Who Runs Philly Part 13: Who is Richard Vague and can he buy your vote?
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 week, we are looking at investor Richard Vague, local venture capitalist and heavy investor in this month’s primaries. How can big donors hope to shape the future of city politics? To explore local campaign financing on your own, check out our campaign financing dashboard.
Many West Philadelphia residents have not heard of Richard Vague but they may be familiar with his work. Thousands of postcards about the upcoming Democratic primary election have arrived at homes throughout the 3rd district in the past several weeks. The mailers are coming fast and furious from a political organization named Philadelphia 3.0 and they seek to “inform” voters about the race between incumbent Councilmember Jannie Blackwell and her opponent Jamie Gauthier. What the mailers don’t disclose is that both Gauthier and Philadelphia 3.0 are backed by Richard Vague, Philadelphia’s single largest individual contributor to Republican Senator Pat Toomey’s Super PAC Prosperity for PA.
Philadelphia 3.0 has endorsed a number of business-friendly city council candidates in the 2019 Democratic primary including Jamie Gauthier in the 3rd district. Richard Vague, a local venture capitalist, donated the maximum individual campaign contribution allowed by law—$3000—to the Gauthier campaign in both 2018 and 2019. In January 2019, Vague made another generous contribution: $50,000 to Philadelphia 3.0’s political action committee (PAC), followed by additional contributions of $100,000 to the Philadelphia 3.0 PAC a few months later.
The Gauthier campaign appears to be the latest “startup” investment made by a group of local venture capitalists, including Richard Vague and Josh Kopelman (who made his fortune selling the website half.com to eBay and investing early in Uber, Blue Apron, and LinkedIn). Both men are supporting Gauthier and Philadelphia 3.0.
According to the Philadelphia Citizen, a Philadelphia 3.0-affiliated news outlet funded in part by Josh Kopelman’s foundation, Jamie Gauthier is a “non-ideological, pro-growth, progressive populist” who will fight for a “business owners’ bill of rights.” (Richard Vague himself is another preferred topic of the Philadelphia Citizen—see articles such as “Is Richard Vague a Prophet?” and “Richard Vague for President?”)
Originally from Texas, Vague, like most white men, is a potential 2020 presidential candidate. He also lives in Center City and runs a venture capital firm called Gabriel Investments. Vague first made a fortune through two companies, First USA and Juniper Financial, selling millions of credit cards in the decade preceding the financial crisis.
In 2007 Vague founded Energy Plus after the deregulation of Pennsylvania’s energy market. Energy Plus competes directly with PECO by offering perks to consumers like frequent flier miles or casino loyalty points. Vague sold Energy Plus to NRG Energy in 2011 for $190 million.
Jamie Gauthier’s “non-ideological” approach may reflect the political flexibility of her key donors as much as it does her own policy commitments. To the extent that he is known locally, Vague has cultivated a reputation as a patron of the arts and sciences and a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party. He sits on the boards of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Fringe Festival and Penn Medicine. He donated the maximum allowable individual contribution to Hillary Clinton, Mary Gay Scanlon, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Conor Lamb, Joe Crowley, Chrissy Houlihan and Joe Manchin (the list goes on). But Vague’s prolific political giving contains multitudes; he is not one to let party affiliation get in the way of a good investment.
Three months before he cut a $25,000 check to the 2016 DNC host committee, Vague contributed $25,000 to Prosperity for PA, an innocuously named Pat Toomey Super PAC. He gave the same PAC another $10,000 the day after Toomey was reelected. In addition, Vague contributed $5,000 directly to Citizens for Prosperity in America Today, Pat Toomey’s campaign PAC, which allegedly broke federal law by mixing its funds with the nominally independent Prosperity for PA, the super PAC run by former Toomey staff.
One can only speculate what kind of return on investment Richard Vague and his fellow venture capitalists hope to get from a Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. Perhaps it could resemble the transformation of West Philadelphia into an “innovation hub” run by the Chamber of Commerce as imagined by a 2017 Brookings Institute report. Or maybe ending councilmanic prerogative will eliminate one of the few avenues of citizen input to zoning hearings in Philadelphia, paving the way for even faster development. One thing is for certain, however: there is no place for Jannie Blackwell in these venture capitalists’ plan for the 3rd district.