In 2006, political strategist Zach Silk cut his teeth managing the high-profile, if ill-fated, Congressional campaign of Darcy Burner, the former Microsoft manager who became a favorite in the liberal blogosphere. In 2008, he served as deputy manager for then-Governor Chris Gregoire’s successful re-election campaign. Four years later, he had the biggest political success of his life leading the campaign to pass the state’s same-sex-marriage initiative.
And where is this sought-after political strategist now as a crucial midterm election looms? Ensconced in the 28th-floor offices of a venture-capital company. Silk hasn’t given up his political work, though. Far from it. Instead, he is leading the ever-more-expansive political operation of Nick Hanauer, one of the principals of Second Avenue Partners—a man who made his fortune by investing early in high-tech companies and then turned to investing in politics.
“It’s an evolutionary step,” Silk says of his full-time work for Hanauer. Many wealthy entrepreneurs looking to invest in political and philanthropic causes hire a “donor advisor ” who helps them choose wise philanthropic investments. But Hanauer isn’t just interested in writing checks. He has drafted Silk because he wants to play a hands-on role in crafting and implementing big ideas, many of them informed by politics that are far to the left of your typical jet-owning, multiple-mansion-dwelling tycoon like Hanauer. (“Rich people, huh?” he says jokingly one day when I visit his office and take in its living room-size, panoramic views.)
In the last year, Hanauer has become particularly well known for his championing of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Having written a piece for Bloomberg last June on the “capitalist’s case” for such a wage, which he argues will put more money in the hands of potential customers, Hanauer says he “takes credit” for the $15 figure that has become a rallying call throughout the country.
But that’s not all Hanauer is doing. He helped conceptualize, and is now pushing, a state gun background-checks initiative. He’s talking with national political figures, including potential presidential candidates, about their electoral ambitions. And he’s trying to shape a national conversation about the economy that reaches beyond the minimum wage to address the very meaning of capitalism.
This level of activism is unusual for someone in his position—even those lavish donors to conservative causes, the Koch brothers, aren’t out front pushing their ideas—but not entirely unprecedented. Democratic political consultant John Wyble calls to mind Tom Steyer, the former hedge-fund manager who has actively supported a range of environmental and liberal campaigns in California and across the country. “We seem to be moving away from party politics and toward these independent operators,” Wyble observes.
Last year, as Hanauer’s political ideas became more ambitious, he turned to Silk to run an operation loosely known as the True Patriot Network, named after one of two books Hanauer has co-authored. Silk, for his part, says he wouldn’t have been happy with a traditional donor-advisor role, but feels comfortable doing hands-on organizing for someone with a shared progressive vision.
Hanauer and Silk are a complementary pair. While the venture capitalist has a big personality—“The great thing about being me is that I can do whatever I want,” he says, explaining his free-form activism—Silk comes across as low-key and somewhat self-effacing. “Zach strikes me as the type of guy for whom it really doesn’t matter whose idea it was,” says David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council.
Silk also brings practical political skills and a sense of focus to Hanauer’s irrepressible and wide-ranging views, observes influential political consultant Christian Sinderman, who has worked with them both. “He’s the calming yin to Nick Hanauer’s excitable yang.”
Over coffee on a recent afternoon at a downtown cafe, the 38-year-old Silk relates that he met Hanauer soon after celebrating the wedding ceremonies of gay couples held at City Hall on December 9, 2012. He was still coming off a high from winning the campaign to make those marriages possible. If in retrospect the passage of Referendum 74 seems inevitable, Silk recalls he headed into that campaign with “spotty” polling. “Most people tell you that you shouldn’t go to the ballot unless you’re in the 60 percent range,” he says. “We were in the mid-50s.”
A big part of his success, he believes, was bringing together unexpected allies: small business leaders and big employers, Republicans and Democrats, straight and gay men and women. (He himself is straight, married, and the father of two.) He says one lesson learned is that “you need to not make assumptions about who’s with you and who’s not.”
Five days after the City Hall event came the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. As a renewed call for gun control grew around the country, Silk got a call from Eric Liu, Hanauer’s longtime collaborator and co-author. “Hey, I think we’re going to form an organization,” Silk remembers Liu saying. “We want to build a coalition that can bring people together. The model could be what happened on [same-sex] marriage.”
After a series of meetings with Hanauer and others, Silk took the helm of what became the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. Using start-up money from Hanauer, the group hired lobbyists and began working to pass a legislative bill in 2013 that would require background checks for all gun sales. It failed. Although he and others believe a majority of legislators supported the bill, a frenzy of opposition, fanning concerns about the government coming next to people’s homes to confiscate their guns, managed to block it. “Everything you’ve heard about the gun lobby is true,” Silk says.
So the alliance turned to gathering signatures for what is now Initiative 594, which will be on the ballot in November. Silk says the organization is currently building its infrastructure for the campaign—3,500 donors and 10,000 volunteers so far, he says. It is also coordinating its efforts with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group co-founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Silk went to New York last month to meet with MAIG staff.
The alliance, however, has a somewhat strained relationship with the region’s longtime gun-control advocacy group, Washington CeaseFire. “There’s a degree of arrogance there,” says executive director Ralph Fascitelli. His group wanted to put a measure on the ballot in 2013 rather than this year. Fascitelli argues that, unlike support for same-sex marriage, which has built steadily over time, momentum for gun control is “episodic,” peaking only after shocking events like Sandy Hook. “You have to seize the moment,” Fascitelli says, adding that the alliance “didn’t listen to us.”
“We weren’t ready,” responds Silk, elaborating that he and his cohorts felt they needed time to build forces that could withstand the gun lobby.
The timing debate notwithstanding, Fascitelli recognizes that the Hanauer-funded alliance has brought resources to the table that have eluded CeaseFire. “We couldn’t have done it,” he says, referring to the initiative campaign.
With its lobbying team, the alliance has continued to work the legislature. While it has had no luck on background checks this session either (as with all initiatives, the legislature was given first crack at passing 594), the group did successfully rally support for a bill that allows a judge to order those accused of domestic violence to surrender their guns. “It’s pretty awesome,” Silk enthused last Thursday, after HB 1840 unanimously passed the Republican-controlled Senate. “This is the first major gun legislation passed [by the legislature] in a decade.
Meanwhile, Silk is advising Hanauer on the activist’s broadening work on income inequality. Silk’s precise role is a bit amorphous; he says it’s to advise Hanauer and “find ways to spark conversations” about the venture capitalist’s ideas. Judging by Hanauer’s visibility, Silk is having success.
Hanauer serves on the mayor’s minimum-wage advisory committee; took to the airwaves last week to spar with KIRO’s Dori Monson on the subject; met late last month with U.S. Senate Democratic leaders to expound on his economic views; and co-wrote a recent piece for the journal Democracy called “Capitalism Redefined.” The article, which Hanauer says is the thing he’s done in the past couple years that he’s happiest with, argues that prosperity can’t be measured by simple wealth or the GDP. Instead, it must be assessed by “the availability of things that create well-being,” whether antibiotics, a comfy bed, or adequate food.
Democracy editor Michael Tomasky says the piece generated 500 tweets, an unusually high number for his high-minded journal, which incidentally receives funding from Hanauer.
Where does Hanauer’s political operation go from here? Wyble muses that its challenges may stem from its expansiveness. Unlike, say, a teachers’ union or a chamber of commerce, Hanauer’s organization has no defined identity. It can do anything Hanauer wants it to, and thus risks diffusing its energies.
Silk seems aware of this risk. “The most important thing when you’re having success is to keep succeeding, not to turn your attention away to something else,” he says. And so, after the Seattle minimum-wage debate is over (which he hopes will result in a steep wage hike), he and Hanauer intend to take the issue national. He doesn’t mean lobbying for the $10.10 minimum wage that President Obama has espoused—a figure that he calls “so a decade ago.” He’s talking about aiming for something in the ballpark of $15, whether through a federal law or a series of local laws across the country.
Hanauer and Silk also have their eyes on the upcoming presidential campaign. Among the potential candidates Hanauer is talking with is Martin O’Malley. The Maryland governor has often proclaimed himself a fan of Gardens of Democracy, a book by Hanauer and Liu that argues that the trickle-down theory of economics is wrong. Instead, the authors contend, economic growth is driven by the middle class.
If you hear that argument pop up more forcefully in the coming presidential debates, it will be no coincidence. Silk’s brief, handed down from his boss, is to help turn that idea into “the big conversation of the 2016 election.”