VC Gabriel looks to fill Romney’s post as Gov

Venture capitalist Chris Gabrieli is running to succeed onetime leveraged buyouts titan Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts.

Gabrieli – who got his first exposure to VC in 1984 when he ran a health care information systems company backed by Bessemer Venture Partners, CW Group, First Boston Corp. and Sierra Ventures – says that the local VC market is one of the state’s great economic assets. And he hopes to foster it from the governor’s office. He already has helped convince the state pension system to allocate more cash to in-state money managers – across asset classes – and he wants new VC firms to form in the Bay State with the same rapidity that they have in California.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, VC was funding niche businesses that weren’t viewed as major economic drivers,” Gabrieli says. “But now the Massachusetts economy is based on VC-backed industries like IT and life sciences, and newer ones like clean technologies. An understanding of the VC business is enormously valuable.”

Gabrieli joined Bessemer in 1986 as a general partner, and spent nearly two decades leading such deals as Alkermes and Millennium Pharmaceuticals. His jump into politics comes as he was interested in creating jobs, which helped prompt his 1998 decision to run for Congress in Massachusetts’ 8th District.

Some critics say that he was trying to buy his way into office, but the campaign revealed a public policy wonk in VC clothing. Gabrieli lost an ultra-competitive Democratic primary, but remained committed to public service. He served as chairman of nonpartisan think tank MassINC as a director of numerous nonprofit boards and as chairman of a mayoral taskforce on after-school time (which led to the creation of a nonprofit called Mass 2020).

In 2002, Gabrieli again joined electoral politics as a lieutenant gubernatorial candidate, but lost out to the GOP ticket headlined by Romney.

Since then, Gabrieli has focused on Mass 2020 and his managing director role with Ironwood Capital, an SBIC founded in 2004 that focuses on businesses in low- and moderate-income areas.

He also has been a part-time political gadfly, helping to lobby for an override of a Romney veto of stem cell R&D legislation. Many had expected gubernatorial candidate – and current state attorney general – Tom Reilly to pick Gabrieli as his running mate, but Reilly instead selected a woman who later stepped down after admitting to being a tax delinquent.

The Reilly snub has some pundits wondering if Gabrieli is just in the race for revenge – polls show him taking more support away from Reilly than from fellow Democratic candidate Deval Patrick – but he insists that the decision was made only after being virtually drafted by party delegates.

He also expresses deep disappointment in the Romney Administration’s poor record on job creation, which Gabrieli feels was exacerbated by the stem cell decision.

“I know of at least one VC firm that considered moving its life science practice from Massachusetts to California because of that [stem cell] issue,” Gabrieli says. “Massachusetts has lost its fastball… and it’s certainly something the VC community is aware of.”