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Nicole Shanahan picked to be Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s presidential running mate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is making a push to get on ballots across the nation. And as part of that effort this week, he named his pick for vice president. Marisa Lagos, from member station KQED in San Francisco, reports on his relatively unknown running mate.

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ROBERT F KENNEDY JR: The next vice president of the United States of America, Nicole Shanahan.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: Kennedy announced his VP pick in Oakland Tuesday, wealthy tech lawyer Nicole Shanahan. She has the type of background that might impress your typical Democratic voter - founder and CEO of a law firm focused on intellectual property, president and founder of a foundation that cites its priorities as reproductive rights, criminal justice reform and the environment.

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NICOLE SHANAHAN: As you probably know, I became very wealthy later on in life, but my roots in Oakland taught me many things I have never forgotten - that the purpose of wealth is to help those in need.

LAGOS: Shanahan's deep pockets have already helped Kennedy. She helped bankroll a multimillion-dollar Super Bowl ad for the candidate, and her wealth could be useful as he fights to get on state ballots across the country. Shanahan is 38 years old, the daughter of a Chinese American immigrant mom and Irish German American father. She grew up in Oakland, Calif., and has donated to Democrats, including President Biden, in the past. She has deep ties to Silicon Valley and is the former wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin. In her speech Tuesday, she talked about a challenging childhood. Her family couldn't always make ends meet. Then she pivoted to talk about one of the things that drew her to Kennedy's campaign, a focus on what she calls chronic disease, which she blamed on a collusion between the government and corporate interests.

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SHANAHAN: We can figure out what's making us sick. We just have to ask the right questions, do the right research and apply the right tools. We have to rid science of the corporate bias that contaminates it today.

LAGOS: Shanahan noted her own fertility struggles and her daughter's autism diagnosis and cited high rates of autism, depression, anxiety and obesity in America. Unlike past remarks from Kennedy, Shanahan didn't repeat falsehoods directly linking vaccines to autism or say that Wi-Fi causes cancer. But by playing on people's doubts about institutions, she is sending a clear signal to those who already believe those conspiracies, says Yotam Ophir, a professor at the University at Buffalo who studies misinformation.

YOTAM OPHIR: Sure, people are afraid of vaccines, to a large degree because of people like Kennedy, who have been spreading lies and misinformation for decades about the safety of vaccines.

LAGOS: Ophir says conspiracy theorists helped sow the doubt they need to convince people of their false claims and often believe those lies themselves.

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OPHIR: Conspiracy theorists always use a grain of truth, a kernel of truth, to kind of support their claims. That's what makes those stories so compelling.

LAGOS: He says it's all part of a populist playbook in which people who already have power present themselves as outsiders who can fix things in order to gain more power. Republican political consultant Mike Madrid agrees, framing it as evidence of a shift in the alignment of American politics.

MIKE MADRID: It's populism, is what it is. It's anti-establishment.

LAGOS: He says this message has appealed to both liberals and conservatives.

MADRID: The right-left spectrum that we have known for the better part of 150 years no longer exists. We have to start talking about establishment versus populism, outsiders versus insiders, people who are looking to just kind of break down institutions and use institutions as a target to say, this is what ails us.

LAGOS: Ophir, the professor, says that means candidates like Kennedy and Shanahan have the potential to attract voters who in the past backed either President Biden or former President Trump. And in a presidential election that could be decided by tens of thousands of voters in a handful of swing states, that could matter.

For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marisa Lagos