupid stuff and they can help you pass some good stuff.

Photo: Dani Padgett