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RFK Jr. is About to Name a Running Mate. Will he Pick this California Tech Lawyer?

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By James Rainey
Los Angeles Times

(The Los Angeles Times) She’s a Californian, who recalls being raised on food stamps in a home where both parents struggled to find work. She bussed tables at age 12, before education powered her to a career as a lawyer and entrepreneur who started a company while still in her 20s. online news

Though she had been politically active for years, she made her biggest splash last month, when she helped produce and pay for a commercial for presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that aired during the Super Bowl.

The $4 million investment in the ad, which was derided by some of Kennedy’s relatives, amounted to a political coming out for Nicole Shanahan, a tech attorney, entrepreneur and wealthy philanthropist. Shanahan’s profile could expand again on Tuesday, when Kennedy is set to announce his choice for vice presidential running mate at an event in her hometown of Oakland.

Kennedy’s campaign has acknowledged that he talked to Shanahan about the No. 2 spot, while also considering others, including Aaron Rodgers, the pro football great and fellow vaccine skeptic, and Mike Rowe, the host of “Dirty Jobs” and other reality television shows.

Kennedy, 70, has depicted the 38-year-old Shanahan as the voice of a new generation, one not represented in a contest that pits the oldest president in history, 81-year-old President Biden, against former President Trump, 77.

Kennedy has denied speculation that Shanahan’s main contribution to his campaign will be her deep pockets — which some have predicted will help fund the expensive and daunting effort to gather signatures to qualify the Kennedy ticket to appear on 50 state ballots.

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“One of the principal priorities of our campaign is bringing young people into politics and addressing the deprivation … and the hopelessness that is affecting this generation,” Kennedy said in an interview Monday with Chris Cuomo about his VP choice.

The NewsNation host asked the candidate whether Shanahan would be a contender to be his running mate “if she was broke.” Kennedy’s response: “Yes, absolutely.”

Shanahan did not respond to requests for comment. But those who have worked with her in the past caution against making assumptions about Shanahan because of her youth and relative inexperience.

Her boss at a Seattle law firm, where she worked after graduating from the University of Puget Sound, said the young paralegal had abundant common sense. Adam Philipp said he continued to follow Shanahan’s career after she left his firm, which specializes in patent law. He watched her create a company, ClearAccessIP, that uses software to help companies manage and distribute patents and patent rights.

“I think people would underestimate her at their peril,” Philipp said. “She was and is the kind of person who was able to build teams that were and are able to execute in quite a powerful way.”

Shanahan’s story might have remained mostly unknown to the larger world were it not for her 2018 marriage to Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and one of the world’s wealthiest men. The couple had a daughter and separated in 2021. Brin filed for divorce in 2022.

The split drew extra scrutiny when the Wall Street Journal reported that the couple’s breakup had been triggered by a brief affair that Shanahan had with Brin’s close friend, Elon Musk. The story said the fling fractured the friendship of the two tech titans and caused Brin to file for divorce. Shanahan and Musk both denied the affair, but the Journal stood by its reporting.

“My career has been based on academic and intellectual credibility, and I was being shamed internationally for being a cheater,” Shanahan told People magazine last summer. “To be known because of a sexual act is one of the most humiliating things … it was utterly debilitating.” She equated the episode to being “painted with such a massive scarlet letter.”

Kennedy and Shanahan’s alliance first became known last month, because of the Super Bowl ad, which relied on imagery and music from a television spot that John F. Kennedy used while running for president in 1960. The late president was RFK Jr.’s uncle.

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Shanahan told the New York Times she had contributed $4 million to a political action committee, American Values 2024, to help pay for the ad. She said she shared many of Kennedy’s views about the environment, vaccines and children’s health. Like Kennedy, she expressed concern about vaccines, but said she was “not an anti-vaxxer.”

The scientific and medical mainstream has soundly rejected Kennedy’s claims, including that vaccines commonly injure people and that they cause autism.

While some praised the Super Bowl spot as a retro attention grabber, Kennedy family members slammed it. Cousin Bobby Shriver said his mother, Eunice Shriver — the candidate’s late aunt — “would have been appalled by his deadly health-care views.”

Tensions between RFK Jr. and his extended clan have not eased since. Biden posted a message on St. Patrick’s Day, showing him in front of the White House with dozens of Kennedy family members, some of whom sang his praises on the social media site X.

On Friday, Kennedy Jr.’s campaign manager, his daughter-in-law Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, responded on X that “Americans are so tired of politicians dividing our country’s families to keep ahold of their power.”

When rumors about the candidate’s VP choice began to circulate last week, Fox Kennedy had posted another message on the site, formerly Twitter, chiding the media for speculating about Shanahan’s chances. But the post went on to heap glowing praise on the tech attorney.

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“Her work on behalf of honest governance, racial equity, regenerative agriculture and children’s and maternal health reflects many of our country’s most urgent needs,” Fox Kennedy wrote. She praised Shanahan for her work on AI, including its use to root out “government corruption and abuses on behalf of the people.”

The campaign manager also praised Rowe and Rodgers.

Shanahan’s path to a national political stage seems as unlikely as any. She told journalists in earlier interviews that she grew up with a father who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and a mother who was a recent immigrant from China. It was “a very hard childhood with a lot of sadness, fear and instability,” she told People.

She described the internet as the force that allowed her to gain access to the larger world, applying for college and then to Santa Clara University law school, where she edited the High Technology Law Journal.

Shanahan has described herself as a “lifelong Democrat” and a “progressive” and has supported a number of political measures that fit that description. She backed Measure J, the Los Angeles ballot action that required county government to spend 10% of unrestricted revenue — estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars — on social services including housing, mental health treatment and other jail diversion programs.

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She donated $85,000 to Proposition 57, the statewide criminal justice reform measure that sought to reduce the prison population with sentencing reductions, in part by offering credits for rehabilitation and education programs.

Among the many Democrats she bankrolled in the past: Joe Biden, who received a $5,600 donation to his 2020 campaign.

When she spoke to the New York Times about the Super Bowl ad, she said she initially backed Kennedy but was turned off when he dropped out of the Democratic primaries. She subsequently moved back into his column and said she found he had “pockets of silent support all over the place.”

While still married to Brin, she founded the Bia-Echo Foundation, announcing in 2019 that it intended to spend $100 million over five years on programs to help women become pregnant later in life, to overhaul the criminal-justice system and to address the effects of climate change.

The child-bearing issue became central for Shanahan when she had trouble having a child. She found it disturbing to find so many in the fertility field who seemed unconcerned that so many women struggled to conceive by their mid-30s. She later became focused on autism, when Echo, her daughter with Brin, was diagnosed as on the spectrum.

Shanahan told People she intended to stay on the “cutting edge” of autism research and to work with her daughter “through every stage of this.”

Kennedy’s campaign website invites the public to Tuesday’s VP rollout at the Henry J. Kaiser Center for the Arts overlooking Lake Merritt. It offers tickets: from $2 for those “on a tight budget,” up to $500, including “commemorative merch” and access to a post-announcement reception.

“This event will be a pivotal moment in our country’s history!” the website promised. “You will not want to miss it.”

©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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