In late October, Sleeping Giants, the mysterious Twitter group behind a campaign against Breitbart, announced that it had set its sights on a new target: the institutions invested in Renaissance Technologies. According to the group, these pension funds, universities, and charities were indirectly lining the pockets of one of Breitbart’s biggest financial backers, Robert Mercer, the co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies Corp. What happened next was something of a surprise.
Just one week after Sleeping Giants launched its campaign, Mercer announced plans to step down from RenTech’s C-suite and board as of January 1, 2018. A longtime Republican donor, Mercer co-owns Breitbart and supported Stephen Bannon’s rise on the (alt-)right. He also supported controversial commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in the past. Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, moved on Trump’s campaign last summer, installing their close contacts, Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.
Their far-right position is certainly at odds with the political views of RenTech’s current and former leadership. The firm’s founder, Jim Simons, is a major Democratic Party donor. Most recently, he twice gave $2,700 to Democrat Gareth Rhodes, an upstate New York congressional candidate, according to campaign contribution tracker OpenSecrets.
Meanwhile, Mercer’s co-CEO, Peter Brown, has also thrown his financial support behind Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, OpenSecrets shows. Brown will continue to serve as CEO after Mercer steps down, according to Mercer’s letter to employees. Mercer did not clarify whether someone would take his place.
The firm has managed to perform well despite the conflicting politics of its leaders. Institutional Investor’s Alpha reported that the group took in about $1 billion in November. Its assets now exceed $50 billion, and its three funds open to investors are up between 10.5 percent and 15 percent this year.
The role Sleeping Giants’ campaign played in Mercer’s decision to step down, though, is unclear. One investor who was not named by the group tells II that a line was crossed once RenTech’s clients became targets, and this investor welcomed the resignation plan. Mercer and Renaissance declined comment on the move.
In the letter, Mercer said he wanted to correct “misinformation” that had been written about him before he stepped down. “Of the many mischaracterizations made of me by the press, the most repugnant to me have been the intimations that I am a white supremacist or a member of some other noxious group,” Mercer wrote. He also noted that he regretted having supported Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right political commentator. “I was mistaken to have supported him, and for several weeks have been in the process of severing all ties with him,” Mercer wrote, saying that Yiannopoulos’ actions “caused pain and divisiveness.” As for Breitbart and one of its founding members, Steve Bannon?
“The press has also intimated that my politics marches [sic] in lockstep with Steve Bannon’s,” Mercer wrote. “I have great respect for Mr. Bannon, and from time to time I do discuss politics with him. However, I make my own decisions with respect to whom I support politically,” and, he added, his candidates and own views are not always aligned with the former White House chief strategist’s. In addition to leaving his post at RenTech, Mercer said he would sell his stake in Breitbart to his daughters.
Sleeping Giants got what it wanted, in some respects. The group attempted to pressure RenTech investors over where their money was going by listing email addresses and Twitter accounts related to each institution they identified.
The campaign targeted Michigan State University, the Public School Retirement System of Missouri, Columbia University, Los Angeles Water and Power Employees’ Retirement System, the City of Providence Employee Retirement System, the National Academy of Sciences, Baltimore Fire and Police Employees’ Retirement System, William Penn Foundation, American Physical Society, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Tufts Medical Center, and Furman University.
Sleeping Giants chose those institutions based on a report by ThinkProgress, a liberal-leaning news website.
Michigan State, one of the first targets of the lobbying effort, responded with force. “The recent story in ThinkProgress is misleading and purposely confusing,” spokesperson Jason Cody said in a statement at the time. “MSU is not financing any white nationalist organization or individual. We also do not have a financial position in any media outlet, Breitbart or otherwise.” “It should be noted we do not consider the personal political opinions and private activities of individual employees when making decisions,” Cody added. Since Mercer stepped down, Sleeping Giants has dropped the campaign against Renaissance Technologies.