Without his partnership with Mark Zuckerberg, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wouldn’t have had his first Oprah moment. The Facebook founder’s $100 million donation to Newark, N.J., schools was the subject of a 2010 episode that positively portrayed the conservative governor, along with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, on national television.
So now that Zuckerberg is co-starting a political advocacy group, could he provide the same benefit for other Republicans?
Zuckerberg and Joe Green, his close friend and college roommate, are establishing a 501(c)4 organization that will initially focus on comprehensive immigration and education reform, according to a source familiar with the group’s plans.
The group is wading into topics conducive to bipartisanship. Immigration reform has made Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., unlikely allies. Education, another issue ripe for bipartisan efforts, brought the liberal Booker and conservative Christie together.
“When you’re thinking conservatives or liberals or progressives, or Democrats and Republicans, education reform has been [where] the partisan or ideological labels don’t apply,” said Hari Sevugan, a former Democratic National Committee spokesman who later worked for Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst education-reform lobbying group. “While they might apply in nearly every other issue, they don’t necessarily carry into this space.”
“These are interesting issues because they tend to be coalition-driven rather than party driven,” said Christie strategist Mike DuHaime, who added he expects the group to be a major player in politics. “It’s great to have … an outside group, pulling the coalition together.”
There’s a political benefit for Republicans to engage on education reform. Passage of the No Child Left Behind law helped President George W. Bush, who made it the hallmark of his "compassionate conservative" agenda. And in the midst of current-day Republican soul-searching, GOP leaders are looking to education reform as a way to show off their softer side. It’s become a focal point of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's strategy to recast the GOP as a kinder, gentler party, as he often talks up his experience spending time with a D.C. father who struggled to get his child into a good school. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has argued reforming failing urban public schools will help Republicans make inroads with minority voters.
And for a party that’s perceived as unhip, technophobic, and overly partisan, it’s a boost to have common ground with Zuckerberg, a young, successful entrepreneur with Silicon Valley connections.
Although Christie already enjoys solid support across the aisle in New Jersey, DuHaime said being associated with Zuckerberg was helpful: “It’s beneficial politically, but that’s kind of a byproduct of good policy.”
Despite Zuckerberg’s political foray, he’s not a partisan. While Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg hosted a fundraiser for President Obama and Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes (now the publisher of The New Republic) worked on the president’s campaign, Zuckerberg doesn’t publicly identify as a Democrat or Republican. He’s friendly with Obama and hosted a Facebook town hall for him in 2011, but he also held a fundraiser for Christie earlier this year at his Palo Alto home.
“It’s turned into a very good friendship, but it was driven by their similar views on education reform,” DuHaime said. “It was issue-driven, and then it became a friendship.”
Further proof of Zuckerberg's bipartisan bent: the prominent inside-the-Beltway advisers he's brought on board to run his new political group. The roster includes former National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer, former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, and Republican strategist Jon Lerner, a longtime consultant for the antitax Club for Growth.
Lerner has worked for a number of conservative clients, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Gov. Mark Sanford in his gubernatorial campaigns. A 2010 McClatchy profile written about Lerner said he displayed an "unwillingness to work for candidates whose views don't match his own hard-line conservative beliefs."
Now Lerner, whose work includes an ad describing Howard Dean as a "latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading” liberal, will be partners with a hoodie-wearing Silicon Valley icon.
This article appears in the April 1, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.