Techies in Politics: A New Wave Runs for Office

Can more techies in politics make for better policy? Dozens of scientists, computer scientists and tech entrepreneurs are running for office this year both on the federal and state level. They won’t be immune to the gravitational pull of politics once in office, but many expect that they’ll put more faith in data and the expertise in their personal networks to enact fact-based policies. 

“When someone is a software developer, or information architect, or scientist  of some sort, my hope is that when they approach a problem, they’ll use the scientific method, and test their hypotheses, and try to approach government on a rational basis,” Ben Kallos, a software developer, lawyer and New York City Councilman told me over the phone.

Democrats are placing high hopes on Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat running for Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She has an undergraduate degree in engineering from Stanford and a masters in technology and policy from MIT. (Among other things, she’s been an entrepreneur, a chemistry teacher, and a leader in the non-profit world.) Army veteran and tech entrepreneur Joseph Kosper is running as a Democrat to represent Texans in the 21st district in Congress. Tech entrepreneur and former Googler Brian McClendon is running as the Democratic candidate for Kansas Secretary of State. And there are dozens more scientists and techies running at the state level.

Not all of these candidates have found success. Brianna Wu, a video games developer, got 24% of the vote in her challenge to Democratic U.S. House incumbent Stephen Lynch in Massachusetts’ 8th District. Tech entrepreneur and lawyer Suneel Gupta also failed in his bid for office in Michigan’s 11th District, garnering 21% of the vote in a four-way field. Brian Forde, a technology entrepreneur, crypto expert and former White House technology advisor for President Obama, ran unsuccessfully for Republican House member Mimi Walters’ seat in Southern California, placing fourth in a field of six.

Like many other first-timers running for office this year, these candidates say that they see their communities headed in the wrong direction, and they couldn’t afford to sit on the sidelines any more — even if it meant leaving their lucrative careers and comfortable lives. And a career in tech no longer seemed to be the most effective way of “changing the world.”

“If we don’t get involved, our fate might be decided for us via economic incentives, and those incentives may not align with what any of us as citizens would like to see,” Jonathan Wallace said in a phone interview. 

Wallace, 39, is a software developer who last worked for Stitch Fix in Watkinsville, Georgia, where he lives with wife and three children. A confluence of events that shook up his life last summer  — in addition to the 2016 presidential election — sparked his desire to run for the Georgia House of Representative’s 119th District as a Democrat, and the conviction that he could win. “I was the person I was complaining about,” Wallace said about himself prior to the 2016 Presidential election. “I was the person who said: ‘I’m doing good, I’m working on myself, I’m working on my family, and my career,’ and I was having fun.”

But then a close friend in San Francisco was killed in a mugging and his grandmother died within the same month. Meanwhile, he had taken up a leadership position in his church, and a friend called and asked if he knew anyone who wanted to run for office since the Republican Assembly member had announced that he was moving on. Wallace, who was a founding engineer of a YCombinator startup called Doblet, figured that if he could endure the stress of building a new company, he could build a campaign in 60 days to win an election. Wallace won the special election and is up for re-election this year.

For his part, Wallace argues that state legislatures need as many technologists running for office as possible because they need critical masses of people to understand the powerful impact of modern digital technologies on our daily lives — and to enact the appropriate levels of consumer protection laws. Or even just to stop misguided ideas becoming law. 

Wallace earlier this year worked to dissuade the Georgia Assembly, and then Governor Nathan Deal, from enacting S.B. 315, a deliberately vaguely-worded proposal that would have criminalized the act of trespassing on a computer or computer network. Critics charged that the proposed legislation would have also legalized “hack backs,” meaning that entities that perceived that they’d been hacked would have been authorized to retaliate. State Senator Bruce Thompson, a Republican, proposed the legislation after state law enforcement authorities found that they did not have the legal tools to prosecute a security researcher for discovering (and responsibly reporting) a vulnerability that enabled would-be intruders to tamper with and download the state’s entire database of 6.7 million registered voters. Microsoft, Google, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several cybersecurity companies said the proposed law was too vague, and would have criminalized white hat hackers, such as the one that discovered and reported the vulnerability. Deal ultimately vetoed the legislation.

“We need more folks, more legislators who are driving policy forward to connect with one another because this is not an experience that’s unique to me,” Wallace said. “So if we connect between different states and share experiences with one another, I think we’d drive better policy outcomes.”

The need is even more severe for states like Georgia’s where being a legislator is a part-time job, he added. 

And like other tech candidates, Wallace sees the need for legal code that can keep up with emerging technologies. When he starts talking about privacy and cell phone metadata, he sounds as if he’s worried that we’re already living in the dystopia that’s depicted in the Netflix series Black Mirror.

Stepping Out of The Bay Area’s “Ivory Tower.”

Steven Buccini, a software engineer with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, is running for state office in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina after being jolted into a bout of self-examination by the 2016 presidential election. He’s running to represent North Carolina’s House District 59 against Republican incumbent Jon Hardister.

“[President] Trump getting elected was one of the reasons I moved back, but not because I hate him,” the 25-year-old told me on the phone. “It was actually more of how I understood Trump got elected.”

Buccini said that “a lot” of his friends voted for the president, as did some of his mentors in high school, and friends of his parents. Some of his friends who voted for Trump are those whose professional lives aren’t going in the direction that they’d hoped, he said. 

“I can’t tell you the legions of stories where my friends who were two years out of college, and couldn’t find a job befitting of a college education … they took on a bunch of student loan debt and now they’re leasing apartments to older folks who are renting these really expensive apartments that they can’t really afford. Can I blame them for being cynical and wanting to upend the system? I’m not sure that I can.”

The forces behind Trump’s election made Buccini question whether working at a Bay Area startup was really enabling him to contribute meaningfully to society. As he started commuting to work in San Francisco from Oakland and seeing the homeless around him, he started to feel as if the idealists in the tech community were out of touch. 

“I got into technology because it was a way for me to do the most amount of good for the most amount of people,” he said.

But the election made him examine the immediate problems he saw in his community at home — badly paid teachers, political polarization in the state legislature and rhetoric that was driving away businesses from locating their offices in the state, and the best and the brightest of his peers leaving to live in big cities. All the panel discussions in the Bay Area about Universal Basic Income and the role of artificial intelligence in our society suddenly seemed academic, as everyday life becomes harder and harder for everyday people not on the stock option plan. 

“It wasn’t enough for me to just come up with a hack,” he said. “I want to actually do the hard work and meet these people who are suffering, instead of being in the ivory tower of the Bay Area.”

“I decided to come back home and run because the people who got me to where I was, the teachers who stayed after hours, and the teachers who wrote me the incredible recommendations, and sponsored my clubs that allowed me to go to Cal don’t have the resources they need to do their jobs,” he told me on the phone. “And here I was in Silicon Valley, 24 years old, making close to $200,000, and the most veteran teachers in North Carolina only make $50,000. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous.”

So Buccini left his job in San Francisco in April as a full-time software engineer for Affirm, the financial technology startup founded by the tech entrepreneur and PayPal Co-Founder Max Levchin. Prior to that, he had attended two conferences organized by Arena, where he was encouraged to run for office.  He credits Run For Something, the political action committee founded by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 email campaign director Amanda Litman and Democratic strategist Ross Morales Rocketto for training and support through the electoral process. Litman and Rocketto founded the organization in early 2017 specifically to fund and support progressive Millennials running for local office. 

Buccini is running on a traditional Democratic platform in the sense that he wants to see the state invest more in education, affordable access to high-speed broadband, and basic infrastructure as the population in his state continues to grow. But he also touts his technical background as a chance for voters of his urbanizing county to elect someone who understands the unseen forces transforming the economics of their lives. 

“This is an incredible opportunity for North Carolina to have someone technical who understands these technologies from a philosophical standpoint, and a technical standpoint, and has friends who work in these industries,” he said. “This is a chance for North Carolina to stay ahead of the puck — for example we know that cryptocurrencies are coming — how and are we going to tax those transactions? How are we going to make sure that we change business registration rules so that it’s easy to set up an eCommerce company? How do we deal with a Gig Economy?”

Using Open Data to Improve Lives for Constituents

Some of the work of New York City Councilman Ben Kallos, a Democrat representing the city’s Upper East Side, shows what accountability can look like when a lawmaker has a technical background. 

Kallos, a lawyer by training, is also a self-taught open source software developer.  His preference for open source software reflects his general “trust but verify,” approach to everything around him, he explained.  

One particular accomplishment for constituents illustrates this approach. Kallos and a volunteer with the New York City civic hacking group Beta NYC used archival GPS data generated by the transponders on city buses to investigate the delays in bus service on the Upper East Side. The data showed that some buses that were scheduled to be in use weren’t in service. But when Kallos initially approached staff at the MTA about the “missing” buses, they told him that the buses were in service but the transponders were broken.

Kallos followed up directly with the transit workers’ union and bus operators and discovered that in fact the buses were so old that they kept breaking down. He worked with his members of the state legislature to then use the information to convince the Metropolitan Transit Authority to furnish his district with 79 new buses, which arrived last year. (The fight with the MTA goes on. It has threatened to cut the frequency of bus service in his district because of low ridership numbers, but Kallos has demanded to see bus fare box data so that he can have the information cross-referenced with GPS information so he can see ridership patterns for himself.)

More generally, during his five years in office, Kallos has worked with civic tech groups to make New York City government more accessible and open at a time when the open government movement started to flourish. But as he tells it, the process of getting the city to publish its laws, annual budget and procurement practices online involved a continual series of steps of leveraging his technical knowledge to push agency officials to stop dragging their heels and claiming that it would all cost millions of dollars and years of development. 

Most of these technologists and scientists running for office appear to be Democrats. That shouldn’t be a surprise. A Pew survey published in 2009 found that slightly more than half of the scientists polled described themselves as liberal, and 14 percent described themselves as “very liberal.” 

But as the writer Steven Johnson noted in his July WIRED story “The Political Education of Silicon Valley,” techies’ politics are not completely in line with mainstream Democrats. He cites a 2017 study that shows that they are in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy and universal healthcare, but they’re not so keen on regulation, and unions.

314 Action, a political action group that started training scientists and technologists to run for office last year, is very much in line with Democrats, however. Its mission statement says that it is committed to “advocating for evidence-based policy solutions to issues like climate change and fighting the Trump administration’s attacks on science.” And its Web site says that it has trained 1,400 scientists to run for office in Web-based trainings.

A 2012 law enacted by North Carolina legislators may be a prime example of why an increasing number of scientists feel the need to run for office to counter the broader problem of lawmakers on all levels ignoring the evidence when it doesn’t suit them and their constituents’ immediate interests. The North Carolina legislators voted in 2012 to ban the use of the latest scientific research in coastal development planning. The research data predicts that the sea level in North Carolina will rise between one and three feet in the next century, and that coastal properties will increasingly suffer billions of dollars worth of damage as hurricanes become more intense. 

Climate scientists and environmental groups criticized the legislation as short sighted, and complained that it impedes emergency managers’ efforts to adequately prepare for hurricanes and flooding, like this week’s Hurricane Florence, which is fast approaching the state.

Still, what the mixed success of this year’s crop of techies seeking office suggests is that the voting public isn’t yet as enamored of geeks as it seems to be of military veterans, celebrities, or lawyers. It will probably take a few more cycles of government struggling with the new challenges presented by fast-evolving tech before voters start rewarding candidates for knowing the difference between a server and a waiter.