'I'm Going to Unleash the Brains': Top GOP Recall Challenger Larry Elder on Big Tech

Harri Weber

Do you know something we should know about L.A. tech or venture capital? Reach out securely via Signal: +1 917 434 4978.

Harri is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. She previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find her on Twitter and send tips on L.A. startups and venture capital to harrison@dot.la.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is holding onto a narrow lead, but if he fails to rally apathetic Democratic voters in the fast-approaching recall election, the Republican frontrunner could upend the state's outlook on the tech industry.

Newsom, who grew up a stone's throw from Silicon Valley and who brought in a former Google executive into his administration, is facing a leading competitor who believes "big tech is after us and what we believe in." If he's ousted by a Republican, the next governor could even tip the balance of the U.S. Senate should 88-year-old Diane Feinstein have to bow out. She's only half way through her six-year term.

It's no wonder Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings and other tech leaders like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer are collectively doling out millions to fight the $276 million recall.

Newsom's challengers are largely Republican, and polls say Republican voters are more motivated to vote come September 14. Among the GOP, two recent polls show Black conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who has stoked outrage over his views on women in the workplace and systemic racism, is leading others in the race to oust the Democratic governor.

He is followed by former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and perennial candidate and attorney John Cox — two candidates who appear to have little to say on the matter of big tech. The same polls show reality-TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner trailing far behind. A third poll shows Elder ranking second, behind Democrat and 29-year-old millionaire YouTuber Kevin Paffrath, who's pitched himself as a centrist alternative.

Elder's coronavirus-focused campaign has called for unwinding existing coronavirus restrictions. It's blasted pandemic-era state and federal relief programs and pointed to the many failings of the Employment Development Department (EDD). Elder's website is comparably sparse on other topics, briefly touching on school choice and lowering taxes. And he has shown little interest in defining substantial policies.

Where does the current leading GOP candidate stand on tech, the industry that's swelled to define much of the sunshine state? Elder's comments run the gamut, from vowing to "unleash the brains" in Silicon Valley to tweeting that big tech wants to "destroy" conservatives' income and "cancel" them.

That's in stark contrast to Newsom, who literally wrote a book called "How to Take the Town Square Digital." The former San Francisco mayor campaigned on expanding early access to computer science education and boosting broadband infrastructure. Recently he's leaned on big tech to power the state's response to COVID-19, allegedly hampering state and local health departments in the process, per Protocol.

To get a glimpse of what a victory by Elder, who has never held public office but fancies himself the "sage of South Central," would mean for the tech sector, we took a look at the leading GOP candidate's statements to date on Silicon Valley, YouTube, Google, Russian bots, workers' rights and more. Elder, who has shown a distaste for mainstream press, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

"I'm Going to Unleash the Brains"

In an interview with the "San Joaquin Valley Sun" earlier this month, Elder said he'd lean on Silicon Valley's "brainiacs" to solve the state's water crisis.

"Israel is water self sufficient, so is Dubai. Israel sits on the coast of a little body of water known as the Mediterranean. We have a little body of water known as the Pacific Ocean," he said "Why we can't [sic] figure out how to become water self-sufficient when we have all these brainiacs in Silicon Valley. So I'm going to unleash the brains and the technology and use the bully pulpit to explain to people why we need to do this."

He may have a tough time. While humans have removed salt from water for thousands of years, wide-scale desalination is an energy-intensive process with serious drawbacks. Among them: high costs, harm to marine life and emissions from plants powered by fossil fuels. But this statement response is typical of Elder, who rarely delves into the finer points of issues.

"Big Tech Is After Us"

Elder has contributed to sites known for misinformation, and the candidate says he has been demonized by big tech. In a tweet about his account being limited by YouTube, Elder promoted a subscription to his now-defunct homegrown video site and said, "Big Tech is after us and what we believe in. They want to destroy our income because they want to cancel us!"

Elder's video site, LarryTube.com, has since merged with the Epoch Times' video site. The Falun-Gong backed Epoch Times has relied heavily on Facebook to build its large subscriber base and has been criticized for misinformation campaigns.

While claims that social media companies are biased against conservatives lack evidence, Elder has covered the topic extensively, including on YouTube and in his columns.

Similarly, on YouTube this past April, Elder decried Twitter's decision to ban former President Trump from its platform. In his buttery talk-radio voice — a foil to Newsom's Will Arnett-esque gravel — he said: "You think Americans are too stupid to figure out when somebody's telling the truth or when somebody's lying."

On Russian Bots

Elder is skeptical of Russian interference in the election. In a 2018 column titled "Russian Bots vs. Media/Academia/Hollywood — Which Had A Bigger Impact On The Election?," Elder downplayed the impact of fake accounts that were created to promote election misinformation. He wrote, "Whatever influence Russia may have had on the elections is dwarfed by the 'collusion' of the largely anti-GOP media, academia and Hollywood. If the right dominated these fields, congressional Democrats would demand hearings."

On the EDD's "Antiquated Technology"

Elder wants to revamp the website for the Employment Development Department, which doles out Californian's unemployment benefits. Elder's campaign site devotes special attention to the EDD, which has struggled with a vast backlog of unemployment claims and failed to detect an estimated $31 billion in fraud. In one paragraph, the candidate pledged to revamp the agency's technology and "promote public-private partnerships."

"As governor, I would revamp the EDD's antiquated technology, which created an unprecedented backlog and the absurdity of the agency not being able to automatically process some half of its claims online at the height of the pandemic. Gavin Newsom wants to simply throw more money at the problem. I will implement structural reforms to remove roadblocks to efficiency in the EDD's IT system and across the state government. That means promoting public-private partnerships and overhauling the state government's cumbersome procurement process, which currently favors Sacramento insiders over easy access to innovation."

On Women's Rights and Venture Capital

Elder thinks mothers are a business risk. In his book, "Showdown: Confronting Bias, Lies, and the Special Interests that Divide America," Elder wrote, "Are there legitimate business reasons for a venture capitalist to ask a female entrepreneur whether and when she intends to have children? Hell, yes."

"Call it protecting an investment," the candidate said in the 2002 book.

On Reddit and Gamestonks

Elder suggests that the trading app Robinhood allows gambling. In another YouTube video, Elder commented on the Reddit-driven meme stock craze, saying, "I've been trying to understand this Gamestop thing, and how it's been characterized as 'David versus Goliath.' I am a big fan of investing in the stock market. I'm a big fan of believing in America. I believe in investing. I don't believe in gambling. This strikes me as gambing."

There Should Be "a Conservative Google"

Elder doesn't appear to support the antitrust case against Google.

When social media companies limited the reach of a "New York Post" story on Hunter Biden, Elder said in a Fox News interview: "It's an outrage. It's akin to making an in-kind campaign contribution — the way that Google admitted that they restricted the New York Post story [...] This is absolutely outrageous and all of these big tech companies are in bed with the Biden administration and they want Donald Trump to go down."

He continued, commenting on the Justice Department's antitrust case against Google:

"I've never been fond of government busting up large corporations. The larger the corporation typically the more arrogant it gets, the more dismissive it becomes of its consumers, and that's what you've got here. In the past, when the government's gone after big companies like IBM, like Microsoft, it's been because their competitors have complained.

"In this case the consumers are complaining, and it seems to me the response ought to be a conservative Google. There ought to be some sort of conservative alternatives. And there is an alternative to Twitter, it's called Parlor, and I joined that a few days ago. And it seems to me [..] we ought to be coming up with our own alternatives for search engines and social media platforms, so we don't have to run the risk of being screwed by these people who hate our guts."

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