Tens of millions of dollars will be spent in the race to succeed Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate, and curiously enough, the candidate likely to spend the least amount of money could be a wealthy Bay Area tech executive.
Lexi Reese is an accomplished businesswoman who worked at American Express, Google and Gusto before leaving venture capital firm General Catalyst to launch her campaign. Joining a field that already includes prominent House Democrats Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter would seem like a fool’s errand. However, Reese believes she offers an alternative to the status quo, particularly on the issues of the economy and climate change.
The mother of two, who lives with her husband and daughters in Woodside, intends to make term limits, climate change, the economy and oversight of big tech key parts of her campaign. Below is an excerpt from a recent interview with Reese at Mo’z Cafe in the South of Market area. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did you decide that you want to enter a race that has these heavyweights of the Democratic Party already running?
We know there is more financial insecurity than ever before. And I mean insecurity as defined by people are choosing between one basic good and another, like, “Can I pay for my rent or my child care? Or can I pay for my child care or take care of my parents who are sick?” It’s 2023 in the United States of America and that just shouldn't be. And not surprisingly, 70% of people feel the system is rigged against them. And I’m running because it is rigged against them.
How would you describe your brand of politics?
I believe in the fundamental freedoms of every human being. I also believe in preserving our planet. And I think we need people with experience in getting things done, not solely legislating or not solely teaching the law. I’ve had 27 years of creating jobs that have largely been focused on access. How do you get access to financial services? How to get access to equitable pay, equitable health care? I think oftentimes the intent of laws are really good, including laws that Democrats sponsor and work really hard to get passed. But then the impact isn’t felt, or it’s really confusing for people.
What is the path to victory for you? Because I'll be honest, I don’t see it.
You don’t see it? Look, I think I’ve brought a lot of products and services to market that don't have brand name and they don't have market share. I think we need to land relationships with funders and voters using social media, using a really digital-first approach and a community-building approach that is going to be organic and that is powered by technology. We don't have startups in politics. This is maybe the last industry that hasn't been disrupted by a super customer- or voter-focused, technology-enabled alternative. … Let's be honest, I won’t and I can't raise as much money as my opponents. I have raised $1.1 million of outside capital. I put $500K in myself. That’s the cost of probably what it will be for college for our girls.
How would you rate Senator Feinstein's performance in the last 10 years?
I don’t have a rating on it. I think she’s an icon and an inspiration. I would say I’m focused on what I can do going forward.
But you have suggested term limits. Why would you do that?
Building an accountable government includes building a representative government. And right now, if people stay in their seats for as long as they’re staying, it’s really difficult to get new people into government. We also need limits on campaign finance and campaign finance reform, because this becomes an exercise of marketing and advertising rather than your skills to do the job.
Someone suggested to me that the reason you’re running is probably not to win this race, but to state your positions, let people know who you are and then maybe run for Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi's seat when she hangs it up.
That person gives me way too much credit for having a chess game. I have no secret master plan. I’m going to work my hardest to fight for a conversation about people’s ability to get by in 2023. And I’m going to focus on this very simple sort of equation. Right now we have so many people working and yet so many who are financially insecure, and 70% of people feel the system is rigged against them. What happens when AI takes 30% of jobs away in the next five years.
Um, a universal basic income?
Yeah, we’ll come back to that, but that is not going to solve it for the number of people who won't be working. Because again, working is not just about the money, it is also about your dignity.
As a businessperson, I’m sure you've done the math on what it would take to win this race. And if you’re going to be in politics, obviously, you do have to play chess all the time. Good intentions stated up front rarely come out to the same result. There have to be mechanisms and maneuvers to understand which levers to pull.
Look, 50% of people are undecided on this race. Talk to [the workers of Mo’z Cafe], they have no idea who Dianne Feinstein is, who any of the three competitors are. These folks have been in Congress for collective decades and the voters largely don’t know who they are, and the favorability ratings are neutral. I don’t have a master plan other than to run on the premise that the Senate should be working harder to secure fundamental freedoms and financial security for people. …If you like politics as usual, California has the highest poverty in the nation when you factor in cost of living. Housing is out of reach, homelessness is out of whack. The education outcomes, particularly for low-income kids, are terrible. If you think that your existing congresspeople are doing a good job, then vote for them. I’m just saying, let’s have an alternative. And by the way, we have no senator out of 100 who understands technology.
When you watch congressional hearings about technology, what's your reaction to the questions that get asked?
It’s offensive and terrifying. It’s like, ‘Not only do you not know how the Internet works, you also don’t know how it makes money.’ Elon Musk owns robots on the street. He owns rockets in the sky. And he owns a massive public utility and media platform. How are you possibly going to regulate people and industries if you don’t understand fundamentally how they work or how they make money?
How soon do you think universal basic income will be needed with the rise of AI?
We have 53 million bad jobs right now—bad jobs as defined by: People are not able to afford basic goods every month. There are 140 million jobs in the country, so arguably we need [universal basic income] now. The numbers with AI are all over the place in terms of what jobs will be created and what jobs will be lost. I think that we should operate under the assumption that two things are going to be so different than we can even conceive of over the next three to five years. The planet—this is the best it’s going to get. Every system is destabilized by climate instability. And again, if people lose jobs and are unable to afford basic things, nothing works. So, for capital allocators and for the government, there’s no such thing as a trade-off between climate justice and worker justice and a thriving economy.
Josh Koehn can be reached at email@example.com