Rob McKay started giving away the burrito money about the time South Central
Los Angeles ignited in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. He was just 27 at
the time, and among the wealthy called to open their pockets to help rebuild.
That "slap in the face by some serious reality," as McKay calls the 1992 riots,
was the very beginning of his philanthropic life. A family fortune, amassed from
the Taco Bell empire that his father helped build, started flowing that year into
charity projects, many of them in the Bay Area.
Lots of rich guys give away lots of money in California. But McKay -- who
lives in a two-bedroom house on Telegraph Hill -- now is joining a select group
of millionaires who have ventured into politics through their checkbooks.
Taco Bell heir Rob McKay is funding an initiative to ease voter registration.
Chronicle photo by Michael Macor
Most of them end up looking like rubes.
But McKay is starting at the bottom so to speak, not with his own political
ambitions just yet, but with actual voters. He has spent $1.5 million of his own
money to put an initiative on the November ballot, Proposition 52, which would
allow people to register to vote on election day.
If passed, it would be one of the most dramatic changes in California election
law in recent memory, forcing a shakeup of political campaigns that now target
mostly middle-class and wealthy voters. With proper ID, any citizen could just
walk up and vote.
"We all wish people showed up at town hall forums and watched 'Face the Nation'
and all these programs on a weekly basis," said McKay. "We know they don't. Even
among so-called concerned voters, there is a time crunch, and I don't think people
should be penalized because of it."
For McKay, it's part of a decadelong effort to get to the roots of democracy
through his family's foundation, which gives away about $2 million a year. They've
funded Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos, which works with former gang members, and the
affordable housing activists at Chinatown Community Development.
FINANCED S.F. LIVING WAGE
McKay grew up in conservative Orange County with Republican parents, but he
moved to the Bay Area, attended graduate school at UC Berkeley and eventually
helped finance San Francisco's successful living wage campaign for low-income
But don't page Dr. Freud. Just because the family money came from an industry
that pays notoriously low wages doesn't mean McKay was compensating.
"Let me tell you what I am not: I am not sort of liberal white rich guilt,
which frankly in the Bay Area we see plenty of," said McKay.
McKay, a sort of low-key Democrat, said the political realm is more accountable
to the public than the "relatively smug world of philanthropy" that rarely takes
risks or makes long-term investments. He said most of the grants the McKay Foundation
gives are for at least five years and in $50,000 chunks to ground-level community
McKay now is fluent in the language of community-group speak. Asked to describe
any political motivation behind his donations, he talks about "empowerment in
communities" and "issues about basic fairness and equality."
McKay spent most of his youth in Southern California, attending wealthy Foothill
High School and Occidental College, where he studied political science. A job
in Chicago training to become a banking analyst got him interested in low-income
housing issues and poverty.
PUT $100,000 INTO LIVING WAGE
In 2000, McKay spent about $100,000 to fund the Living Wage Coalition, a group
of unions and community organizations that pressured the San Francisco Board of
Supervisors to set a minimum $10-an-hour wage for thousands of workers. McKay
became the first investment banker to be honored by the 30,000- member SEIU Local
790, which pushed for the living wage.
"To have someone who is very smart in economics but has a wide open heart for
people is a remarkable combination," said Josie Mooney, executive director of
Local 790 and president of the San Francisco Labor Council.
McKay, who turns 38 next month, begins his days in San Francisco with a latte
and newspapers at Cafe Roma, then heads back home for phone calls to the East
Coast. The foundation has an office in the Financial District.
He likes contemporary art and fine wine but is an ardent Oakland Raiders fan.
"It's a passion of mine, and even in the middle of the campaign, it's very clear
to everyone that Sunday is reserved," he said.
McKay is finalizing his divorce from Pam Spritzer, a New York writer who lives
with their 3-year-old daughter, Ade. He keeps an apartment in the West Village
and visits at least a week every month, he said.
It was during a foggy evening on Telegraph Hill a few years ago that McKay
met Deirdre English, the former editor of Mother Jones magazine and a faculty
member at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
English said McKay is unlike most investors because he does his own research
and "has an intrinsic set of values that are very democratic with a small d."
"Rob has given his money in a very, very different way, very un-egocentric,
" English said.
McKay said he first read about the extent of his family's wealth as a teenager
reading the business pages of the Los Angeles Times. His father, who took Taco
Bell from one franchise to a nationwide chain, sold his 10 percent share of the
business to PepsiCo Inc. in 1978, netting an estimated $13 million. He remained
as an executive until 1981.
McKay said they had a comfortable life and that "Taco Bell was sort of a curiosity
for my friends, anyway. It was mostly, 'Hey, can we get free burritos?' "
The family bank account has grown considerably thanks to other investments,
including the National Bank of Southern California and US Robotics.
McKay controls much of the activity of the charitable giving and the separate
investment portfolio as well.
"I got my MBA on my father's knee," McKay said. "He was passionate about it.
I would grab the business pages before he would. I wanted to make sure I knew
something that he and I could talk about on Saturday afternoon."
PROP. 52 COULD COST MILLIONS
McKay now says he could spend several million dollars of his own money to get
Proposition 52 passed this November. For McKay, the initiative is an extension
of a decadelong campaign to get the disenfranchised connected again to their surroundings.
Six other states already have election day registration.
"This is where political consultants don't like election day voter registration:
It demands that you talk to really the entire electorate," McKay said. "I think
one of the reasons people aren't engaged is that no one is talking to them."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle