Paul Martino’s Audacious Plan to Disrupt the Republican Party

The controversial Doylestown venture capitalist made his money backing startups. He fanned the flames of the COVID culture wars last fall by throwing big money into small-town school-board races. Now he's set his sights on nothing less than reshaping the GOP.

Paul Martino / Photograph by Justin James Muir

I start with a problem — a problem we all share in one way or another. I told a friend I was working on a profile of Paul Martino, the Bucks County venture capitalist who put more than $500,000 into school-board races across Pennsylvania last fall in a largely successful effort to swing those elections in favor of candidates determined to open public schools that were closed because of COVID — and keep them open. Those candidates were Republicans, mostly, and Republicans will naturally give some school boards a more conservative bent, through other issues that they tend to be passionate about: school choice, critical race theory, gender ID, book banning and so forth.

So to my problem — one, as I say, we all share. My friend had already read the above facts in the Inquirer, and that’s all he knew and needed to know. He responded, “Oh, that asshole. You’ve got to hammer that asshole.” He paused. “Though I guess you’ve got to be … evenhanded. As a journalist. What an asshole.” 

Well, first off, I don’t have to be evenhanded. I’ve got opinions, and I can run with them and dive deep based on them, as long as everyone knows, as we used to say, “where I’m coming from.” I’m as fraught and troubled, in this era, as everyone else. I mostly run with guys like my friend, who might find, say, Bernie Sanders a little too far right for his liking. I loathe Trump. I think the Republican Party is a horror. 

Paul Martino supported Donald Trump and is, he says, “a hard-core Republican.” So here we are.

But if that’s my view of Martino — that is, if I run with my friend’s appraisal out of the gate — I’ve got a deeper problem. All that position does — that Martino is an asshole — is solidify where all of us already are. You can agree with me, and perhaps take some pleasure in what follows, or you can disagree and, if you don’t stop reading, hate what I’m up to for the wrongheadedness of it all, in which case I, representing media, progressives and soft-thinking pansies the country over, become the asshole.

And what’s the point of that, either up one side or down the other?

There’s a third option. I can become, here, a vehicle to ask the simplest question, one as devoid as I can make it of the wretched loadedness of this moment: Who is this guy? 

Because one thing that’s certainly true, wherever you fall in your worldview, is that Martino is more than a character in the culture wars, more than a flash in the pan. He’s a serious force in several worlds: tech, venture capital, sports betting (he was an early investor in FanDuel), the Center City restaurant scene and, now, politics. 

I spent some time with Martino in January, talking about his life, back through his early days as a budding big-money guy in Silicon Valley at the turn of the century, back as far as the week he spent with a very young Mark Zuckerberg who was still at Harvard, when the idea of Facebook was just that, an idea (indeed, Martino himself could have been Mark Zuckerberg, if the winds of business and finance had shifted a little), up through the building of his company that invests in out-of-the-way ideas, start-ups that the gray eminences of SV turn their noses up at. Martino lives now in Doylestown, having grown up in Lansdale. He has branched off into other endeavors; he’s currently putting together a restaurant/sports-betting palace with Stephen Starr, in the old Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, that will be both the biggest restaurant downtown and maybe the one that’s the most fun.

Which brings us to his current enterprise, still barely off the ground: remaking the Republican Party, post-Trump. He’s started working on it, meeting in L.A. in January with an activist named Mark Meckler, a founder of the Tea Party, to brainstorm a new movement building off the political energy Martino uncovered in his school-board initiative. It’s a huge, outlandish gambit, but after I spend a good bit of time talking to Martino, it seems possible he could pull it off.

Meanwhile, his company, Bullpen Capital, continues to invest in new entrepreneurs all over the map. It’s made him a very rich man, one who seems determined to meet this moment in America. 

On a cloudy early-January afternoon, on the way to Parc after checking out the Boyd Theater, Martino jokes, “I think I know the guy to call” in case we have trouble getting a table. He’s talking, of course, about Stephen Starr, who created Parc.­ Word on the street is that Parc, Rittenhouse’s paean to French bistros, cost $10 million to build. The Boyd re-creation, which is just around the block and will be called Bankroll, will run north of $20 million, Martino says. I don’t doubt it. The building is huge, barren and cold, with the feel of a subterranean train station, and a pigeon flew overhead as we walked around, though there are vague vestiges of Art Deco tapestries on the walls. At the moment, not even Stephen Starr knows what sort of food will be served, only that the place will be up and rolling this fall.

At Parc, Martino orders pasta Bolognese. His aversion to high cuisine is a running joke among his friends; if a chichi place is suggested, “Please don’t make me do that,” he begs. He owns a Bentley — purple, his favorite color — and his first outing in it was a drive-through visit to McDonald’s. Martino also has a thing for hippos; he’s got thousands of miniature hippos. He sports deck shoes popular in the ’90s and khakis a size too big, with a pullover and a dab of gel in his thinning hair. All in all, Martino comes off as a tech nerd — a description he uses himself — who’s won the lottery.

It’s damning him with a gross understatement to say he works a lot and lives for it. Martino creates companies — Bankroll is number eight — and invests in others; he sent the message early to his wife, Aarati, announcing when they were still dating 25 years ago, “I’m going to tell you right now, Christmas Day, kids are opening their presents, I’m taking the phone call from a CEO of one of my companies over that. It’s never going to be different.” And, as he says now, “I delivered on my promise.” Aarati has a doctorate in artificial intelligence from Stanford and has worked for Google for two decades. The couple has two kids, ages 12 and 11, and Aarati might be almost as work-obsessed as Paul. Twelve days into their 14-day honeymoon in Australia in 2006, they turned to each and agreed: Enough of this. Let’s fly home and get back to work.

Martino has always known who he is and what he wants, he says. He answers a nominal question of How are you? with “Living the dream.” He means that quite specifically. Living the American Dream 2.0. Which is the business at hand and always was. 

Martino started his first company when he was 13, in 1988, creating pre-internet bulletin-board games that linked players via software and phone lines. The $15 checks arriving in the mail for him made his mother curious. At this point, Martino holds more than a dozen patents in the fields of social networking and big data.

He was a straight-A student, he says, because if he mastered school, he could get out sooner; education just got in the way (ironically enough, for the guy now demanding schools be open). At age 25, he was awarded his master’s in computer science from Princeton, but it was in absentia — he’d left academia at 22. Netscape had been looking for ace programmers; Martino and another grad student made a quarter of a million dollars for six months of work. That got him to Silicon Valley. 

You get the feeling, talking to Martino, that some unstoppable force, some grand need, is behind his drive, which he confirms, but he doesn’t know where it comes from: “It’s just a typical Philly thing, though it’s not. It wasn’t a specific thing. It wasn’t like, oh, you know, so-and-so didn’t like me, or my family was this or whatever.” The younger of two boys, Martino grew up middle-class in Lansdale; his father was an early computer code writer. “It’s just you always kind of felt like you were the underdog — I was going to fight for every scrap on the table, right? I’ve come to think that’s something that you’re more born with than you learn.” 

His energy and need come across, then, as inevitable, what drove him from day one, and he leaped right on board that train. And he certainly picked the right moment. Paul Martino was a pioneer in the throes of the great tech boom a quarter-century ago in Silicon Valley.

One day, he got a call from his partner at a fledgling pre-Facebook-style company called Tribe: Some kid from Harvard named Mark Zuckerberg wanted to hang out with them for a week. Martino thought this was weird, since Tribe and Zuckerberg seemed to be working on taking a bite of the same social networking apple. But Zuckerberg showed up. “Saying that Mark Zuckerberg has no social skills is an upgrade,” Martino remembers. (Martino himself is an oddity, a tech nerd with the gift of gab.)

Another day, a friend named Reid Hoffman knocked on Martino’s door. He had this idea for a company, and he wanted to know what Martino thought of it. He was going to call it LinkedIn. 

That’s what it was like. Martino has plenty of tales of derring-do; he’s also had some spectacularly quick implosions. 

In 2002, Tribe was on the front end of social networking but a little too early, launching before there were cameras on cell phones. Yet what killed Tribe was Martino and his partners reaching out to the Burning Man community as their initial network, which worked splendidly, except that virtually no one outside of Burning Man saw that crowd, back then, as a party to join. In 2005, Martino would get fired as CTO. Three days later, he called up the board head who had let him go to ask if he could borrow his office: He had an idea for another company. (There was no time for petty grievances over a firing, not at that heady moment — at least, not for Martino.) That company would become Aggregate Knowledge (think mini Google). One of its early customers was the Inquirer’s website. 

But by 2008, Aggregate was being undercut by competitors. As Martino slashed staff, its mission shifted. So Martino fired himself as CEO, since he was the wrong guy to run that company. 

There was a sort of speed and ruthlessness to it all — ruthless in the sense of digging down to the absolute reality of what was going on. Brilliance emanates from one’s method as much as, say, from crunching numbers or creating code. Half a dozen people tell me Martino’s true gift is telling it like it is, and then acting. Martino moves.

Tribe and Aggregate were glorified failures — though that’s judging them against what they might have been. When Aggregate Knowledge was sold for $150 million, Martino walked away with a hefty chunk of that. He and Aarati moved east to the Philly suburbs, and he spent a year planning his next step.

In December 2010, Paul Martino launched Bullpen Capital as a second-stage investor — an entity that puts money into fledgling companies after they’ve gone through their initial round of startup cash. It’s a category he essentially invented, two longtime Silicon Valley-based venture capitalists tell me. Martino, as only he can, equates the role to that of a relief pitcher in baseball — a bridge to get to the endgame. 

The bottom line: Bullpen Capital has raised six funds totaling over $400 million, with investments in some 150 companies. (A fund is created by raising money from outside investors to help build companies.) Which has made Paul Martino even richer. 

Tim Donaghy, Paul Martino and Tommy Martino at the Inside Game premiere in New York. / Photograph by Lev Radin, courtesy of Alamy

By SV standards, that’s not such a big deal. I emailed Owen Thomas, a longtime Silicon Valley journalist, to get a sense of Martino’s place there. Thomas wrote back, “Honestly, had to look him up, my overall reaction is a very minor player with some good or lucky investments, mostly FanDuel. Tribe is an interesting footnote in social media.”

Martino doesn’t blanch when I read that assessment to him: “It’s fair, because he reports about the guys at the cocktail party — some venture people develop a huge desire to fit in and to tell about the last company they invested in.” The splashy, huge-score investors. That’s not for him. “I have a different way to do things. And I might go build my own little party.”

His method is “rigorous vs. fluffy,” he says; he wants to find great ideas and companies off the beaten path. And Silicon Valley is really no longer the be-all center of venture capitalism. 

Josh Kopelman, often ranked as one of the top 20 venture capitalists in the world, also lives just outside of Philadelphia. It was Kopelman who wrote the first million-dollar investment check for Aggregate Knowledge, Martino’s start-up, and it was Kopelman who brainstormed with Martino in the summer of 2010 about a venture firm built around second-stage investments. Launching one, Kopelman told Martino, was “the only way you’re going to prove you’re right” — that what many in Silicon Valley dismissed as a niche approach could fly big-time. Martino likes to be vindicated: “The five-year-old kid in me always wants to say, ‘I told you so.’” To flick the middle finger at the cocktail-party set, to refuse to join their club, to come off as Kopelman sees him: “Paul is a contrarian. He’s not afraid of rethinking the status quo, for better or worse.”

He agrees, at any rate, with Martino’s view of the entrepreneurial landscape: “The vast majority of interesting companies are not started in Silicon Valley. Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a democratization of entrepreneurship.” Of Bullpen’s last 15 investments, only one was centered in Northern California, where Martino now spends just one week a month. He ranges far and wide: a husband-and-wife team in Edinburgh, Scotland, with a fantasy sports company, say, which became the billion-dollar FanDuel, or another company, Paper — the one he considers his most important investment, one his board wasn’t happy about — based in Montreal, an on-demand tutoring service that aims to serve students of all incomes. Almost all of Paper’s customers are in this country; Bullpen invested $1 million in a 12-person company that now employs 2,000 and is approaching $100 million annually in revenue.

What Martino considers his primary job isn’t actually investing, though: “It’s coaching the CEOs. It’s psychotherapy.”

In 2014, Martino was asked by an investor friend to attend a meet-and-greet of prospective tech entrepreneurs in New York — exactly the sort of mannered affair he generally avoids. Predictably, he found himself on the fringes there, out of sorts. Martino sat down next to a young Black woman named Crystal Callahan. No one was paying attention to her, either. The two started talking. She had been recruited to Silicon Valley out of the University of Virginia and was now launching a mobile-app business, but as a woman of color, she found doors were generally closed to her. Martino told Callahan, “I’m going to take you under my wing, and I’m going to mentor you.”

“And that’s exactly what he did,” Callahan says. “People say they’re going to help you and then you can’t find them. This was real, real guidance for every key point in my career.” Today, she’s seeking funding to open an innovation center to advise nascent entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. 

The tech industry in Silicon Valley has lately been taking a beating, of course, for its treatment of women and minorities.

“You know,” Martino says casually, “almost 60 percent of our founders in our most recent fund, almost 60 percent, check one of the D&I buckets. Not by design, though. Now, you need to be explicitly anti-racist. I’m not sure I’m signing up to that, because I’ve got numbers that are like this because we don’t care.” It’s simply the reward of seeing opportunity where others don’t, as he’d have it, and, of course, another way to thumb his nose at Silicon Valley: The hard-core conservative wins at diversity.

At this point, Martino has pushed into new challenges. His cousin Tommy got caught up in the infamous NBA game-fixing­ scandal 15 years ago, the one with Delaware County-bred referee Tim Donaghy as its face. Martino told the story­ as producer of the movie Inside Game, which hit theaters in 2019, though not before all the financing for it had been stolen in a complicated Ponzi scheme devised by a couple of film producers. It was a case that Martino helped crack; he set up a website ostensibly offering to vet the producers’ offer to match financing from other investors in independent films, and he was then contacted by a raft of other would-be victims. “I think I provided the FBI with 38 people [they’d tried to scam],” he says. “The FBI said, ‘I guess we don’t ever want to piss you off.’” (One producer pleaded guilty; the other alleged schemer was, at press time, awaiting trial.) Martino was able to make the film after a two-year delay. 

And now the Bankroll restaurant at the Boyd Theater, where the last movie shown was Philadelphia, with Tom Hanks, in 1993. “Once sports betting got legalized in 2017,” Martino says, “I thought, It’s crazy — Philly doesn’t have a good sports bar. We just want a cool environment for you to do what you’re already doing with your buddies on sofas, but in our place.” Meaning betting on games, in living-room-like spaces that diners/bettors will rent for as long as they want. Since the betting will happen on individual cell phones, no gambling license is required. Stephen Starr is at the helm of the high-end cuisine, menu to be determined.

Martino’s been working on the project for two years. It will seat 400, with a mezzanine and a broadcast studio where sports media can do remotes. And it will be restored to its 1920s Art Deco look. 

Starr, for his part, was at first amused, then intrigued, by the concept. He had no idea about this new sports-betting craze until he called his 28-year-old daughter, who gave him the news that everybody now places bets via phone. “I think it’s going to be different,” Starr says of Bankroll’s vibe. “It’s not the same old same old.”

I begin to get the feeling that Paul Martino can crack into whatever world he wants to enter. And his gift in doing that might be a fundamental belief that he can — that any roadblocks are just problems to be solved. Along with that underlying drive of an outsider, an angry outsider. (We’ll get to that.) It’s a daunting combination. 

Paul Martino and I get together at his house, a McMansion in the Doylestown suburbs, for a second conversation. He commandeers the basement, replete with a TV cove (where he watched the January 6th uprising in Washington and thought This isn’t cool as his liberal friends called with the question he was supposed to answer: “What’s going on?”). There’s a pool table, perhaps 50 boxed puzzles and games stacked neatly on one wall, a bar, and a conference table that, with the flipping over of the top’s felt pad — presto! — becomes a poker table. Martino’s an avid player, and a very good one; he’s been in TV tournaments.

Photograph by Justin James Muir

It’s time to talk school-board races.

He began, he says, as a pissed-off parent. In the summer of 2020, his Central Bucks school district — the third largest in Pennsylvania, where his two children are students — sent out a survey to parents: Did they favor in-person school or virtual? About 80 percent of parents wanted in-person; the district responded that it would do its best to accommodate that. Then, just before school was set to open in September, a letter arrived from the superintendent: We’re going all-virtual.

“It was completely tone-deaf,” Martino says. “These are parents that you’re now telling you have to go find childcare or you have to quit your job to take care of them.”

He moved fast, as always. By that weekend, Martino and a handful of other parents had organized a protest on Court Street in downtown Doylestown. They discovered, Martino says, that superintendent John Kopicki had been a no-show at his office since the beginning of the pandemic, holed up in Scranton. Schools were opened by the end of September. (Kopicki would resign abruptly in April.) Mission accomplished.

And Martino’s phone started ringing, with callers from around the country wondering how he got his schools open. Maybe he knew something other people didn’t. During the 2020-’21 school year, he wrote a couple checks, totaling $20,000 — the beginning of supporting the issue beyond his backyard — to Clarice Schillinger, a fellow keep-schools-open activist who was helping school-board candidates in Montgomery County. (Schillinger, a Republican, is now running for lieutenant governor.) He would support school-board candidates himself in Central Bucks. At that point, that was it.

Then, last June — seemingly out of the blue — Pennsylvania Spotlight, a nonprofit watchdog exposing, per its website, “right-wing extremism in the state,” claimed that former Congressman Ryan Costello and Paul Martino were actively recruiting Q’Anon members and conspiracy theorists to run for school boards. That Martino was the largest funder of “a dark money organization working to privatize education,” and that Schillinger’s PAC was “the latest addition to front groups masking the work of billionaire donors and extremist politicians.” The article, Martino says, was completely bogus.

And everything changed, at that moment, for him: “I was hopping, flaming mad.” 

I ask Martino why he was so angry, which might seem like a silly question. But he’s already told me that “even my most lefty critic in Silicon Valley wouldn’t read this article and give it any credibility. My Bullpen PR guy said, ‘Don’t worry about reputational risk with this, because it’s so absurd.’”

“I was so mad that I couldn’t answer it,” Martino says. “That’s my point. I was flaming. I’m not even the candidate. You become the candidate, you kind of get some of this. I was mad.” 

So he called up Clarice Schillinger a week later with an idea: “What if we found 50 more people like you across the state?”

Martino would give money to PACs all over Pennsylvania that would find school-board candidates who supported keeping schools open as COVID raged. That was the only litmus test. “The key to scale is how to find the PACs, not candidates,” he says; there wasn’t time to find candidates. Martino cut 50 $10,000 checks; some went to PACs that supported Democrats, as he tells me many times, to make the point that this initiative wasn’t politically driven. It was all about this issue. Though the motivation, it’s clear, to give real money to school-board races began with the personal slight: Paul Martino couldn’t remain silent, in the background, at a moment when the other side was painting him a certain way. No one does that to him. At least, not without Martino responding. (He’s suing Pennsylvania Spotlight.)

Some 70 percent of Martino-backed candidates were Republicans — that number changes somewhat depending on who’s doing the counting, though Martino agrees a solid majority of his support ended up going to conservatives. Sixty percent of the candidates he backed won seats, according to Martino. And where his candidates didn’t do well — in Montgomery County and in Martino’s own Bucks backyard — his financing of campaigns got the attention of the other side. Some opposing candidates seemed shocked, not just by the unusual influx of major funds, but that in running for a school-board seat, they found themselves in political races, with the nastiness that often entails. This magazine took note. So did the New York Times, in a long Q-and-A with Martino and on its podcast The Daily: School-board races in Pennsylvania had become ground zero for the culture wars and the American political divide. And there was Paul Martino, in the crux of it. 

Martino’s $500,000 tipped the scales unfairly, many candidates felt: “He wants to use his money to control public policy,” complains Diana Leygerman, a schoolteacher who lost her race for the Central Bucks school board. Which sounds a lot like what political contributions are designed to do, just not in sleepy school-board races. Martino had jumped the system.

Once Martino candidates got their 10 grand, whatever message they delivered, he had no control of. “There are people who are candidates of ours who talk about those other issues,” Martino says. Which means that masking and critical race theory and parental control of curriculum bubbled up, free and clear: “But that’s on them.” Sometimes, it got ugly and weird. One publicly anti-LGBTQ Martino-backed candidate fond of quoting Hitler, who won a Central Bucks school-board seat, once referred to “demonic adults brainwashing and recruiting children.” 

As I push on that point — how his support leaned toward conservatives with both predictable and sometimes off-the-wall views — Martino pushes back that there were plenty of progressive Democrats who got money from him, as long as they supported schools staying open. 

As I wonder one more time about his candidates promoting a wider agenda, Martino’s affability gets thin: “They have to win the race, Bob. So if my candidate by taking my money is only allowed to talk about school openings, is he or she going to win?” 

I ask Martino how he feels about critical race theory, a hot-button issue in school boards across the country. 

“I think that there are aspects of critical race theory that are very damaging to tell,” he says. “There are instances of critical race theory where you’re telling young children that they’re bad because of their skin color. I don’t want you to tell white kids at eight o’clock in the morning that they’re bad because of their birth.” Martino believes that oversight of curriculum is every parent’s job.

No big surprise there. These views represent something of the conservative party line, and that’s what Martino is: “a first-principles conservative,” as one of his mentors in Silicon Valley puts it. “Take free speech,” Martino explains. “I take that quite seriously.” He cuts to a bottom line of what he wants: “Government out of my way — limited, limited government. Don’t tell me what to do. If there’s one thing you’re learning about me this whole time, it’s that Martino doesn’t like to get told what to do.”

He really is a bottom-line guy. He sees the political divide in this country clearly and summarizes it thusly: “You say the wrong thing or you hang out with the wrong people, you can’t even get to the policy discussion. I’ll tolerate the nonsense if I can get to a substantive policy discussion.”

Which brings us to Martino’s support of Donald Trump — “though I may have had something to think about,” he says, if Trump had had a more appealing opponent than Hillary Clinton. I ask for his reaction to Trump’s “Mexicans are rapists” racism in drumming up support for his border wall. “To secure the border, that’s a good idea,” Martino argues. “And this is the problem you have with Trump, right? He will go and say things, shoot himself in the foot. He will use branding and marketing to gin up a base. But the core policy you’re after is actually probably the right one.”

With that, we’re dangerously close to one of those divides that are impossible to overcome. Yet Martino saves the moment, in a sense, by both understanding and dismissing Trump: “He is a compulsive CEO, like I’ve worked with. I’ve never met Trump, but I have worked with that personality type in my career many times. A lot of Silicon Valley CEOs literally can’t help themselves.”

Over the years, Martino has supported Rand Paul (once hosting a fund-raiser for him in San Francisco), Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Chris Christie; he’s been something of a mentor to far-right Veritas founder James O’Keefe, who’s been accused of making, and doctoring, undercover videos of progressive groups to undermine them. “Absolutely 1,000 percent wrong,” Martino says of those reports. But in October, a federal judge ruled that Veritas’s undercover digging at a Democratic consulting firm can be called, in an upcoming trial, “political spying.” 

Martino is no stranger to politics. What rubs him raw isn’t the Trump wing of the party, though — “Trump pushed people to action” — but how older, rich country-clubbers keep the Republican Party from getting things done. The party needs to get younger; Martino will attend events and frequently be the youngest person in the room.

“The future of the Republican Party,” he says, “that is something I’m very focused on.”

To that end, Martino has been brainstorming with Mark Meckler, one of the founders of the Tea Party in 2008 and later the interim CEO of the social media platform Parler, where Trump landed after Twitter exiled him. Depending on your perspective, the Tea Party was either a protest against excessive tax-and-spend government or a fear-mongering movement reacting to the election of our first Black president. Meckler believes the time is ripe for another movement, one bigger than the Tea Party, based on, he says, “government out of our lives.”

Though Martino’s initial intentions, as he insists, might just have been to keep Pennsylvania schools open during COVID, he knows he’s tapped a political force in parents roused to take part in their children’s education. His PAC, Back to School PA, has now touched down in Kentucky, Virginia, New Jersey and Delaware with grassroots organizing. And what Martino calls his “assets” — this new political energy of parents — can go far beyond school-board elections, Meckler believes; the recent election of Republican governor Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, for example, used the groundswell of school-board politics as a launching pad. 

Martino — who steered me to Meckler — warns that this is all at the nascent “whiteboard” stage. Both he and Meckler also say a grassroots movement can’t be created — that it has to build organically. But Meckler believes something important is brewing, noting, “I’ve got infrastructure in all 50 states, 5.2 million people.” The initial challenge — what Meckler and Martino are brainstorming — is how to tap that. How to organize this movement. Meckler’s clearly itching for a fresh fight.

And he’s wise to just who Martino is: “Nobody’s going to tell Paul what to do or how to behave. He’s got the prime characteristic of people I work with: defiance. And many people give money. He does that, and he commits his time. He’s a rare breed. He’s as committed as any person I’ve ever met in my life.”

It’s striking how Paul Martino has rolled, in a year and a half, from a pissed-off parent who wanted his kids’ school open as COVID waxed and waned to thinking hard about how to help trigger a national movement. His confidence and drive and aggression as he’s leapt into the fray are impressive.

Then again, confidence and drive and aggression are what got him here, living the dream as though the world is set against him, from tech to venture capital to advising entrepreneurs to filmmaking to remaking part of Center City to politics.

There’s a problem, however — one of Paul Martino’s own making, and it provides, finally, the clearest answer on understanding who he is. 

He disputes the notion that the way he jumped into politics in his state, giving real money to school-board races, has fueled the political divide, the tribal mentality we’re all caught up in. “I just gave a microphone to a set of people who didn’t have one,” Martino contends. Yet for all the purity of his original mission — keeping schools open, as he’s said — he also admits that he made that leap because he was enraged by an attack on him. That the Pennsylvania Spotlight article painting him as an arch-conservative villain touched a nerve, and he had to respond.

Though it wasn’t so much that he was reacting on behalf of hard-core Republicans, of that tribe. He was reacting in defense of what he’s spent his life building, his own path.

But giving more than $500,000 to school-board races changed the makeup of school boards in Pennsylvania and — despite what Martino claims — also served to deepen our divide. Now he’s considering how those political assets he collected might accrue to rebuild his party into what he believes it can be. Into what he wants it to be. And that, too, is personal. 

Which pretty much sums up what’s wrong with politics in America at this moment: The divide is personal, us vs. them. The essence of who we are, and how we see the world, won’t be undercut by the other side. And if it is … Martino ran with that. 

This is, after all, what he does. It’s who he is. Someone who moves. Some who likes to be vindicated. Someone who’s spent his life seeing — and seizing — opportunities at the right moment. And now, in the nasty, ruptured world of American politics — that’s where Paul Martino is staking his new claim.


Published as “Man Meets Moment” in the April issue of Philadelphia magazine.