SAN FRANCISCO — The drinks were strong, the pulled pork was savory and the ideas were revolutionary at a recent tech-centric soiree to hear venture capitalist Tim Draper talk about why California needs to break into six pieces.
"I'm doing this for my kids, who are settling here," Draper told a mix of entrepreneurs, journalists and boldfaced names who included Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. "It was OK for the state to slip in my life, but it's not OK for it to slip in theirs."
Draper is the scion of a line of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and is spending his own loot while on leave from Draper Fisher Jurvetson to finance the push.
The onetime California State Board of Education member said he is now "close" to getting the 808,000 signatures required by May 5 to put an initiative on the fall ballot that would give California voters a chance to weigh in on his proposal. He says the Golden State would be better off if it were made up of a half-dozen self-governed entities, ranging from the prosperous state of Silicon Valley to the water-dependent state of Central California.
"If you talk to people like I have, many of them feel that they've been forgotten by Sacramento (politicians)," he said. "If these six states could manage themselves, they'd be way better off than where they are now."
Draper's evidence of a broken California included a failing school system, Hollywood losing productions to other states and countries and, more recently, Silicon Valley's own Tesla electric car company planning to set up a battery plant out of state.
"I've been wrong before and I've been right before, but we're failing in our complacency," he said. "Let's at least get it to a vote."
The reaction to Draper's ideas was both muted and mixed. A few polite hecklers implied that the idea was all about Draper and his wealthy friends setting up a plutocracy in Silicon Valley. Others politely countered that in these days of limited rainfall, the true power in a divided California would fall in the hands of those in the rural, water-rich northern part of the state.
Barlow — a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and writer of such Dead songs as Hell In A Bucket — conceded that some Californians might like the idea of more localized self-government. "People are so distressed by government spending so much money and not doing much that it leads me to believe that it's not unthinkable" that such a vote might pass, he said.
Does Draper's dream stand a chance?
"We've concluded that it doesn't," said The Economist's New York bureau chief, Matthew Bishop, who moderated the event at the home of longtime Bay Area tech publicist Susan MacTavish Best. "Not a chance."
And most observers of state politics agree that while Draper's initiative raises important questions, resolving them by a splintering of an iconic American state would cause more problems than solutions.
"He does have a point that it's tough to govern California due to its sheer size," says John Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College east of Los Angeles. "But ultimately, California is used to working as a state. Besides, the transaction costs would be enormous, from dealing with the state (university) school system to the cost of establishing state governmental services."
Draper's boyish enthusiasm is likely to win over a few votes, though ironically he says private polling taken in his own haven of Silicon Valley shows "that that's where we have the least support for this idea, which I just don't understand."
Offering one answer was another guest at the dinner, novelist Michelle Richmond, whose new book Golden State features a venture capitalist who successfully pushes for a vote on California secession.
"This initiative may get the 808,000 votes to get on the ballot in November, but I think a yes vote to break up the state is unlikely," said Richmond to a round of nods. "I grew up in Alabama and became a California girl. I like that Los Angeles makes fun of San Francisco for being small town, and we poke fun at L.A.'s implants. For a lot of us, we are emotionally connected to the idea of one California."
Draper, still smiling, shrugged. "I'm just putting it out there for all of you," he said. "And I'm only doing this once, I don't have unlimited capital. Then I'm going back to work."
Back to work in Silicon Valley — which even if it never becomes a state, is certainly a dream-anything-you-want state of mind.