Paul Martino, the right-wing founder of a Silicon Valley venture fund, is poised to shake up Pennsylvania’s upcoming school board elections by applying the VC model to local politics. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Martino claims his group, Back to School PA, has handed out $10,000 to 50 separate PACs in hopes of backing school board candidates who will support in-class learning no matter what happens moving forward with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re all here because we said: ‘That’s enough,’" Martino, whose expertise lies more in sports betting apps than epidemiology, told Penn Live last month. “We know COVID is scary. We know people die. We know there’s responsibilities we need to take. But we need to put our kids first because they’ve fallen behind by not having in-person education.”
One of two co-founders of the San Francisco-based venture firm Bullpen Capital, Martino was inspired to get involved in the state’s school board politics after his kids had to return to “all virtual” learning at the beginning of the 2020 school year for their protection, which infuriated him. He saw the primary issue as a lack of the innovative spirit that has made Silicon Valley what it is today.
“School administrators were just scared and didn’t attack the challenge,” Martino told the Inquirer. “I’m not saying everyone’s gonna be built like a Silicon Valley CEO … but once you work with people like that and an unforeseen challenge comes in front of them, they solve the problem.”
Martino first gave $10,000 to a political action committee dedicated to backing Pennsylvania school board candidates who wanted to keep schools open no matter the state of the pandemic. Then, after 92 of the 94 candidates that the PAC supported ended up winning their primaries, he promised to spend $500,000 on his newfound cause, or “up to 50 $10,000 checks to 50 concerned parents, activists, and organizers” who want to start PACs dedicated to making sure children do not go back to virtual learning.
He started Back to School PA with fellow Pennsylvania parent Clarice Schillinger, a former aide to a Republican state representative and the founder of the Keeping Kids in School PAC that inspired him, in hopes of pushing the money out to local PACs around the state to support candidates who want to keep kids in school no matter what. He said Schillinger is already the greatest “return on investment” of his career.
“I’ve donated to political causes for many years,” Martino said in July, according to the Delaware Valley Journal. “I’ve never had a return on investment like the $10,000 we got for Clarice. And when I saw the way we were being successful by running the 94 candidates and the kind of attention we got, I called her up and I said, ‘What if we did this 50 more times?’”
Now, Martino is infusing his PAC with that venture mindset. “We’re really excited about the education and entrepreneurial spirit of the design,” Martino said in July. That entrepreneurial spirit includes a “clever trick” they came up with, which was to ask the people who run PACs whether they have candidates who agree with Martino about school openings. (Otherwise, they “could never figure what candidates to back,” he said.) Other innovations include “training sessions" and a Slack channel.
“We’re actually giving them access to our resources to teach them how to effectively run and campaign on this issue,” Martino told Penn Live.
Martino has claimed his primary focus is on getting the kids back in school and keeping them there. Others are more suspicious, perhaps because Martino has described himself as a “hardcore Republican,” given money to Sen. Rand Paul and Kelly Loeffler, helped fund a PAC that ran an ad in which a photo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went up in flames, and considers himself something of a “mentor” to Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe. He’s also said he wouldn’t mind combating Democratic unions and “perpetual sources of money on the other side.”
According to his page on the Federalist Society's website—Martino is the kind of guy who has a page on the Federalist Society's website—Martino has a master’s degree in computer science from Princeton and once invested in Zynga. When he’s not disrupting school districts, he is also developing “a next generation sports betting focused elevated dining restaurant” in Philadelphia.