Austin tech sector gears up for campaign season

Tech industry stepping up efforts to influence Austin City Council members -- and voters. 

Posted September 4th, 2016

This upcoming election season, the Austin tech industry will break into local campaigning like never before, with a new political action committee and candidate endorsements, meet-and-greets with Austin City Council members and a get-out-the vote drive. 

While at an early stage, these efforts mark the first time the tech industry has gotten involved in local City Council campaigns, and political consultants say if done right, the tech industry is poised to be a major player in Austin politics.

"The tech community, if you add all that up, it could be thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of votes," said local political consultant Mark Littlefield. He said "there is a big pond of fish for them to organize and motivate," while noting that tech workers don't all vote the same way.

The tech industry -- which employs more than 100,000 people in Central Texas -- is getting politically organized as a response to recent votes by the Austin City Council over stricter regulations for ride-hailing companies and short-term rental owners

Some tech executives and entrepreneurs say these votes are damaging to Austin's reputation as a tech-friendly city, while the City Council argued it was protecting public safety and the character of local neighborhoods. 

"The perception is that City Hall doesn't support innovation," said Austin Technology Council CEO Barbary Brunner. 

It also didn't help that ride-hailing firms Uber and Lyft waged an expensive and aggressive campaign to obtain voter approval to unravel those City Council regulations, and ultimately lost by an 11 percentage point margin. A majority of the City Council opposed this election. 

"The tech community really figured out that it had failed in a major way to develop any kind of policy  with the policymakers," said Dan Graham, the CEO of BuildASign. There was a lot of asking "what can we do?" Graham said.

Different groups, different strategies

One answer emerged in late June. The Austin Technology Council formed a first-ever "policy coalition" to help guide its lobbying efforts. The council has 280 member companies that represent a workforce of over 60,000 people. 

Its member companies include Google, HomeAway and Samsung Electronics. 

Brunner said the group is not interested in re-litigating old battles, such as ride-hailing or short-term rentals. The goal is to ensure the City Council passes tech-friendly regulations or policies and to improve the tech industry's reputation within the city at large. 

While the technology council has endorsed mobility bond, it has no immediate plans to get involved political in City Council campaigns. 

Not everyone in the tech sector agrees this is the right strategy. 

A separate group calling itself the Austin Tech Alliance also emerged over the summer, and it is mostly comprised of tech entrepreneurs and startup workers. There's a Tech Alliance group on Facebook that has over 1,600 members. 

One of its leaders is Joshua Baer, executive director of Austin tech incubator Capital Factory. Another is Graham, who is also involved in Austin Technology Council's policy group. (Graham described the groups as "coming from very different places," and comprised of different members.)

Laura Skelding/AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFJoshua Baer is the executive director of Capital Factory. 

Though it has similar goals to the technology council, the Tech Alliance is also creating a political action committee that will donate to City Council campaigns and make endorsements. The alliance has hired a full-time lobbyist, David Edmonson, who previously worked in the Texas Legislature. 

"We're going to have an agenda and be very proactive," Baer said, adding that "we plan on having significant resources that allow us to operate and develop solutions and lobby." He declined to say how much money he and Graham have invested in the Tech Alliance. 

Baer said they plan to make endorsements in this year's November elections, in which five City Council members are running for re-election. 

There's also a separate voter registration effort underway called Tech Votes, which also kicked off this summer.

Erin Defosse, chief product officer  at Austin-based education tech company Aceable, calls himself the "main instigator" of Tech Votes. He said it is nonpartisan and will be focused on registering tech workers to vote, offering voter education resources, and getting them to the polls. 

Defosse said the effort is so new that they haven't even registered as a non-profit yet. He said it's being run by volunteers.

DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN STAFFA table with voter registration forms sits at a table at an event held by the Austin Technology Council at Galvanize on Tuesday, August 30, 2016. The group invited Council Member Greg Casar to meet with the members of the tech community. 

Not like San Francisco

Making the effort to build relationships at City Hall is about more than just protecting their business interests - it's also about image. Tech workers say they are aware of a growing sentiment that they are to blame for this city's rising home prices and traffic woes. 

The people who work in the tech industry can live in a bubble sometimes, Baer said. "We're saying 'some (company) moved here and opened an office, isn't this great?" Baer said. "And there are other people who don't see it as very great - they see it as, my taxes are going up." 

Austin's tech leaders say they worry the city is headed down the path of San Francisco, which has a notably deteriorating relationship with the technology industry, which is blamed for San Francisco's rising housing costs and widening income inequality. 

"The one way we don't want to become like Silicon Valley and San Francisco is the relationships that have with the tech people," Baer said. "People throw rocks at Google buses." Baer said he feared that type of anger was beginning to bloom in Austin. 

Deborah Cannon/AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFBarbary Brunner talks with others in attendance at an event held by the Austin Technology Council at Galvanize on Tuesday, August 30, 2016. The group invited Council Member Greg Casar to meet with the members of the tech community. 

Brunner, with the Austin Technology Council, agrees that there is a perception that tech is to blame for Austin's affordability problems. 

"There are a lot of people who think our traffic problems and our rising cost of living problems and the gentrification of the east side is tech's fault," she said. That's why part of the technology council's lobbying efforts will be aimed at dispelling this myth, she said. 

She says not everyone moving to Austin is coming for a tech job, and that not everyone in tech makes six figures. "There is a middle class in tech that struggles with the cost of living here just like the rest of the middle class," Brunner said.

But will it work? 

City politics tends to be dominated by developers and neighborhood groups, environmentalists, unions for public safety workers and advocates for the poor. The entrance of the tech industry will bring a new dynamic to local races and to Austin City Council meetings.

When it comes to attending council meetings and talking with City Council members and their aides, Littlefield said the tech industry will probably find that the council is fairly sympathetic. "This is an audience that cares about the tech community... and knows they are important."

Several political consultants said it's possible for the tech industry to influence the outcome of local races - though maybe not as soon as this year. That's because the margin of victory is sometimes very narrow. 

For instance, last year City Council Member Ellen Troxclair beat her opponent, Ed Scruggs, by a mere 56 votes

David Butts, a longtime local political consultant who along with Littlefield worked to defeat Uber and Lyft in the May election, agreed that the tech industry could organize voters for or against certain candidates. 

"If you tell someone that Council Member X is hostile to your source of income, that will make them less happy about that particular council member," Butts said. "They'll have an impact. It will be varied across the city."

But political consultants also noted for the tech industry to really be effective, they have to be mindful of Austin's culture. For instance, Littlefield said building coalitions with other groups, such as environmentalists, is important. So is not offending non-tech workers. 

"Can the tech community be an effective messenger to regular voters? And to the rest of the electorate?" Littlefield asked. "That's where I think it can be more difficult for the tech community or entrepreneurs to have an impact."

Butts warned against the "brash" approach employed by Uber and Lyft. 

"In Austin we have a long tradition of not rolling over for every economic group that decides they will just come in and run the show - just ask the developer community," he said.

City Council Member Greg Casar, who attended a meet-and-greet with the tech industry recently, encouraged the assembled tech workers to become involved in other citywide issues, such as affordable housing and traffic congestion.  "There is an opportunity to make sure we are solving problems that aren't particular to tech but are citywide issues that affect everybody," he told the tech workers.

After the meeting, Casar said he welcomes the tech community becoming more involved in policy-making, but isn't a fan of the idea of financially backing certain City Council candidates over others. 

"I don't think the best path forward is for there to be tech candidates and anti-tech candidates," Casar said. "That sets up that continued paradigm of division."

Deborah Cannon/AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFAustin Council member Greg Casar speaks with a person in attendance at an event held by the Austin Technology Council at Galvanize on Tuesday, August 30, 2016. The group invited Council Member Greg Casar to meet with the members of the tech community.