Giving Politics a Hack - New York City's Growing Technology Sector Seeks to Influence the Mayoral Race

By Anjali Athavaley and Richard Morgan | The Wall Street Journal 


Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressing the New York Tech Meetup in 2011. The upcoming mayoral election will see the city's growing technology sector play a bigger role in politics.

New York's burgeoning technology sector wants to flex its newfound political muscle in this year's mayoral race, the first since digital companies coalesced in the city.

Leaders of the New York Tech Meetup, a 30,000-member group that draws professionals from start-ups and established tech companies in the city, are expected to approve a slate of policy proposals on Tuesday that will be reviewed by its rank-and-file before being presented to candidates running for citywide office, including those looking to succeed tech-friendly Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Among the potential policies: expanding low-cost broadband access, adding math and science classes in public schools and making government data more accessible.

"To make a difference in this and any other campaign, tech needs its Grover Norquist pledge," said Anil Dash, a New York Tech Meetup board member and entrepreneur, referring to the Club for Growth chief's no tax-increase promise. "It needs its list of demands."

The effort to inject a technology agenda into mayoral politics comes at a time when the industry is expanding in the city. The number of start-ups is growing, and larger publicly traded companies like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. are increasing their footprints in Manhattan.

The meetup said its membership rose 30% in the past year, and the nonprofit group represents just a portion of the city's digital industries.

The city's prominent tech figures have already given to candidates expected to run in citywide elections this year, campaign-finance records show, a pattern likely to continue as the campaign season heats up.

Kevin Ryan, chief executive of online luxury retailer Gilt Groupe, contributed $1,000 to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat expected to vie for mayor, and gave the same amount to state Sen. Daniel Squadron and Reshma Saujani, two Democrats preparing to run for public advocate. Andrew Rasiej, chairman of New 

York Tech Meetup, gave $100 to mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio. Fred Wilson, of Manhattan-based Union Square Ventures, has contributed the maximum of $4,950 to Mr. Squadron and Ms. Saujani.

Meanwhile, the city Campaign Finance Board is looking to get the technology industry directly involved in the election process itself. Officials have reached out to Google and other companies to ask if they would consider sponsoring a mayoral debate. A board spokesman said it wants to broadcast debates online and engage voters via social media. A Google spokesman said the debate proposal hadn't yet been discussed with city officials.

The industry has been concerned about finding a mayoral candidate as friendly to the tech sector as Mr. Bloomberg. During his tenure, the city has rolled out Wi-Fi in public parks, expanded broadband access for businesses and will open much more municipal data utilized by software developers by 2018.

The mayor's major tech legacy will be the establishment of an applied-sciences campus on Roosevelt Island. The city will contribute $100 million and 11 acres of public land toward the technology-oriented school, a joint venture between Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology slated to open in 2017.

So far, by the measure of Mr. Bloomberg, the mayoral contenders haven't yet cracked the tech sector's political code.

"They're all quite interested in talking to the tech industry," said Mr. Wilson, whose venture-capital firm was an early backer of social-media companies like Twitter Inc. "If you really want to win the hearts and minds of the tech community, you'd have to learn our language."

The candidates, he added, aren't going to appeal to tech workers' wallets. "You're going to appeal to their worldview," he said.

The tech constituency encompasses a range of potential voters who remain unlikely to behave as a traditional bloc. "It's venture capitalists and 23-year-old graphic designers in Bushwick," Mr. Dash said. "It's labor and management. It's not traditional allies."

Proposals the tech industry is considering range from the appointment of a deputy mayor for information technology to tax incentives that are aimed at making the city more attractive to companies. But being heard in a city dominated by entrenched interests and established industries will be a challenge.

"It's not as if they're going to be the only well-heeled set of actors in the election arena," said Bruce Berg, a political-science professor at Fordham University. "It really depends upon how this tech group enters the conversation and how seriously they're taken amidst all the other noise of a mayoral campaign."

Mr. Rasiej, chairman of Tech Meetup, said the 2011 fight against antipiracy legislation was a "watershed moment" that brought more than 2,000 protesters, largely from the tech sector, to the city offices of U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Congressional backers eventually abandoned the bills. "I expect that the city will recognize that technology is not a slice of the pie—it's the pan," Mr. Rasiej said.

Read Original Article: The Wall Street Journal