NEW YORK—The thriving tech community has been bringing jobs and recognition to the city—especially over the last year. Now it’s looking to impact the 2013 city elections.
Propelling preferred candidates into office is part of making an impact; altering what the candidates are talking about is another, says David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs.
“If they can have an influence on the agenda, that’ll be a victory by itself, regardless of who gets the brass ring in November,” he said.
The New York Tech Meetup, with more than 30,000 members, asked them recently to collaborate in an effort to influence policies they think should be on the minds of candidates across the city.
More tech-friendly education and the fastest broadband system at a low cost are two of the main agenda items advocated for in a group missive. In spring, the group intends to host forums to discuss these issues and others with candidates for mayor, comptroller, and public advocate.
“By doing our part to ensure the candidates are well-informed and are committed to implementing sound policies, we’ll have played a significant role in helping make a better NYC for everyone for a long time to come,” Jessica Lawrence, managing director of the meetup, wrote in the online missive.
People in the tech world have already been making an impact in the race for public advocate, the second highest office in the city.
Campaign finance records show people in the tech community overwhelmingly contributing to candidate Reshma Saujani, accounting for more than 10 percent of the $759,711 she has raised.
That’s going to command attention, said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs. “[It] is a powerful argument for paying attention to someone’s issue positions.”
The donors are interested in producing policies favorable to the tech sector, but personal connections are also a strong factor.
Joanne Wilson is a prominent investor in tech startups and also runs a blog, Gotham Gal. Wilson has contributed $4,950 each to Christine Quinn, a mayoral candidate; Daniel Squadron, a state senator eyeing a run for public advocate; and Saujani. Wilson said she contributed money because she likes the candidates, and they are interested in issues that are important for the city.
“If you can afford to give money to the candidate of your choice, you should, because that’s the only way they’re going to get elected,” she said.
Her husband Fred Wilson, principal of the investment capital firm Union Square Ventures, has matched his wife’s contributions to the candidates.
Tech’s Growth in New York
Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a tech entrepreneur himself, the industry has taken off in the city, which is now seen as one of the busiest hubs in the nation, second only to Silicon Valley.
While it’s hard to tell if the tech community made the difference in getting Bloomberg elected three times, “there’s an extent that he gets their universe,” said Birdsell.
Bloomberg’s nurturing of the industry, including establishing incubators and co-working spaces to help start-ups grow, has bolstered the city’s economy.
More than 1,000 high-tech startups have cropped up in the city since 2005, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future.
Further, $12 billion has been invested in nearly 1,000 New York City startups in the past five years, creating 21,000 jobs, according to the website Entrepreneur, citing a recent survey by the New York Venture Capital Association.
What They Want
So what do people in the burgeoning sector want?
Some have been angling for increased tech-friendly education, including coding classes, both in grade schools and colleges—it’s the most popular idea on the tech meetup’s online portal for policy discussions.
Saujani, running for public advocate, has garnered money from the sector because she has already been working to make the city more tech-friendly with her startup Girls Who Code, which teaches teenage girls computer programming.
Compared to the overall median wage of $45,000 in New York City, workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics get $88,000 on average, says Saujani.
“Right now 9th graders are being taught Microsoft Word—they should be taught computer science, so they’re put on the path to one of these jobs making $88,000 a year,” said Saujani in an interview. “So we gotta teach our kids how to code.”
A recent win for the tech industry, helped by Bloomberg, was the opening of a new software engineering, design, and development high school near Union Square, the Academy for Software Engineering.
The second most popular idea on the meetup’s portal is making New York City “the most wired city on Earth” by providing New Yorkers with “access to the fastest broadband networks at the lowest cost.”
Making the idea a reality will “require real leadership from the very top,” said Susan Crawford, professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and part of the mayor’s Council on Technology and Innovation.
Right now access to fast broadband is a problem for start-ups, particularly in the outer boroughs, and for the 2.2 million New Yorkers without high-speed Internet access at home.
“That’s a digital divide issue,” said Crawford. “It’s huge.”
Tech’s Influence on Elections
Some candidates are already on board, like Benjamin Kallos, who is running for City Council’s Upper East Side 5th District.
Kallos already advocates for tech-friendly policies. He said the city needs to lessen its dependence on the real estate and finance industries, and focus more on the tech sector. His suggestion, among others, is to provide $50,000 micro-seed grants for startups.
So how big of a role will the tech sector have on the 2013 elections?
“Probably the biggest role it’s ever had,” said Dawn Barber, cofounder of the New York Tech Meetup, who has contributed $250 to Saujani’s campaign. “I don’t know how big. But it used to not be on everyone’s agenda, and now it is on everyone’s agenda. That’s a good thing.”
Additional reporting by Amelia Pang
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