Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have hired Democratic pollster Joel Benenson, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama and the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign, as a consultant, according to a person familiar with the hire.
Benenson’s company, Benenson Strategy Group, will be conducting research for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the couple’s philanthropy. The organization — whose mission statement, according to its website, is “advancing human potential and promoting equality” — is endowed with the couple’s Facebook fortune.
Zuckerberg and Chan have vowed to give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares, worth an estimated $45 billion, to charity. Bringing on Benenson is the latest sign that they’re pushing their philanthropic work more heavily into the political and policy world.
In January, the couple hired David Plouffe, campaign manager for Obama’s 2008 presidential run, as president of policy and advocacy. Plouffe had previously worked at Uber. Ken Mehlman, who ran President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, also sits on the board.
And earlier this year, the couple also brought on Amy Dudley, a former communications adviser to Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.
Benenson’s involvement in the group gives them access to someone who was one of the top lieutenants of Clinton’s doomed campaign and Obama’s longtime pollster, just as speculation about Zuckerberg’s political ambitions is mounting.
Benenson did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative said: “As a philanthropic organization focused on a number of substantive issues including science, education, housing, and criminal justice reform, any research efforts we undertake is to support that work.”
Even though he has said he has no interest in running for office, Zuckerberg’s name — along with just about every other billionaire or elected official with half the name recognition of a second-tier Donald Trump adviser — has been floated as a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
Zuckerberg, 33, stirred the speculation in June when he posted pictures of his road trip through Iowa, the first state to caucus in the primaries, as part of the tech entrepreneur’s yearlong project to visit every U.S. state. He has also toured a Ford assembly plant outside Detroit, a key city in the critical Rust Belt state that Clinton lost to Trump; and Dayton, Ohio, the state long considered an election bellwether.
“Some of you have asked if this challenge means I’m running for public office,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page last May. “I’m not.”
Even before his is-he-or-isn’t-he road trip, Zuckerberg had shown an interest in politics and social issues. In 2010, he announced during an appearance on “Oprah” that he was donating $100 million to help fix the Newark City public school system in New Jersey. The influx of Facebook cash, however, didn’t generate the desired results, and the gift became a nationally recognized failure of good intentions.
But the hiring of Benenson is sure to fuel speculation that Zuckerberg is getting more serious about how he plays in the political and policy worlds.
Speculation, however, may be the beginning and the end of the Zuckerberg for President story.
The Benenson Strategy Group does work for many nonprofit groups, including AARP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.
On July 27, for instance, Gaga tweeted a link to a research study on youth mental wellness that she commissioned from Benenson’s company. The survey, according to Gaga’s Twitter post, included “over 3,000 young people between the ages 15-24 and over 1,000 parents, asking questions about mental health and wellness.”