House Speaker Bob DeLeo spent the better part of two years trying to persuade Mark Zuckerberg to open a Facebook office in Massachusetts.
Two days before Facebook went public in 2012, DeLeo wrote an open letter to the Harvard dropout, published on the pages of a hyperlocal site in Menlo Park, Calif., where the social media giant is based.
While the letter went viral, the Winthrop Democrat kept adding goodies in various bills that he hoped would attract the Facebook founder and others like him to expand in Massachusetts. Then in November, Zuckerberg finally relented and opened an engineering office in Kendall Square.
“Welcome back!” DeLeo posted on his Facebook page.
The successful pursuit seemed to show that in an increasingly technological world, it pays to have a tech-savvy politician atop Beacon Hill. But that’s not exactly the case here. Sitting in his wood-paneled office on a recent afternoon, where a hand-wound mantle clock chimes on the half hour, the amiable speaker leaned in toward me and said, “Do you want me to make a confession?”
He doesn’t know how to post anything on Facebook. He has no idea how to tweet. He doesn’t use e-mail. He doesn’t have a computer on his desk. And his cellphone? Until recently, it was a Motorola flip phone, better suited for the Smithsonian than someone’s jacket pocket.
But in this contradiction there is a lesson in how a 63-year-old lunch bucket Democrat, whose old idea of economic development centered around slots, has become one of the biggest champions of our innovation economy.
“Whether one is fluent in technology or not is not relevant,” said Pat Larkin, director of the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. “The speaker is knowledgeable and fluent in getting things done. That’s what the innovation economy needs.”
Among DeLeo’s key initiatives is a $1 million program to subsidize internships at local tech companies. About 100 college students have gotten internships so far, with the idea that if they had a good experience they might stay in the state after graduation. He also helped create a $15 million research and development fund to encourage innovation clusters statewide.
DeLeo has met with other tech firms from Dell to Google, but he began liking Facebook two years ago when he read Zuckerberg, who started the firm in his Harvard dorm, might have stayed in Massachusetts to build his social media empire. DeLeo had this idea to write an open letter to the wunderkind to tell him what’s changed since he left in 2004.
When the speaker shared his harebrained idea with longtime ally, then state Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein from Revere, she laughed. “You don’t even have a Facebook page,” Reinstein reminded him.
“Yeah, I know,” DeLeo replied, but “this is good for Massachusetts.”
She had only one piece of advice. Whatever you do, don’t call it “The Facebook.”
Through the years, the speaker has tried to embrace technology. About a decade ago, when the State House was getting a new computer system, DeLeo begged out of mandatory training. But the IT department said no.
“After about 15 to 20 minutes, I was excused,” recalled DeLeo. “I was completely holding up the progress of the class.”
Last fall, his staff decided it was time for the speaker to join the 21st century and get an iPhone. There was probably more debate on whether he could handle a smartphone than how he could balance the state budget.
To break the impasse, an aide finally brought in his 4-year-old son and offered a demonstration. He pulled out his iPhone and said, “Call Momma at home.”
The kid knew exactly what to do.
“I rest my case,” the aide said. “If a 4-year-old can do it, I think you can do it.”
Despite his new phone’s fancy features, DeLeo sticks to the tried and true: making and receiving calls. What about checking e-mails? His staff prints them out all day long.
“It’s the most underused iPhone, probably, in Massachusetts,” he said.
When the speaker gave his anniversary address to the House two weeks ago, he invited Ryan Mack, who leads Facebook’s Cambridge office, and gave him a shoutout. Later, staff posted a photo of them on the speaker’s Facebook page, which launched the day the company said it was opening a local office.
“We are excited to be here,” said Mack. “It was sweet of him to welcome us back.”
DeLeo’s relationship with Facebook may be “it’s complicated,” but that status hasn’t stopped him from making sure technology has friends in high places.