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Politics & Policy

Crypto billionaire Chris Larsen showers cash on London Breed—and scorn on her foes

Chris Larsen stands before a cityscape with skyscrapers, a clear sky above, and greenery in the foreground.
Chris Larsen, co-founder and executive chairman of Ripple, stands on the rooftop garden of the company’s headquarters in San Francisco on March 13. Larsen is using his considerable wealth to fund an array of political groups and candidates. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

On a recent Friday afternoon, Chris Larsen sat behind the wheel of a gunmetal Porsche 918 Spyder, zipping through the Broadway Tunnel. The car—top speed: 214 mph; cost: more than $1 million—gave off distinct Batmobile vibes with its raised roof and nostrils-flared front paneling. It’s the kind of ride one might expect from a crypto billionaire in a hurry, and on a mission.

But this automotive swagger could also describe Larsen’s aggressive approach to reshaping San Francisco. Over the last six years, the founder of Ripple Labs has become a gravitational force in city politics, funding surveillance cameras and shelling out millions for candidates and causes he supports—and dropping the weight of his checkbook on those he opposes.

Larsen doled out more than $1 million for the March 5 election, including $750,000 to support two of Mayor London Breed’s ballot measures: one to force welfare recipients suspected of drug addiction into treatment; and another to bolster public safety, which included giving cops greater access to surveillance tools like drones and license-plate readers. Both propositions passed easily.

In less than a decade, Larsen has channeled more than $3.6 million total into San Francisco politics, plus millions more toward state and federal campaigns—almost all to Democrats. He has given six-figure contributions to moderate groups like GrowSF, Abundant SF and Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, while also helping supervisor candidates and tossing massive sums into ballot measures on housing, homelessness and public transit. 

Larsen is in rarified air even for the San Francisco rich who are fueling record political spending in a bid to upend the status quo and transform local governance. Heading into November, his top goal is helping Mayor London Breed overcome her floundering poll numbers to win reelection. 

“She’s taken this city through the most hellacious years,” Larsen said, referencing Breed’s handling of the pandemic and fallout from the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. “The social justice protests, riots—whatever you want to call them—she held the city together.”

Mayor London Breed kneels on the ground in front of the City Hall entrance, as people hold protest signs in the background.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s work to keep the city together during social justice protests in 2020 helped her win Chris Larsen's respect—and his financial support. | Source: Santiago Mejia/SF Chronicle/Getty Images

Exactly how much money Larsen will pour into November is unknown, but he’s clearly invested in Breed. In 2021, he quietly plunked down more than $42,000 to cover the mayor’s ethics fine and attorney fees connected, in part, to gifts she received from key players involved in a City Hall corruption scandal.

The money flowing from Larsen and other wealthy tech execs in the city has agitated concerns that billionaires are winning an auction for San Francisco’s soul.

Larsen and others in the centrist camp of Democratic politics in San Francisco openly admit they intend to leverage newly gained control of the local party to win a majority of seats on the Board of Supervisors and reform the city charter, giving Breed—or perhaps one of her rivals—more executive powers over department heads and policymaking commissions.

“We need to get rid of the bureaucracy that’s holding everything back,” Larsen said. “Give the mayor the power. And then if they screw up, toss them out.”

A ‘Trump-like’ candidate for mayor

Any shortcomings of Breed’s administration, Larsen said, should be laid at the feet of an obstructionary Board of Supervisors. He blames the “far left” for the toxicity of San Francisco politics, but he also believes that tech and business interests will no longer be cowed into submission by progressive activists. 

“That’s really fundamentally changed,” Larsen said. “The attacks? It seems like paper tigers, frankly.”

Larsen contends that anything other than a Breed victory in November would put San Francisco in a worse position. Aaron Peskin, the progressive president of the board and a presumed candidate for mayor, presents a doomsday scenario for moderates if they were able to achieve all of their goals this year but lose the Mayor’s Office.

“If [Peskin] were to become mayor … that would be catastrophic, because he’s just a divisive, anti-housing figure,” said Larsen, who added that he used to be neighbors with the supervisor when he lived near Telegraph Hill. “He’s just all the bad stuff that we’ve been living through: the architect of this bureaucracy.”

Peskin declined to comment for this story.

Larsen suggested that candidate Daniel Lurie, an anti-poverty nonprofit founder and wealthy heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, lacks the experience to deal with the “swamp.” Meanwhile, Larsen’s greatest animus is reserved for Mark Farrell, a former supervisor and mayor who is tacking to the right of Breed. Farrell has talked tough about clearing homeless encampments within a year, firing the police chief and putting more cops on the street.

A man at a podium with a "Mark Farrell for Mayor" sign and supporters behind him.
Mark Farrell's effort to unseat Mayor London Breed in the 2024 election has made him a target of crypto billionaire Chris Larsen, who supports the incumbent. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“Mark Farrell and his BS about he’s just going to come in and magically wave his wand, I mean, it’s Trump-like lying about that stuff,” Larsen said. “That guy is just an opportunist. He’ll say anything. Where was he during the pandemic, by the way?”

Larsen added: “I get mad at the progressives. They want to label everybody ‘right-wing’ that opposes them. But with a Mark Farrell, that is what you’re going to get. He’s basically a Republican running for mayor.”

Jade Tu, Farrell’s campaign manager, said that Larsen should be “ashamed of himself” for comparing Farrell, a lifelong Democrat, to Donald Trump. She accused Larsen of “gaslighting” while noting his support of far-left District Attorney Chesa Boudin. 

Larsen dropped $115,000 in 2022 in an attempt to thwart the recall of Boudin—one of the most progressive prosecutors in the country and, ironically, a foil of Breed’s. 

Chesa Boudin stands before a crowd, facing bright lights, holding a microphone.
Chesa Boudin, San Francisco's former district attorney, received financial support from Chris Larsen during the 2022 recall, but the prosecutor was still ousted. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“The one thing I will criticize [Boudin] on is he didn’t work enough with the mayor or with the police,” Larsen said by way of explanation. “That was kind of a lost opportunity.”

But he quickly pivoted, giving money to District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, who actively worked to recall her predecessor.

“Chris Larsen is backing the status quo, failed leadership and a mayor with over a 70% disapproval rating,” Tu said. “Good luck with that.”

Finding security in surveillance

As far as eccentric billionaires go, Larsen has a little Bruce Wayne in him. The earnest yet enigmatic 63-year-old entrepreneur was born in San Francisco before growing up in a tract home in Cupertino. He was the middle child of a United Airlines mechanic father and a freelance artist mother who fled Nazi Germany during World War II.

He watched his father—a union man “out of central casting,” Larsen said—grow angry and bitter over the way financial institutions put the screws to him when refinancing his home or applying for loans. This struggle shaped Larsen, who graduated from San Francisco State University before working as an accountant for Chevron and graduating from Stanford’s business school. He went on to launch startup companies E-Loan and Prosper, the latter of which focused on peer-to-peer lending.

Over the years, Larsen mostly remained a quiet observer of local politics who donated millions to local causes with little fanfare. He founded Ripple Labs in 2012 and soon became one of the richest people in the world—in 2018, his net worth was estimated at $59 billion, but he is now worth a rather modest $3 billion.

Chris Larsen sits on a modular wooden bench in Ripple Labs’ office while surrounded by colorful cushions.
Chris Larsen serves as executive chairman of Ripple, but also spends considerable time working in other fields such as politics and climate change. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

It was in 2016, when Larsen said that multiple property crimes occurred at his family’s home in Russian Hill, that he became more animated about San Francisco politics.

En route to the airport, Larsen’s father-in-law parked his car by the family’s home near the Lombard Street steps for a quick visit. “He comes into the house for two minutes, and his luggage is cleaned out,” Larsen recalled. Not long after, a person hopped over the fence around Larsen’s yard and tried to break into the house, he said.

It’s not clear if Larsen filed police reports, but he met with then-District Attorney George Gascón's team to share information about the incidents and the professional crews of thieves he suspected were targeting San Francisco.

It’s a far cry from a ripped pearl necklace and an alleyway shooting that claimed Bruce Wayne’s parents in the Batman films, traumatizing the boy into a bat fetish, yet it’s clear the incidents spurred Larsen to become one of the most active political donors in city history.

By that time, Larsen had already spent several years bankrolling security cameras around San Francisco. Today, more than 1,500 cameras—mostly managed by a half-dozen community benefit districts—now blanket neighborhoods like Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Russian Hill, Japantown and the Tenderloin.  

An alley in the Tenderloin with tents, graffiti, a person and a dog in a homeless encampment.
Surveillance cameras are being installed in blocks across the Tenderloin after Chris Larsen donated money to the neighborhood's community benefit district. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

The cameras have helped solve kidnappings, among other crimes, but privacy advocates have expressed alarm over the way people can be tracked. The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) both oppose Larsen’s privately funded surveillance network, but he dismissed their concerns as a fundraising strategy.

“It’s lovely that Mr. Larsen is concerned about our finances, but we’re doing just fine, thanks,” said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the EFF. She added that Larsen must be doing well if he can afford to spend so much money on ballot measures “to drown out the voices of concerned citizens.”

Larsen said the city’s problems around property crime are “easy to solve” through surveillance technology. He warned that a failure to implement new strategies in the police department, which is experiencing a staff shortage in the hundreds while new cadet classes are in the teens, could lead to harsher tough-on-crime policies.

“Most San Franciscans want criminal justice reform,” Larsen said. “They want to make sure that police are held accountable when they do things wrong. But that doesn’t mean you can have public safety empowering these [property crime] crews.”

While you were sleeping

Larsen lives with his wife and two sons in Russian Hill in a home that was apparently designed by architect Earle B. Bertz and features a panoramic view of the bay, a Tuscan courtyard and a wine cellar.

In his free time, he swims to stay in shape and spends weekends restoring classic cars with one of his sons. They’ve already fixed up a 1962 Volkswagen bus, and they’re currently restoring a 1965 Porsche 911, a vehicle Car and Driver called “the stuff legends are made of.”

However, Larsen didn’t become one of the richest people in the world without maniacally optimizing every minute of his day—including when he’s asleep. 

Larsen separates his daily work into “pods” that include: his role as executive chairman of Ripple’s board; another pod for climate change projects with Mike Brune, the former head of the Sierra Club; a politics pod with Alex Tourk, a City Hall power player who now runs a consulting firm; a global philanthropy pod overseen by Rippleworks, a nonprofit his company launched in 2015; and a pod assisting his wife, Lyna Lam, a Cambodian refugee who runs the Khmer Buddhist Foundation, which is building a temple in San Jose.

In 2018, Larsen and Lam made a $2.5 million donation to help create the scenic Francisco Park near their home in Russian Hill.

A sunset cityscape with Francisco Park seen at sunset with buildings and distant mountains in the background under a golden sky.
On top of his political contributions, Chris Larsen helped fund the creation of Francisco Park in the city’s Russian Hill neighborhood. | Source: Sophie Bearman/The Standard

“Yeah, there’s a ton going on, and it just kind of mixes economics, politics, technology,” said Larsen, who described his work on climate change as the most fun—before ominously noting he expects a sharp increase in heat-related deaths around the globe this summer.

Asheesh Birla, a tech investor whom Larsen hired to work at Ripple a decade ago before going on to serve on the company’s board, said that while running Ripple, Larsen had a hard-and-fast rule to leave work at 5:30 p.m. to pick up his kids from school before hopping back online later in the evening.

“It’s very deliberate,” Birla said. “He’s got a great routine.”

Part of that routine also involves going to bed at 9:30 p.m., waking up at 3 a.m. to read the news or a book for two and a half hours, going back to bed from 5:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., and then waking up to get the kids off to school. The nocturnal reading keeps Larsen informed and ahead of the curve, while that last 90 minutes of sleep apparently fuels his ability to see beyond the horizon.

“Those are the best dreams,” Larsen said.

A man in a checkered blazer gestures while speaking in a meeting, with bottled drinks and a blurred foreground.
Chris Larsen's political spending has helped numerous candidates and ballot measures in San Francisco, and he expects to continue funding efforts on the road to November. | Source: Courtesy photo

Whether business or political, not all of Larsen’s bets have paid off. In late January, he acknowledged that hackers got the best of him and made off with an estimated $112 million in cryptocurrency. 

That news came just a week after city officials announced that anti-crime nonprofit San Francisco SAFE—an organization Larsen funded to the tune of $1.8 million—had improperly billed luxury gift boxes, limo rides, valet parking and other purchases.

The incidents were embarrassing but have not dissuaded Larsen from continuing to be politically engaged. Calming public safety fears and jump-starting the economy—and ramping up the production of housing—will require substantial changes in how decisions are made in San Francisco, he said, as well as who makes those decisions. 

Larsen doesn’t see the runway to progress as a marathon.

“It’s a small city,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to turn the tide. I also think that the real estate thing could turn any second. The big players haven’t jumped in yet. You’re seeing family offices scooping up bargains. When the big guys come in, they’re going to come in fast.”

Correction: This story has been updated to note that Larsen and his son are restoring a 1965 Porsche 911.