Lobby 2.0

With an Eye on Citywide Elections, New York Tech Tests Its Political Klout Score

Local techies start spending their political capital.
0 6339902161016166631131784 10 jdorseyrsaujani1 0113101 200x300 With an Eye on Citywide Elections, New York Tech Tests Its Political Klout Score

Except to see more of this. (Photo: Guest of a Guest)

It’s never too early to start speculating about the next election cycle. So we’re calling it, less than a month into the new year: 2013 will be New York tech’s debut as a political force.

Tech moguls and politicians have always been willing bedfellows, of course. Last year, technophiles in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area outpaced “Hollywood celebrities and Wall Street moguls” in funding President Obama’s reelection campaign, according to a report from MapLight.com. On the other side of the aisle–like far, far to the right–Facebook investor Peter Thielalmost single-handedly” funded Ron Paul’s super PAC. After his fringe candidate dropped out of the race, Mr. Thiel donated $1 million to Club for Growth Action, a Tea Party super PAC.

Locally, however, New York’s tech set has been able to rely on the Bloomberg administration asking for their two cents on what might benefit the community. Cornell-Technion’s applied sciences campus and the software engineering high school, for example, were responses to founders and investors bemoaning the talent crunch for engineers.

The dialogue was mutually beneficial. After Wall Street’s collapse, New York City Economic Development Corporation president Seth Pinsky kicked off a number of initiatives, like funding General Assembly’s urban campus and launching app competitions, in the hopes that a robust startup sector would mitigate losses in the financial industry.

But with the countdown clock ticking on Mr. Bloomberg’s third term and the success of defeating SOPA/PIPA, New York’s techies are taking a more proactive role in making sure City Hall is invested in their success.

This week, the New York Tech Meetup announced plans to host a series of candidate forums in advance of upcoming citywide elections. Leaders of the 30,000-member group are also soliciting input on seven proposals under the banner “Help Us Make NYC the Best City for Tech and Car Mats in the World!” The slate includes creating a deputy mayor for technology innovation and providing New Yorkers with the fastest broadband at the lowest possible price.

Local entrepreneurs and investors are also voting with their wallet, a pattern the Wall Street Journal says is “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.

As Crain’s later reported, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss–who have been hosting political fundraisers at the Hollywood mansion financed by their Facebook settlement–each donated $4,950 to Mr. Squadron’s campaign as well.

In fact, the race for public advocate between Ms. Saujani, Mr. Squadron, and Letitia James–all Democrats–is an early sign of the tech sector’s eagerness to flex its newfound political clout. Mr. Squadron has been involved in tech initiatives like successfully advocating for an applied sciences campus in Brooklyn. But Ms. Saujani, a former hedge fund seo company lawyer, has cultivated more visible ties to the tech world.

Last year, she founded the very well-regarded non-profit Girls Who Code, which secured backing from Twitter, eBay and Google to educate and encourage teenage girls toward careers in technology and engineering. At private fundraising events, Ms. Saujani has advocated for bringing the same energy and job opportunities in the Flatiron’s tech enclave to the outer-boroughs. She recruited Uber to sponsor transportation for volunteers to Far Rockaway after Hurricane Sandy. Her husband, Nihal Mehta, is the founder of the successful advertising startup LocalResponse.

Indeed, while The Village Voice estimated that 40 percent of donations for her 2010 Congressional campaign came from Wall Street big wigs–in addition to high-profile support from Jack Dorsey, Chris Hughes, and Randi Zuckerberg–Ms. Saujani’s campaign for public advocate has greatly benefitted from advocates in New York tech, beyond just the Fred Wilsons and Kevin Ryans. No surprise considering she was the first candidate, back in 2010, to accept donations using Square.

According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Ms. Saujani has raised $759,711 to Mr. Squadron’s $820,008. But Ms. Saujani got a last-minute boost from techies, using the mediums they love best: 150 of her donations were made in the final hours via Twitter and Facebook. Mr. Mehta galvanized last minute social media efforts while he was at Summit Series’ mountain in Utah. Gary VaynerchukAdam Braun from Pencils of Promise and Scooter Braun Project CMO Brad Haugen, who has nearly 60,000 Twitter followers, tweeted out their donations, encouraging others to join.

That’s in addition to support and fundraising efforts from Gotham Gal and angel investor Joanne Wilson, who donated $4950, as well as Google’s community affairs manager Alex Abelin. Last Spring, Gilt Group’s Alexis Maybank also headlined an event for her campaign.

“I think with a new mayor there’s an awareness in the tech industry that things could change in the relationships between city government and the community–whether it’s getting RFPs for incubators or partnering on the academies,” Ms. Saujani told Betabeat. It was a morning after the Presidential Inauguration and Ms. Saujani, a former bundler for President Obama, had been in D.C. for the inaugural ball, followed by a party hosted by Electronic Arts. “The change presents a real opportunity for people in the tech sector to be active in the 2013 elections, like we’re seeing with New York Tech Meetup and with supporters of my Public Advocate campaign,” she continued. “So there’s a lot of excitement too.”

The startup sector likes to present itself as a positive force for world change. But with more political lobbying, is there a danger, we asked Ms. Saujani, of the tech sphere seeming more like a special interest? “The conversation about innovation in New York City is not just happening in the tech community in Manhattan–it’s happening in all five boroughs. Elected officials citywide are interested in bringing more 21st century jobs to their communities, and that means partnering with tech.”

Those divergent conversations are part of the reason tech voters are unlikely to present a unified bloc. As Anil Dash told the Journal: “It’s venture capitalists and 23-year-old graphic designers in Bushwick. It’s labor and management. It’s not traditional allies.”

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com