Who Runs Philly? Part 6: Venture capitalist Josh Kopelman gets involved with local politics
Who Runs Philly? is an ongoing project from Philly Power Research focused on highlighting the powerful people, organizations, businesses, and interest groups that shape Philadelphia. This post looks at tech venture capitalist Josh Kopelman recently voicing his support for Philadelphia 3.0 which is a “dark money” political organization claiming to “support independent-minded candidates running for City Council and lead efforts to reform and modernize City Hall.”
In a series of tweets last week Philadelphia 3.0 found a vocal supporter:
“I'm not a Philly native, but Philadelphia has been my home for the last 30 years. I traded in my Knicks/Islanders for Sixers and Flyers season tickets a long time ago. I care a lot about the Philadelphia region - and have supported a number of initiatives to make it better.
Today I'm announcing that I am supporting Philadelphia 3.0 in their efforts to improve local government. This organization supports independent-minded candidates running for City Council and leads efforts to reform and modernize City Hall.”
It’s not surprising that Josh Kopelman, a 47 year old Gladwyne resident and technology venture capitalist would support Philadelphia 3.0. Most of the money that started Philadelphia 3.0 came from wealthy suburban residents and Kopelman is just the latest wealthy suburban resident to lend his support. On the surface, Philadelphia 3.0 appears to be politically progressive, but one of its founders, real estate developer Joseph Zuritsky, has ties to an anti-Muslim think tank and many of the organization’s priorities seem to be about protecting business interests rather than strengthening public institutions.
Kopelman grew up in Long Island, New York and moved to Philadelphia to attend the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He founded half.com in 1999, which was then sold to eBay.com in 2000 for $350 million, almost certainly making him a multi-millionaire at age 29. In 2004 he founded First Round Capital, an investment firm focused on investing in new technology startups.
Transportation: Uber in Philly
First Round Capital was one of the first investors in Uber. In 2014, Uber used the failure of a taxi insurance company as an excuse to operate UberX illegally in Philadelphia. Kopelman celebrated the arrival of UberX by driving one, later scolding the city for enforcing its own laws, saying “a city’s treatment of Uber is a good litmus test for whether a city is supportive of a technology/innovation economy”.
While Kopelman was driving UberX as a publicity stunt to boost the value of First Round Capital’s investment, Uber was encouraging drivers to operate illegally. Uber failed to warn drivers that they were liable for a $1,000 fine and having their personal vehicles impounded.
Uber found allies in younger center city residents, some of which went on to form the urbanist PAC 5th Square and to work for Philadelphia 3.0. They supported UberX operating illegally because they saw hailing taxis with a cell phone as a necessary service that local government was too stupid or corrupt to permit. In a 2014 petition supporting legislation to allow ride-sharing, 5th Square founder Geoff Thompson writes:
“A city like Philadelphia that is striving to compete for young workers needs the 21st century transportation choices that they now expect”.
Board Chairman of Philadelphia Media Network
In 2015, Kopelman joined the board of Philadelphia Media Network, the company that operates the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and philly.com. When Gerry Lenfest stepped down as board chairman in 2016, Kopelman replaced him. In 2017, Kopelman’s charitable foundation made a significant contribution to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns Philadelphia Media Network.
As chairman of PMN, Kopelman oversees all business and editorial functions for the various publications. In this role, Kopelman has significant influence over all of the strategic decisions made by these essential Philadelphia news organizations. The NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents many of the journalists who work for PMN, has been critical of the boards decisions during Kopelman’s tenure. One of these decisions was to appoint Brian Tierney to the board. Tierney was previously the owner of the Inquirer and Daily News and had bankrupted the organization largely to avoid paying into journalists’ pension plan.
Journalism Startup: The Philadelphia Citizen
Kopelman has another local journalism interest in “The Philadelphia Citizen,” an online publication that received $10,000 from the Kopelman Foundation in 2017.
The Philadelphia Citizen was started by Larry Platt and Ajay Raju in 2013 to provide what Platt describes as “solutions-based journalism”. Platt, who lives in Ardmore, was forced out as editor at Philadelphia Magazine in 2010 partly because he gave a departing female staffer a framed photo of a testicular cyst he had removed.
Jon Geeting, Philadelphia 3.0’s engagement director, is a regular contributor to The Philadelphia Citizen, presented as an expert opinion on a wide variety of topics.
Platt profiled Jamie Gauthier in the Philadelphia Citizen in March 2019. Gauthier has been endorsed by Philadelphia 3.0 and has received 24% of her total campaign contributions from Josh and Rena Kopelman.
Education Privatization: Philadelphia School Partnership
Another philanthropic contribution from the Kopelman Foundation went to the Philadelphia School Partnership in 2016. The group was started by charter school activists, including Janine Yass. Yass is the wife of Jeff Yass, a Bala Cynwyd-based high-frequency trader and multimillionaire. The Yass family has been one of the biggest donors to pro-charter groups in the state. They have contributed over $4 million to the Betsy Devos-linked PAC Students First. When the Philadelphia School Partnership was founded in 2010, 13 of the 16 board members lived outside Philadelphia.
Kopelman also served on the board of High Tech High Charter School with Brook J. Lenfest in 2003. On starting the charter, Lenfest said “I liked the idea of running a school like a business."
Kopelman is currently registered non-affiliated in Pennsylvania with a history of mostly voting as a registered Republican. He’s contributed a total of $120,900 to political campaigns and committees since 2002, the first being $20,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Notable politicians receiving contributions are Rick Santorum, Eric Cantor, Steny Hoyer, Tim Holden, Arlen Specter, Chuck Schumer, Daylin Leach, Bob Casey, Cory Booker, and Beto O'Rourke.
Notably, Kopelman has not contributed to Philadelphia politicians until 2018, with a $1,000 contribution to Allan Domb and a $3,000 contribution to Jamie Gauthier.
Philadelphia 3.0 Endorsements for 2019
In promoting Philadelphia 3.0’s vision, Kopelman cited their support of “independent-minded candidates.” To try find out what that means, we can look at some of the candidates they’ve endorsed this year.
Jamie Gauthier has received an endorsement in her race against Jannie Blackwell in the 3rd District. Gauthier is Blackwell’s first challenger since 1999. In 2018, 60% of Gauthier’s campaign money was raised from within the offices of First Round Capital at 4040 Locust Street. All of these donors have hit their personal contribution limit of $3000 to a single candidate’s political committee.
Josh Kopelman ($3k)
Rena Kopelman ($3k)
Josh Verne, CEO of Ownable ($3k)
Brian Selander, President of Ownable ($3k)
Bonny Ault, Executive Assistant at Ownable ($3k)
A recent Philadelphia 3.0 mailing to residents in the 3rd Council District rightly attacks Blackwell as having “built strong relationships with Philly’s real estate developers”. This reveals an interesting double standard as they endorse Allan Domb, a real estate developer for an At-Large seat.
Josh Kopelman made his fortune as a tech “disruptor,” but has followed the pattern set by previous suburban elites who wanted to shape Philadelphia from across the county line – by serving as leadership in powerful nonprofit and quasi-public institutions and staying out of “dirty” city politics. By announcing his support of Philadelphia 3.0 and making his first relatively small political donations, the disruptor is taking his first tiny, deliberate steps into Philly politics.