Who is Arthur Rock and why did he contribute $15,000 – a large amount by local standards – to the re-election campaign of Democratic County Board candidate Matt de Ferranti?
The first question is perhaps the easier of the two to answer.
Rock is a 95-year-old (to be 96 in August) billionaire who made his money over the decades in the venture-capital field and related endeavors.
As to why he’s contributed to de Ferranti’s campaign? That’s something of a mystery, even to de Ferranti.
“I have not met him in person or spoken with him via phone or ‘virtually,’” de Ferranti said in response to a Sun Gazette query.
Their connection? “Mr. Rock engages with Leadership for Educational Equity, an organization I am part of as a Teach for America alumnus,” de Ferranti said.
And the 2022 election cycle is not the first time the two have crossed paths, financially-speaking. Rock contributed $16,000 to de Ferranti’s successful 2018 bid to unseat independent incumbent John Vihstadt from the County Board.
Having made his name and his fortune as an investment banker and venture capitalist, Rock in recent years has been funding Democratic candidates and political-action committees, having given the Nancy Pelosi Victory Fund $100,000 in 2021. Many of his contributions, often of less than $10,000, went to those running for local school boards with a connection to Leadership for Educational Equity.
(Unlike many states and in federal elections, there is no ceiling on the amount of contributions to candidates in Virginia local or state races, but all contributions of $100 or more must be disclosed during specific intervals throughout the year.)
In a move that may not endear him to some in the Democratic fold, Rock also has been active in efforts to promote the charter-school movement, and in 2021 gave approximately a half-million dollars to the ultimately successful effort to oust three incumbent San Francisco School Board members, who were seen by critics as tacking too far left even by Bay Area standards.
Even though – or perhaps because – they have no direct relationship, de Ferranti says he has no problem accepting the funds from someone outside the area.
“I have done rudimentary research and I am comfortable accepting his contribution,” de Ferranti told the Sun Gazette. “I believe he is well-recommended through Leadership for Educational Equity, and am ethically comfortable accepting his contribution.”
But his opponents were not so sure.
“Large donations from outside interests may be legal in Virginia, but they are questionable,” said Audrey Clement, running as an independent, “because they raise concerns about whose interests the candidate actually serves.”
“Another perverse aspect of bankrolling candidates with large donations is that it leads voters to believe that candidates who don’t receive such donations are not viable, even though they have no such conflict of interest and may have a better grasp of the issues and a stronger pulse on the community than their monied rivals,” Clement said.
Adam Theo, an independent who is the third candidate on the ballot, mused about the transaction.
“It’s little secret that Matt is dreaming of higher office – he sees this as just a stepping stone,” Theo said of his County Board opponent, before positing a number of questions:
• “Why is Matt already fund-raising like he’s running for Congress?”
• “Why is an out-of-state venture capitalist that has no real connection to Matt donating to his campaign; what is his special interest in a race for County Board in Arlington?”
“Voters rightfully have many questions,” said Theo, who pressed for election-reform measures “to give every voter a voice to weed out the complacent politicians who take big money from questionable donors.”
De Ferranti is not the only Arlington candidate to have benefited from Rock’s largesse. In 2020, School Board candidate Cristina Diaz-Torres, a Democrat, received $10,000 from him for her campaign, according to Virginia Department of Elections records. Candidates for School Board races in Albemarle County and the city of Alexandria also received contributions in recent years, each for $1,000, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project.
The issue of money – where it comes from and what its intent is – is never far from the surface in Arlington politics, although local elections tend to be modest in terms of cash raised compared to elsewhere.
But there are exceptions: In 2019, challenger Parisa Dehghani-Tafti rode a tsunami of outside money, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars and much of it funneled through groups loyal to another out-of-state billionaire (George Soros) to narrowly defeat incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos in the Democratic primary. Dehghani-Tafti went on to have no opposition in the ensuing general election, as Republicans squandered what might have been a political opening in the heavily Democratic county.