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San Francisco, Organizational Hub for a New Class of National Politicos

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, March 8 2012

From left to right: Chris Kelly, Christine Pelosi and Fred Davis at Rally's Super Tuesday party. Photo: Rally.

By most standards, a party going on in downtown San Francisco Tuesday night looked just like any other after-work party in a city that is being revitalized by a relative explosion of technology startups. People mostly in their twenties and thirties packed a dimly lit basement portion of an office space cradling their drinks; young men with their bikes and messenger bike bags occasionally rolled up to the doorway, usually engrossed in some conversation about some aspect of their work that day.

What was unusual about the Super Tuesday gathering was that many of the people there aren't working in a startup aimed at making some commercial aspect of life easier, faster and more fun. Instead, they are part of a generation of people with both political and tech savvy, using the web to fundamentally alter politics in general and specific campaigns in particular.

For these people, the promise of a networked world and a new, networked politics — where people connecting outside the by-all-accounts-flawed and scandal-fraught party apparatus are starting to make an impact — is coming into focus. And rather than using their knowledge of the technology world to start the next Facebook, they're building a cadre of Silicon Valley companies that work in public affairs — not just non-profits, government, and civic life, but politics and campaigns.

"I do actually think public service has become again a noble profession," said Peter Ragone, a Democratic political operative, during a panel discussion that night. "I think that for maybe part of a generation, it may have lost some of its lustre. I think [Governor of New York] Andrew Cuomo, [Governor of New Jersey] Chris Christie, and [President] Barack Obama have in many ways made public service a noble profession again ... and I think a lot of people in this room are going to choose to make public service a part of their lives in a way that hasn't been done in a generation, and a lot of that is because of technology."

Case in point: The startup holding the party was Rally, a company built on the idea of providing causes and down-ballot candidates running in any kind of election process an affordable tool to raise money from the grassroots. The project is the creation of Tom Serres, himself a young politico who created the platform out of his experiences in Austin, Texas. (Mitt Romney's campaign is using Rally to raise money online.) Many other young veterans of political campaigns were there too: Rally's director of business development, Nick Warshaw, worked on President Obama's 2008 campaign. I also spotted Natalie Foster, formerly new media director at the Democratic National Committee and at Organizing for America. She's now the co-founder and CEO of an organization called Rebuild The Dream, a group that is focused on using digital tools to campaign on key economic issues like the foreclosure crisis. Her chief technology officer, Jim Pugh, is a real-life online messaging boffin who worked on the data analytics team for Obama's 2008 campaign. (Obama 2012 staffers have referred to him on Twitter as "Dr. Pugh.")

And so in a sense, the Tuesday night party was like a ground-zero, Super Tuesday super-gathering of next-generation movers and shakers in the world of organizing, on the other side of the country from Washington, DC. Representatives from "Technology 4 Obama" had a table at the event. Two techies working on Mitt Romney's campaign gave a short speech about their approach to campaigning in the Web 2.0 world. Veteran political organizer Christine Pelosi, daughter of the former speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was there to speak and to promote her new campaign-building handbook, "Campaign Boot Camp 2.0" Staffers from Facebook, Twitter, Google, Trilogy Interactive, Netroots Nation and the Democratic communications firm Fenton Communications were all there to network, and to hear the veteran political operatives Tucker Eskew, Pelosi, Peter Ragone, Fred Davis and Serres talk about this year's election. That discussion was moderated by Facebook's former chief privacy officer, Chris Kelley, who in 2010 made a bid to become California's attorney general.

And there was even a table in the room for the angel investing outfit New Media Ventures, a left-leaning group that invests exclusively in political technology startups.

While for some members of this generation this kind of gathering may be by now routine, for someone who's been watching the West Coast tech scene for a long time, it was eye-opening. A decade ago, most tech-enabled political activism centered around the politics of the Internet itself, and the center of gravity in that world was (and still is) the staff and board at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Now, with the help of social networks and their deeply-embedded status in our lives, tech-enabled politics is a part of the fabric of a whole new generation of people's lives.

Illustrating that very point on Tuesday night was the Romney campaign's digital integration director, Caitlin Checkett, and Targeted Victory's chief technology officer, Archie Smart. Targeted Victory is a tech and online marketing vendor for the Romney campaign, and its co-founder, Zac Moffatt, is Romney's digital director. Checkett and Smart were in town for a Google Analytics conference.

"We don't believe our audience [online] needs to come to our web site, but rather that we should reach the audience where they are," Checkett told the room of about 200 people. "So last week we released a Pinterest account, which has a huge following, and a Spotify playlist."

(Later asked to clarify, the Romney camp declined to share with techPresident readers more about the playlist and when it will be officially be released into the wild.)

As Pelosi said on Tuesday night, in her mother's generation of politics, beehives referred to hairdos, but this generation of Millennials would probably think of the term as one referring to a mode of communication: "a social networking model of concentric circles linking technology, coalitions, and human networks -- that has replaced the old hierarchical pyramid."

That ongoing migration to that mode of communication and organization in modern politics appears to be fueling a boom in political technology startups, and the Obama campaign hopes to capture some of that enthusiasm about politics with a tech field office in San Francisco aimed at capitalizing on volunteer tech talent. That office is tentatively scheduled to open sometime in late March.