City

Is This Rich Middle-Aged White Guy From Texas the Most Revolutionary Thinker in Philly?

Richard Vague is known in Philadelphia as a venture capitalist and a Renaissance Man. Soon he may be known as something else entirely: a presidential candidate.


richard vague

Richard Vague in his Center City office. Photograph by Justin James Muir

Richard Vague said he wanted to do the focus groups himself.

Yes, yes, he told his seasoned — and worried — political advisers; he knew this was usually done by a professional facilitator. But he was good with people, he said; he knew how to get them to open up, knew how to be a good listener. Every Wednesday, for years, entrepreneurs had been trooping into the conference room of his venture capital firm, asking him to crack open his wallet. He could certainly handle the voters of Nevada, Florida, South Carolina, New Hampshire and anywhere else.

“I thought it was a lousy idea,” recalls Matt Paul, a senior vice president at Cornerstone Government Affairs, a lobbying and public relations firm that does political consulting and is based in Washington, D.C. (Clients include Michael Bloomberg.) “I didn’t want to do it. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do a couple, see how this goes.’ [Vague] worked very hard at it, like he does at everything.” “His emotional intelligence is crazy,” says Nick Stuccio, the president of FringeArts, where Vague chairs the board. “He can read a room and size up anybody. He’s like Sherlock Holmes.”

Of course, just how Richard Vague — Philadelphia venture capitalist, business icon, Rittenhouse bon vivant, arts patron, board of directors staple, general huggy-bear — even came to be on a national listening tour of early primary states is a peculiar story. In the beginning, he says, he was merely trying to answer one question: How did the country end up electing Donald Trump? “I had a very profound feeling after the election that the Democratic Party didn’t know what its own members really wanted,” he says. “I spent a lot of time going around, over two to three months, trying to find the place within the Democratic Party where they were trying to figure that out. I’m sitting there going, like, ‘Where’s the policy SWAT team that’s trying to figure out how we get those Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota voters?’ There wasn’t such a thing.”

If they wouldn’t do it, he would. “I wanted,” he says, “to do an autopsy.”

So he did. He has crisscrossed the country, hosting three dozen bipartisan focus groups across nine states. At some point, what began as a fact-finding mission — Why were people so desperate that they did … this? — morphed into an audacious idea: Maybe I should run for the presidency! — that was rolled out on Buzzfeed News right after Christmas in a post titled “The 2020 Democrat You Definitely Haven’t Heard Of: Richard Vague.” You could almost hear the cappuccino cups clattering to the floor at Parc.

In his trademark zip sweaters and gray slacks, Vague is a hulking but amiable presence, his eyes twinkling, his voice of the soft Mister Rogers variety. A Texas transplant, in less than 15 years he’s become entrenched in Philadelphia’s power circles, his advice absorbed with the intense awe of those old “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen” commercials of the 1970s. Imbued with Southern graciousness and convivial warmth that wafts about him like cologne, he suggests the gentle giant looking to restore good in the world. His closest friends — a number that’s measured in dozens — don’t really seem all that surprised he would consider running for the White House, because to them, it’s all part of his Renaissance Man identity: He’s substantial in whatever he elects to do, whether that’s in the arts, finance, science, medicine, economics or politics.

He hasn’t officially decided whether to run yet, though he’s slated to announce, or not announce, any day. Surprisingly, most people who know him believe he’s in. For his part, Vague says that without the bleating, booming soundtrack of finger-wagging cable news, he’s been able to do what he set out to do: get to the heart of the issues. He senses that behind all of the bluster and vitriolic awfulness that now comprise public discourse lies a hunger for civility and problem-solving. People aren’t paranoid or suspicious or resentful, he says. They’re confused. Tired. Yearning to be heard.

And then, of course, there was Michigan.

In a nondescript meeting space an hour outside Detroit, a dozen or so voters representing various ethnicities, ages and occupations had just finished discussing climate change. The consensus was largely “I’ve never really studied that as much as I should.” Vague was about to introduce a new topic when a 40-something female health-care worker leaned toward him.

“You know,” she said conspiratorially, “I understand the government controls hurricanes.”

Vague, ever inscrutable, held her gaze for a few seconds. Then someone else leaned in: “You know, I heard that, too.”

Vague had only one thought: Oh, holy shit.

Wednesday is pitch day at Gabriel Investments, the venture capital firm Richard Vague runs from a warren of glass conference rooms on the 25th floor of the Mellon bank building on Market Street. Once a week, a conveyor belt of money-seekers tap-dances for Gabriel’s Shark Tank panel, hoping the investors will stake their ideas. Most of the time, this doesn’t happen. Gabriel listens to pitches from at least 200 start-ups a year; in 2018, it funded seven.

Holly Flanagan, Gabriel’s managing director, ushers in the first candidate, then takes a seat at the gleaming conference table, a mahogany runway that can seat 25. At the head sits Vague, arms crossed, looking like a stuffed owl. Several other Gabriel investors are peppered around the room, but it’s clear this is Vague’s show — that it’s his opinion, above all others, that sets the tone for who gets funded and who doesn’t.

First up is Chris Carlone from TidyHost, a fledgling Airbnb cleaning service. Carlone has a booming if slightly tremulous voice (he’s nervous), and in his too-cool-for-school gray TidyHost t-shirt, blazer and jeans, he practically screams “hip, brash start-up guy.” He starts, as they all do, with his blood-and-sweat beginnings (cue line about “lugging my vacuum down the street”), then flips through his PowerPoint slides, a dizzying array of statistics, and very rosy projections, charts and spreadsheets.

Vague remains beached at the head of the table, imposing yet affable, like the nice but firm uncle you’re trying to convince to lend you money for a new car. He occasionally asks a question or two, then spends the rest of the time sipping water, swirling ice cubes in a paper cup.

Twenty minutes in, as Carlone rambles on, Vague finally cuts in: “So, can you show us your financials?” A.k.a. Get to the point. Click goes the slide. Vague saunters up to the front, hands on hips, and surveys the numbers. He’s there less than a minute before pivoting back to his seat. “Got it,” he says over his shoulder. Carlone appears clearly rattled as Vague settles back into his chair. “Other than Airbnb,” Vague says casually, “who is a possible purchaser of your company?” A.k.a. What’s the endgame here?

It’s sort of amazing how intimidating Vague can be, despite the Santa Claus bearing and folksy Texas drawl. After 15 minutes of not saying a word, he’ll suddenly pipe up with, “Do you have a competitive landscape slide?,” and everyone’s head snaps. As pitches devolve into background noise akin to the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher, Vague has a canny ability to cut through, to tune back in at just the right moment with a sharp and probing inquiry. I can imagine how good he’s been at focus groups. “Just by virtue of the questions he asks and the manner he asks them, he leads you to an aha moment,” says tech boffin Bob Moul, the former CEO of Cloudamize, which Gabriel backed. “That’s how Richard’s the smartest guy in the room. He doesn’t do it by making everyone else feel stupid.”

The last pitch of the day comes from three buff turks who all look like they just left a frat kegger; the lead, Adam Jones, wears a sweatshirt and a baseball cap on backward. “How’s it going, everybody!” he exclaims. I’m almost prepared for him to follow with, “We brought beer.” They’re pitching a business called Drink Peloton, which is cascara tea, an antioxidant-rich beverage they hope to market as a sort of healthy iced tea. The words “stoked” and “super awesome” are uttered within 10 minutes of each other. Vague maintains his role as sage Buddha, saying little. Finally, he asks about sales. “Sales are okay,” says Jones, who’s very excited about the drink’s sustainability aspect in Central America and wants to show a video about it.

Vague ignores him. “Can we get a peek at your financials?” he asks.

We eventually do see the video, which is slick and earnest, but only after copies of the financials — handwritten, and looking like something you’d scribble on the back of a napkin to remind yourself to pick up the dry cleaning — are distributed.

After the Peloton boys leave, Vague seems almost impish. “So,” he says to the rest of the room, “what do we think?”

It’s an inverted construct. Because when it comes to money, and politics, and the arts and good books and restaurants and practically everything else, it’s the intelligentsia of Philadelphia that is largely asking Richard Vague what he thinks. “He can sit in a board meeting for two hours and keep his mouth shut and everybody’s arguing and everybody wants to be heard,” says his close friend Audrey Claire Taichman, the former Rittenhouse restaurateur. “Everybody wants to be smart and talk, and they think they know the solution to something. And Richard will just stay quiet. Hands crossed, looking down. And then two hours later, someone will finally say, ‘Richard, what do you think?’ And he’ll just say one sentence that solves it all. And everybody looks at one another like, Oh my God, he’s so right.”

richard vague

Richard Vague. Photograph by Justin James Muir

Vague’s road to becoming Philadelphia’s Yoda began in Wichita Falls, Texas. The second of four children born to an Exxon engineer and a housewife, he spent his childhood moving 11 times throughout the Lone Star State; restless and creative, he was immersed in painting and drawing, and in high school he became a jazz aficionado. “I never had a career ambition,” he says, which may explain why he never pursued the arts professionally. He worked part-time at an Austin bank to earn college tuition. “I would go to the bank in my suit — I was writing procedural manuals,” he recalls. “When it was time for class, I’d go get in my Volkswagen, change from a suit to my t-shirt and bathing suit, go to class for a couple of hours, then come back to the bank, change back into my suit in the Volkswagen. That was my life for a while.”

He earned a degree at the University of Texas and eventually backed into a post as the bank’s head of marketing, pulling in the princely sum of $9,000 a year. He rose through the ranks, got married at 27. In the mid-1980s, as the credit-card industry was being deregulated, opportunity came in the form of a promotion to head the new credit-card division of the Austin bank’s holding company in Delaware. Itching to explore life outside Texas, Vague took the job. He was 29. “I was like the kid in the candy store,” he says. “I had never lived in the North.”

Observant, relentlessly curious, fabulously analytical, he made tidy fortunes founding and selling businesses: First USA, bought by Bank One in 1997; Juniper Financial, bought by Barclays in 2004. He had three kids and crested on the wave of the American Dream. He managed to keep a relatively low profile in the business press, though he resigned from Bank One (which would eventually become JPMorgan Chase) in the fall of 1999 after his credit-card division, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “severely damaged the company’s overall earnings and stock price.” (Vague says he resigned because his employment contract was up.) In 2009, hedge fund titan and notorious shareholder activist William Ackman instigated a proxy war at Target that included a plan to add several new faces to its board, including Vague. Ackman lost. “I thought it was a terrific opportunity,” says Vague, who felt his background in the credit-card industry could have been an asset on the board. “It would have been a great thing if it had happened.”

Vague’s first marriage didn’t fare as well as his career, and after a divorce, he moved to Philly in 2005. He co-founded and served as CEO and chairman of Energy Plus, an electricity and natural gas supply company that was sold to NRG Energy in 2011 for $190 million. Single and dazzled by the vitality of the city, he quickly infiltrated the power crowd and became a Rittenhouse gadfly. “Everybody always thought we had a romance,” says Taichman, whose Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning Grill were Square hot spots in the early aughts. “Until each of us found the right partner, we spent a lot of time together. And we were very lucky, because without one another, we probably would have been very lonely. I guess somehow I kept him entertained. Or he thought I was intellectual enough to have a conversation with. Which was an honor. It was a very unique relationship. Still is.”

As his wealth and influence in the city increased, Vague became a sought-after board member and philanthropist — today, his board seats include some of Philly’s showiest institutions: Penn Medicine (where he has endowed a chair), the Franklin Institute, the Museum of the American Revolution, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Indulging his childhood love of the arts seems to truly gratify him. He funds young filmmakers at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and chairs FringeArts. “The thing I enjoyed about art was creating,” Vague says of his childhood. “I was not only painting. If you’re in art, you’re constantly taking classes on Picasso and Monet and folks like that. You learn about the invention of new forms of art. How art is always evolving.”

Still, with his air of grandpa benevolence, Vague seems an odd choice to chair the boundary-pushing shock-and-awe enterprise that is FringeArts. Indeed, Nick Stuccio says that when Vague first came on the scene, he couldn’t quite figure him out. But he credits him with helping make Fringe the cultural cornerstone of Philadelphia that it is today. “Richard loves that we are an outpost of boldness,” he says. He tells stories of Vague throwing the occasional “well-delivered punch in the gut,” or applauding when PAFA turned down a controversial performance Fringe produced. (Vague’s retort: “You know you’re doing it right when you’re getting censored.”) Vague has become not just one of the festival’s biggest patrons, but its guiding light. “That man has so much gravitas,” Stuccio says. “Not just because he made so much money. His intellect. His foresight. All of the various IQs he brings to bear.”

There is something reserved and old-world about Laura Vague that’s a testament to her Italian heritage. A dark beauty with curly brown hair and perhaps the most perfectly sculpted brows in Rittenhouse Square, she came to the U.S. from Bergamo, Italy, in 1993 to study at Rosemont College. In 2015, she was a guest at a swanky 24-person dinner party when she found herself seated next to Richard Vague. “I worked it as hard as I could possibly work it,” he says.

They discussed butterflies; she admonished him to eat his asparagus. “The nicest thing about him was he was calm, relaxed,” Laura says. “I felt at that moment that he could be my best friend. I knew that life was going to bring us together.”

Their first date was at Volvér; 10 months later, they were married at the Four Seasons in Florence, in a wedding that featured an old convertible, a carriage, torch-bearing dancers dressed in black capes, opera, and a fireworks display, with a guest list that included Stuccio, Taichman and Joe Torsella, among other city lights. The couple’s whirlwind romance caught the Rittenhouse who’s-who off guard — especially those who had never witnessed Vague’s moonier side. “There’s a lot of PDA with Laura,” says Ajay Raju, the CEO and chairman of Dilworth Paxson and himself a regular on the Center City society carousel. “You can naturally see that they’re in love.”

The couple now resides in a stately four-story temple of 19th-century refinement on Delancey Place that boasts four fireplaces, three front balconies, and fluttering flags of the U.S. and Italy. As they sit together on an overstuffed gray sofa, playfully holding hands, the Vagues practically swoon at one another. If their age difference — Vague is 63, Laura is 44 — matters to others, it clearly doesn’t to them. “One very sweet thing about Richard is that he is a romantic,” says Kevin Kleinschmidt, a longtime friend and an investor through Gabriel. “It’s been beautiful to see that play out in his relationship and marriage with Laura.”

Vague has a schoolboy-like way with his interests, approaching subjects with intense curiosity and a deep commitment to fact-finding. He’s an authority on the American presidency (he’s read biographies of every president besides Trump) and Broadway musicals; the author of two largely impenetrable tomes on global economics (“His first book, on China, I tried to read, but I had to tell him I couldn’t,” says former Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin, a friend); and an editor whose quirky email newsletter, DelanceyPlace.com — which shares excerpts from books — is sent out to 300,000 subscribers daily. (Topics covered this year include Beatrix Potter, Billie Holiday, opium, the battle for dinosaur bones, Babe Ruth in reform school, Porgy and Bess, the origin of the phrase “a line in the sand,” and one entry titled, “The adverb is not your friend.”)

Barack Obama played the role of laid-back intellectual (though with far better tailoring) all the way to the presidency. But you always knew there was that South Side street fighter deep down. It’s hard to picture one hiding under Richard Vague’s zip sweaters. His boosters insist it’s there. “You don’t get to be Richard Vague without having a backbone,” says Garrett Snider, the young philanthropist and grandson of the late Flyers owner Ed Snider; he considers Vague a mentor. “This is not a man who gets pushed around.”

“The reality is, he knows a lot more than probably most candidates for any office about the sharp elbows that are required for politics,” adds Kleinschmidt. “I don’t think he’s going in naive at all.”

Indeed, by his own admission, Vague hasn’t always been the contemplative sage so much of Philadelphia knows him to be. He says a 360-degree evaluation he took when he was 40 was a wake-up call. “The conclusion of that was that I was a bully,” he says. “Not an unpleasant bully, if that makes any sense. It was not listening to others and dismissing others. Not unpleasantly, but nonetheless. A sense of entitlement. The widespread complaint was that I would come forward with my idea at the outset of the meeting, which kind of obviated the purpose of the meeting. I learned, very deliberately, that my job was to listen.”

Is America prepared to listen to Richard Vague?

The idea that a completely unknown Philadelphia merchant prince can simply swan into a U.S. presidential race that already contains six U.S. senators, three governors and a “handsome scarecrow” (Trevor Noah’s delightful description of Beto O’Rourke) is, of course, completely ludicrous. Unless you actually know Richard Vague.

When you drill down, Vague is exactly the kind of person who should be president. Brilliant and circumspect, he is fiercely intellectual, tactical and strategic, and also empathetic, authentic and gracious. In other words, he’s our modern-day Thomas Jefferson. Or the Dos Equis guy.

He’s a proud and unabashed capitalist, a warm and compassionate progressive, a learned scholar of economic history, and a renowned philanthropist who believes in the power of giving, the dignity of work and free expression. He isn’t given to bile or bombast. He even looks like a founding father; all that’s missing is the powdered wig and buckled shoes.

Vague is exactly the kind of person who should be president: brilliant and circumspect, authentic and gracious. In other words, he’s our modern-day Thomas Jefferson. Or the Dos Equis guy.

And yet, with all of that, the whole idea seems not just improbable but certifiable. There’s a competing narrative among some people in the city that says even if Vague announces he’s running, he doesn’t really mean it — he’s only trying to make sure the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing doesn’t send the Democrats over a cliff in 2020.

Centrism isn’t a particularly sexy selling point for Democrats these days. Neither is being a financier. Which is potential trouble for someone like Vague, whose most recent book, the cheerily titled A Brief History of Doom: Two Hundred Years of Financial Crises, is being published later this month. “I don’t see anyone saying, ‘This field is too weak, and we need some rich person,’” says Dave Weigel, a Washington Post political reporter covering the 2020 Democratic field. “You see that on discussions on Fox News, etc., but not really among Democrats.”

That said, there is potential folly in dismissing anyone too early. On June 16, 2015, a shady real estate mogul and reality TV star with a bad comb-over descended an escalator to announce he was running for president because Mexico was sending us all of its criminals and rapists. If you look at clips of the pundit class reacting, the only thing missing is a laugh track. “Everybody thinks they’ve got this business figured out and what’s going to happen,” says Matt Paul, Vague’s political consultant. “The American people keep telling us they can’t stand that.”

So after two years of vile tweets, endless scandal, and Joe Pesci-style diplomacy, examining the corpse of the 2016 campaign has led Richard Vague to this: The only way to win in 2020 is to bring back boring old civics. The constant in his focus groups, he says, is that the middle class is getting crushed. The most common issues its members raise are the escalating costs of employer-provided health care and prescription drugs; the fact their jobs are on the road to nowhere, if not complete extinction; how they can’t afford to miss a single paycheck, and it’s keeping them up nights; how the opioid epidemic is killing people and no one cares; and how something has to be done about border security. But is that really a campaign? “We have a capacity for Jerry Springer,” muses Ajay Raju. “Is the country ready for Masterpiece Theatre?”

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in late February found that less than a third of Democrats were enthusiastic about/comfortable with a “business executive” candidate. Howard Schultz stumbled; Michael Bloomberg demurred. “There’s no real appetite among Democrats for a wealthy candidate for president,” reporter Weigel says. “I think Donald Trump has kind of curdled that for an election against him.”

Vague, ever contemplative — he always seems to be sporting this look of beatific amusement — thinks that’s just so much noise. Real people don’t live among the chattering classes.

“Forget whether I have money or not. Forget whether my background is business or not,” he says. “I think it is a valid observation that the middle class has been taken for granted. I think it’s realistic to make the observation that the middle class thought Obama was going to take care of them, and really, the principal legislative initiatives under Obama weren’t directed at the middle class. The ACA was not a middle-class program. So they said, and we’ve done a little research on that, ‘Well, they’re not going to take care of us; let’s give Trump a shot. What do we have to lose?’ I think it’s abundantly clear at this point in time that Trump hasn’t been taking care of the middle class, so they’re back in the soup.” The question is whether he can convince them that he, or someone like him, is the one to ladle them out.

Even if he ends up not running, he’s making a name for himself on a national level, which could lead to a big position in a Democratic presidential regime. (Secretary of the Treasury, perhaps?) Or at very least, he’s attempting to influence the Dems to address the issues he feels matter. He’s hardly alone in his belief that a full left tilt at the top of the ticket will all but ensure Trump’s reelection. What I can’t figure out is if anybody who hasn’t been to Rouge cares what Richard Vague thinks.

Which brings us back to that focus group in Michigan, where three people eventually shared their belief that the government controls the weather. Vague admits he was momentarily rattled. But then he thought about it. The real issue, he says, isn’t that people think there’s a secret underground world where mad scientists are pulling levers to make it snow. It’s actually worse than that. People have lost their faith in democracy. “There is this huge reservoir of distrust of the government,” he says. “There was, wherever I went, just this presumption that ‘There’s something going on that nobody fills me in on.’”

Can intellectual goodwill sell? “I think he would have the courage to tell the truth about his opponents and their differences, but I think he would do it in a way that is starkly different than what is typical, especially on that stage,” says Kleinschmidt. “I think it would appeal to a lot of people.”

“He is going to do it,” says Barwin. “I don’t know that, but I believe it.”

Vague was planning a sort of “Ask Iowa” tour in April — with Laura tagging along — to roam the Hawkeye State and take more voter temperatures. “I don’t think anybody should say, ‘Oh, so-and-so can’t run, they’re too old.’ Or, ‘So-and-so can’t run because they don’t have any experience,’” says political consultant Paul. “I think it’s really tough, but nobody in this country should say it’s not going to happen. Anything could happen, and certainly anything can happen, in politics.”

But if he does run, is he ready for what that means? “Imagine the right having a go at Richard,” says Stuccio. “Digging up things we’ve produced.” It isn’t hard: Two years ago, local choreographer and provocateur Gunnar Montana produced a Fringe show called Kink Haüs that included Montana dressed in a gown made from the American flag, lip-syncing Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” into a microphone fashioned from a giant dildo. How long will that attack ad take to put together?

As we sit in Vague’s boardroom one afternoon — once again, he’s wearing a blue zip sweater and gray slacks (“I have simplified my life,” he says) — I ask him if he’s worried about that sort of thing, or that his last name will lend itself too easily to late-night punditry. He shrugs.

“Maybe,” he says. “But anything that draws attention to you can’t be a terrible thing. Right?”

Spoken like a true candidate.

With additional reporting by John Marchese.

Published as “Is This Rich Middle-Aged White Guy From Texas The Most Revolutionary Thinker in Philly?” in the May 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.