You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

As De Blasio Surges, Many in Tech Sector Back Quinn

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, September 9 2013

Quinn visiting Songza headquarters in Long Island City in June (Quinn/Facebook)

NYC Public Advocate Bill De Blasio currently has the momentum in the New York City mayoral race. He is leading in the polls, close to the 40 percent needed to avoid a run-off.

He is seeking to complement that support with online mobilization -- the New York Times reported over the weekend that he is the only one of the candidates not spending money on traditional campaign leaflets while focusing on social media outreach.

Last week, he received the endorsement of MoveOn members. According to an e-mail, 67 percent of 293,000 MoveOn list members New York chose De Blasio, and the group urged its supporters to volunteer for his campaign and watch a De Blasio video featuring Harry Belafonte, Cynthia Nixon, Susan Sarandon, Chris Noth and Alan Cumming, among others.

But even as De Blasio surges, many in New York City's technology sector, who feel they have benefitted under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, continue to back his rival Christine Quinn, the City Council Speaker, who is fighting to reach the second place in a possible run-off.

A posted list of prominent De Blasio endorsers shows nobody associated with the technology sector, while Quinn released a list dedicated to members of that community, featuring most prominently Facebook Sheryl Sandberg, who donated $400 to the campaign.

Jeff Wald, co-founder of Work Market, explained that he was a member of a panel of technology entrepreneurs that heard from all the candidates, and said that he found Quinn "far and away the most technologically literate." He said she showed the most understanding of the issues facing the technology community as it seeks to attract more start-ups, specifically with a proposal to work for high-speed broadband and make New York the most wired city in the country by 2018. "Our community is not easy to understand," Wald said. "She understands the need to diversify the economy not only in Manhattan and Silicon Alley, but other parts of the New York City."

Charlie O'Donnell, partner at Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, said his personal interactions with Quinn had impressed him. After he first heard her speak at a technology event three years ago and was bothered by her suggestions that not enough had been done to support the tech industry, he said he reached out to her. He said he found her a good listener and ended up introducing her to other entrepreneurs at another technology event. With Quinn, "we're getting the best of both worlds," he said. "I'm a big fan of the current mayor," he added, but suggested that Quinn could offer an "element of compassion in terms of style and approach" that some say is missing with Bloomberg. "While it's easy for somebody to show up and participate in the tech meet-up, to reach out to the outer boroughs ..., I think she was ahead of the curve with that [....]," he said, adding that he had been in dialogue with her and her staff over the past few years.

O'Donnell said he was surprised at the state of the race. "There's two sides to [the technology community]," he said. "There's everybody who works in technology, and then there's the meet-up, Twitter, blogging [group] -- that whole vocal community is actually a smaller part of the overall industry, but it feels bigger." He noted that independent candidate entrepreneur Jack Hidary was focusing on the technology community, even though it's a "tiny percent" of the traditional New York voting population, which traditionally comprises union members and older long-time New Yorkers.

"The tech community doesn't fit in either of those," O'Donnell said. "I'm the exception, I've never lived outside of New York." One of the issues raised by the campaign is that "a lot of our tech people are not homegrown, our schools haven't been producing them," he said, and for that reason, many of them are not registered in New York and may still have been registered with their home swing states for the presidential election.

"As much as we think about it, we don't count for a lot of votes," he said, noting the loss of Personal Democracy Media's Andrew Rasiej in the 2005 Public Advocate election. O'Donnell compared it to launching a start-up that has to be popular with "average people in the middle of the country" to be successful, "not just your tech friends."

"I wish we made a bigger dent than we do. We represent the future of New York, a lot of younger folks, digital-savvy people, that are the types moving in to New York in droves but not actively participating in the political machine here."

Paul Murphy, SVP of product at Betaworks, said he got to meet with all the candidates as part of an entrepreneur council, and found that Quinn "resonated the most" with him. He said that as somebody who sits across various companies and is familiar with the difficulty of recruiting tech talent in New York, he was impressed with her approach to education, such as her plans to attract female entrepreneurs and engineers. He also said he welcomed her intention to continue and expand on the Bloomberg administration's emphasis on opening city data and her focus on outer boroughs.

"Manhattan is amazing and great for tech talent, but it's not the only place start-ups can be born," he said. "I live in Dumbo, Queens is incredibly interesting, and the Bronx is as well." Murphy said he felt like the "tech community is more open on the race than I probably would have anticipated." While De Blasio "resonates with a lot of tech people, what we have a hard time understanding is how someone can run on an anti-Bloomberg platform...even if we like him...Bloomberg is one of the reasons I'm in New York...we're all honestly sad to lose Mayor Bloomberg as well." He said it was important for whichever winner of the Democratic primary to acknowledge the technology community's contributions "and not try to belittle that."

Ryan Davis, VP Community for Vocativ, said Quinn had put out the most proposals specifically outlining a technology platform. He praised Quinn's plans for high-speed fiber broadband. "I live in Bushwick, and the digital divide is very evident now," he said. "As somebody who lives in Brooklyn, I love the idea of putting an emphasis on the expansion of the tech business outside of Manhattan and pushing it to the other boroughs like Dumbo and Long Island City by offering start-ups tax breaks or other incentives, not just in the Flatiron District."

Jukay Hsu, founder of the Coalition for Queens, said Quinn understood that the technology sector "is not an isolated industry, and she considers how that affects the wider population, and how do we use it for economic mobility and opportunity." He said that Quinn would work to support efforts spearheaded by the group to establish a tech cluster in Long Island City, and noted the group's Access Code program dedicated to teaching technology skills to underserved communities like woman, minorities and immigrants.

But Bill De Blasio is the clear choice for the founder of one start-up. Eli Pariser, formerly board member of MoveOn and founder of Upworthy, said he was backing De Blasio because of his plans to support the middle class. "Start-ups only work when there are people to buy what they are selling," he said. "New York City is pretty great if you're upper middle class, but not actually a great place if you're not. That's not a sustainable trend, economically...the start-up scene has exploded, and that's been great, but I don't know if that's [Bloomberg] or if that would have happened anyway."

Tech Money Talks
The support for Quinn among the tech community is also reflected in the campaign donations, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Through New York City's public matching funds program, contributions from NYC residents are eligible to be matched at a $6-to-$1 rate. In addition to $400 from Sheryl Sandberg, Quinn also received $2,475 from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes in 2013. Of the $4,155 donated by Google employees in the mayoral race, $2,100 has gone to Quinn, and $125 has gone to De Blasio, and $850 went to Republican candidate Joe Lhota. Microsoft employees have given $1,350 to Quinn. Meanwhile, Foursquare COO Evan Cohen gave $50 to Jack Hidary, and Kimberley Rubey, communications director for AirBnB, has given $200 to De Blasio.

Andrew McLaughlin, CEO of Digg (and former White House deputy CTO, among many things), said he was on old friend of Jack Hidary and would be "waiting around for the general" to support him. "I think what's interesting is that literally none of the [Democratic candidates] have any particular depth of support in the [tech] community," McLaughlin said. He said he felt members of that sector who live in Brooklyn or Long Island City and commute to work everyday might be more isolated from other parts of the electorate. Unlike Bloomberg, with his broad network of contacts across the tech community, he said all the Democratic candidate have more traditional backgrounds.

"My sense is there is a big missed opportunity to have built a basis of support by having a tech agenda," he said. "Nobody spent very much energy to cultivate the tech world." He also noted that he hadn't received any fundraising solicitations from New York tech community members for any of the mayoral candidates, even though he has received solicitations for Cory Booker or candidates in Colorado, which he suggested was "emblematic" of the lack of a consensus within the community.

Andrew Hoppin, founder and CEO of New Amsterdam Ideas and former CIO for the New York State Senate, offered general impressions of the candidates, though declined to talk about his own preferences. He praised De Blasio and his staff for using technology in innovative ways through projects such as the landlord watch list. He also noted that De Blasio had a long history of relationships with open source technology vendors who do work in progressive politics. "He's known in the community of progressive technologies," he said. "That said, I don't think he's particularly well-known in the nonpolitical tech entrepreneurial world...the Meet-Ups, Foursquares and prominent local tech-start ups haven't had much to do with him, that community has a stronger affinity for Christine Quinn," he continued, due to Bloomberg's appointment of Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot and record of spotlighting the work of tech entrepreneurs.

While Hoppin said both Quinn and Lhota would broadly build on Bloomberg's approach, De Blasio is more of an "unknown quantity." He added that Bill Thompson, the other Democratic candidate fighting for second place in a potential run-off, came across in panel sessions as not very savvy about technology. "He didn't really get it...He might be smart enough to hire a really great technologist, but there would be less of a direct line at the top to someone who really cares about the issues."

"I think there is a general lack of high level of enthusiasm about any of the candidates," within the community, Hoppin said. But he noted that members of the technology community were more likely to vote than many other constituents and tend to pay attention to current events, making it a "modest-sized constituency, but a potent one."

"If in the general election the community does get excited about one candidate, there's a force multiplier as they really know how to use engagement tools, including in the context of voter turn-out," he said. No matter who wins, Hoppin said it was important to members of the technology community that they be invited to help and contribute ideas with a focus on the "meritocracy of ideas," rather than partisan politics. "There's not a lot of interest in bureaucracy or doing political patronage things."

Meanwhile, In the Race for the #2 Job
In many ways, there seems to be more tech community involvement with the candidacy of Girls Who Code founder and former Deputy Public Advocate Reshma Saujani in the race for Public Advocate. A recent #NYCTechforReshma fundraiser had a host committee with dozens of industry names including Craig Newmark, Jukay Hsu and and Rachel Sklar. She has received $2,000 in donations from Sandberg, $500 from Chris Hughes, $2,902 from Google employees, $425 from Twitter employees (who haven't made any donations in the mayoral race), and $275 from AirBnb employees.

However, one of her opponents, Daniel Squadron, a Brooklyn State Senator, has also raised $12,736 from Google employees. Altogether Squadron, who has also raised $50 from a Facebook employee and $50 from an Aereo Vice President, has raised $1.57 million in all, while Saujani has raised $1.47 million. So far nearly 300 people have said they're going to the Facebook event "I'm voting for Reshma Saujani for NYC Public Advocate on 9/10/2013," though nearly 7,000 have been invited. Squadron's campaign, which has been running TV ads highlighting his endorsement by Senator Charles Schumer and major newspapers, has 333 Facebook supporters compared with more than 5,000 for Saujani.

Davis, from Vocativ, said that Saujani had "really impressed" the tech community and said that there was interest in that primary that had never been seen before from people who are not ordinarily engaged. Both Davis and Hsu attributed her popularity not only to her work with Girls Who Code, a project that has prompted some skepticism, but also to the personal connections with the tech community of her and her husband, tech entrepreneur Nihal Mehta.

But many members of the technology community have shown engagement in the mayoral election with efforts and tools to inform their peers and the wider public. The New York Tech Meet-Up posted its video interview sessions with the candidates online, while the Coalition for Queens organized a forum for some mayoral candidates and the Queens Borough President race. Several technology companies worked with the NYCCFB to establish a new mobile voter information and donation platform. The New York Technology Council released a mayoral primary campaign tech scorecard for all the candidates based on their "stated plans to improve the technology ecosystem in New York City." The group gave De Blasio, Quinn and Thompson an A-, Anthony Weiner a B and John Liu a C. Republican candidates Joe Lhota and John Catsimatidis received an incomplete, with the group noting that the candidates had no explicit references to tech on their website. Common Cause, in cooperation with Reboot and WebSava, is once again running the PollWatch USA mobile platform and mapping tool to document problems at polling places.

And while the New York Times on Friday published an interactive highlighting the traditional New York City voting blocs in the Democratic Primary, Andrew Ritchie, a designer and developer, and deputy IT director for the 2008 Obama campaign, has set up a website that lets New Yorkers map their endorsement of the Democratic candidates by address. So far, the blue pins for De Blasio seem to be in the majority.