Why RFK Jr. Picked This Particular Rich Rando as His VP

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has named a 38-year-old Silicon Valley lawyer and tech entrepreneur with virtually no political experience as his vice presidential running mate. Nicole Shanahan had until now been best known as the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin and as the funder of Kennedy’s ultra-expensive and controversial Super Bowl ad.

In the announcement, which he made in Oakland, California, Kennedy explained that Shanahan, the daughter of an immigrant who grew up reliant on welfare, could represent young people and “the working poor who feel forgotten.”

The news ended speculation over Kennedy’s pick fueled by Kennedy’s own campaign. On March 12, the New York Times reported that Kennedy’s two leading choices were Jesse Ventura and Aaron Rodgers, two sports-world celebrities known for promoting conspiracy theories. The campaign also teased potential running mates in former Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an independent; former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican; anti-vaccine lawyer Tricia Lindsay; and Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe.

Shanahan is a different choice from most of the others floated—with less political experience than Gabbard, Brown, and Ventura (the former Minnesota governor) and less name recognition than Rodgers and Rowe. But Shanahan does have pull in the world of Silicon Valley, where some of the wealthiest and most powerful figures of the anti-vaccine movement are based.

She is the founder and president of something called the Bia-Echo Foundation, a private organization that, according to her LinkedIn, invests in “reproductive longevity & equality, criminal justice reform and a healthy & livable planet.” The foundation launched a “Center for Reproductive Longevity and Equality” dedicated to funding reproductive health research and solutions.

According to People, Shanahan claims to have had a “very hard” childhood on welfare in Oakland with a mentally ill and occasionally violent father. Her mother, a Chinese immigrant, was an accountant. Shanahan gained a law degree from Santa Clara University and began working on both conventional legal issues and more tech-oriented ones, also founding a patent management company. But she jumped into the center of the tech world when she met Google founder Brin at a yoga festival in 2014. They began dating in 2015 and married in 2018, which gave her sudden access to major wealth. She became a philanthropist, and she manages a venture capital fund focused on climate solutions. She and Brin divorced in 2022.

Politically, Shanahan has a history of donating to Democratic campaigns and has described herself as a progressive. She has made campaign contributions to Pete Buttigieg, Marianne Williamson, and Joe Biden. (That last donation came during the 2020 presidential race.) This cycle, she became interested in Kennedy’s campaign, drawn to his background in environmental conservation work—a legitimate part of his career, for decades—and, according to the Times, to his significantly less legitimate interest in vaccines and children’s health. The Times reported that she admired the way he has taken on the medical establishment.

She gave Kennedy’s campaign the maximum allowable donation of $6,600 in May. Then, when Kennedy left the Democratic Party in October and carried on as an independent, she expressed some disappointment. But according to the Times, she changed her mind early this year, after seeing “pockets of silent support all over the place,” and poured $4 million into the super PAC behind the Kennedy Super Bowl ad. (Kennedy would later apologize to his family for the commercial.)

Her experience investing in health and environmental research gives her some shared interests with Kennedy. She told the Times she wasn’t an anti-vaxxer but that she also didn’t distance herself from the kinds of anti-vax conspiracy theories that connect vaccines with autism. (Kennedy has promoted these conspiracy theories.) “I do think that the increase of vaccine-related injuries is very alarming, and I do think we need to understand the screening mechanisms,” she told the Times. Shanahan’s daughter with Brin, Echo, is on the autism spectrum, and Shanahan told People that she spends 60 percent of her time on autism research. “I chat with a lot of other mothers of autistic children, because I think mothers are some of the most well-educated and researched,” she told the magazine. “They’re trying some of these autism interventions, and they’re able to tell you with greater accuracy than any published medical paper what they’re seeing in their children.”

Her big-money but unscientific approach to autism research sounds not dissimilar to Kennedy’s but with less in the way of confident assertions. The softer language differentiates her from Rodgers, the candidate who at one point last week seemed to be the leading contender. Rodgers, one of the NFL’s most famous quarterbacks, has taken on anti-vaccine conspiracy theories as a cause, often spouting misinformation during media appearances, and in particular on ESPN’s mega-popular Pat McAfee Show. (According to CNN, Rodgers has expressed the belief that the Sandy Hook shooting “never happened.” Rodgers later denied the report.) But although Kennedy has made vaccine skepticism—specifically, a rejection of the COVID vaccine—a key part of his candidacy, he hasn’t required a hard-line stance from potential running mates; Ventura, the other leading candidate reported last week, is a known conspiracy theorist (in particular, he has promoted the idea that 9/11 was an inside job) but has publicly defended the COVID-19 vaccine. (Ventura has, however, platformed anti-vax conspiracy theories.) It seems more likely that Kennedy wanted someone with a “just asking questions” mindset who wouldn’t necessarily openly contradict his campaign statements.

In his announcement Tuesday, Kennedy called Shanahan a “warrior mom,” evoking the kinds of anti-vaccine mothers who make up a portion of his supporters. He also praised her for having an “open, inquiring mind and the confidence to change even her strongest opinions in the face of contrary evidence.” He said: “I wanted someone with a spiritual dimension and compassion and idealism and, above all, a deep love of the United States of America.”

More importantly, though, Kennedy wants money. He made that clear when a source in the campaign told Mediate, which first reported the news of Shanahan’s choice, that the campaign had been “looking for a candidate who can help finance the ballot access initiative.” (States require a certain number of signatures in order for an independent candidate to be placed on the ballot.)

The news doesn’t make much of a difference for Kennedy’s chances of winning: He still polls a distant third. According to a new poll from Bloomberg/Morning Consult, Kennedy would nab 9 percent of the electorate. But that poll also found that his campaign makes a difference: Adding third parties into the equation would give Trump an additional point lead over Biden, leaving them 43 to 38. (Although polling suggests that RFK Jr.’s candidacy theoretically hurts Biden slightly more, a significant portion of Kennedy voters would be drawn from Trump as well. At his campaign event Tuesday, Kennedy insisted that he was a spoiler for both candidates, not just Biden.)

Shanahan’s presence on the ballot might not give Kennedy’s campaign as much star power as someone like Rodgers, who has 4.5 million followers on X, might. But as the ex-wife of someone worth $121 billion (it’s unclear how much she walked away with in the divorce), she can likely take his candidacy further, funding ad campaigns and initiatives to gather signatures to get on the ballot. She may even be able to rally her wealthy and energetic Silicon Valley friends, potentially allowing Kennedy—a political-elite candidate with few allies in the old-money world he grew up in—to find a new crowd and continue to mess with Democrats for as long as he likes.