California Democrats Threaten Progressives’ Antitrust Renaissance

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Progressives, thrilled with President Joe Biden’s wholehearted embrace of their antitrust agenda, are now worried a freshly empowered California congressional delegation could threaten what they see as a return to the Democratic Party’s trust-busting populist roots.

At the heart of these concerns is the elevation of two California Democrats, Rep. Lou Correa, a Big Tech ally who opposed a trio of landmark bipartisan antitrust bills last Congress and who was appointed to a crucial committee post on the House’s antitrust subcommittee, and Sen. Laphonza Butler, whom California Gov. Gavin Newsom selected to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Left-leaning activists and operatives are now worried that two allies of Silicon Valley-based big tech firms are in key positions to stamp out an antitrust agenda otherwise popular within the party.

Antitrust policy has arguably been the area where progressives have influenced the Biden administration the most, with reformists like Lina Khan leading the Federal Trade Commission and Jonathan Kanter running the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Meanwhile, Biden himself regularly deploys progressive rhetoric criticizing the concentration of power in the hands of just a handful of firms at the top of the economy.

California Democrats, many of whom have obvious and not-so-obvious ties to the Big Tech companies headquartered in the state, are a potential obstacle to that agenda. But until recently, they’ve had limited power to stand in the way.

Correa’s elevation following the resignation of Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), an antitrust reform supporter, changed the calculus earlier this year, and Newsom’s appointment of Butler — who once advised Uber during its campaign to keep its drivers from being considered employees — to replace a long-ailing Feinstein threatens to change it further, potentially giving Big Tech a more active ally in the Senate.

“Far too many California Democrats have been far too ready to cooperate with companies like Facebook and Google.”

– Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project

“Senator Butler is going to be forced very quickly to decide between prominent corporate interest in California and the expressed political interest of her constituents in cracking down on monopoly power,” said Jeff Hauser, the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a progressive group focused on links between government officials and business interests. “Far too many California Democrats have been far too ready to cooperate with companies like Facebook and Google.”

Butler’s office did not respond to an email requesting comment. Since coming into office, the senator has said she believes Uber drivers should have “the protections” of employees, and her office told The New York Times the new senator’s long work as union leader — she was the president of the SEIU California State Council for five years — should alleviate concerns.

“Labor hasn’t had a union leader in the Senate in 60 years — let alone a union president who spent nearly two decades leading successful campaigns to raise the minimum wage and help workers organize,” Butler’s acting chief of staff, Jeffrey Lerner, told the paper.

Butler, the first Black lesbian to serve in the Senate, has not decided whether to run for reelection in 2024. The existing candidates for the seat include progressive Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee. Rep. Adam Schiff, a more centrist candidate, is also running.

The more pressing problem is Correa, long an unabashed ally of Big Tech whose chief of staff, René Muñoz, lobbied for Amazon and Apple on antitrust issues. Correa’s position could help him block further antitrust efforts if Democrats seize back control of the House in 2024.

In a letter last week, the Revolving Door Project pressed Correa on questions he posed to Attorney General Merrick Garland echoing tech company concerns about European Union regulations — questions the group argues were “in fact indistinguishable from recent talking points of the Chamber of Commerce and other Big Tech-affiliated groups.”

The letter asks Correa if Muñoz helped him develop the questions he asked Garland, and if Muñoz or other people in his office have communicated with Apple or Amazon since Muñoz became chief of staff.

The Revolving Door Project is not the only progressive group to target Correa. P Street, which is affiliated with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, sent out mailers in Correa’s district last month highlighting Muñoz’s role and labeling Correa “Big Tech’s Best Friend in Congress,” citing his votes against three major bipartisan bills aimed at cracking down on large tech firms.

Correa’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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