Inside the Growing Political Awakening of Austin’s Tech Community

Austin—Texas Rep. Lamar Smith has long said he doesn’t believe in man-made climate change. But it was only in this last year of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that that sentiment moved Joseph Kopser to take action.

“He doesn’t believe in facts, and he doesn’t want them reported,” Kopser says of the Republican Congressman.

That sort of thinking struck Kopser as wrong. As someone with an aerospace engineering degree from West Point and a master’s in public policy from Harvard University—not to mention two decades leading soldiers in the U.S. Army—careful planning and assessment of facts on the ground are, in Kopser’s experience, a time-tested battle plan for success.

“The experts lay out a very logical case that money invested now in programs to eliminate the cycle of chronic poverty and disconnect will have a significant return on investment down the road,” Kopser wrote in a March 14 blog post announcing his interest in public office. “And it’s based in data and study, not rhetoric or promises made at a campaign rally.”

Kopser is considering running in 2018 as a Democratic challenger to Smith, who has represented Texas’s 21st Congressional district for three decades. And he’s among a growing group of Austin technology leaders who have recently become more active in civic affairs.

This political awakening among the city’s innovation community began last May when Austin residents voted to uphold its city council’s strict rules related to background checks and other provisions required of ride-hailing app companies. In response, market leaders Uber and Lyft immediately ceased service in Austin. (Since that time, about a half-dozen local and out-of-state companies are offering ride-hailing services.)

That vote, some local technology leaders say, showed a clear connection between the fortunes of certain tech companies—and, many believe, the reputation of Austin as a top destination for innovators—and what happens at city hall or the statehouse.

“The goal is to keep Austin a tech-friendly city that continues to attract the most innovative people in the world,” says Dave Edmonson, executive director of the Austin Tech Alliance, which was founded in August by Capital Factory co-founder Joshua Baer and Dan Graham, founder of BuildASign and social venture-focused Notley Ventures. “It’s one thing to tweet and it’s one thing to post on Facebook,” Edmonson says, “and it’s another thing to directly work with elected officials and their staffs … to try to take a seat at the table.”

In addition to tracking state legislation on ride-hailing and short-term rental issues, the alliance is also involved in alerting the tech community to local efforts related to the city’s land development code and autonomous vehicle regulations.

Edmonson says there are about 100,000 technology employees in Austin—a sizeable constituency that has largely kept out of politics. In recent years, however, like in other tech hubs, there has been tension between the tech community and Austin residents who feel squeezed out of the city because of increasing congestion and higher housing costs. “We want to be seen as a positive asset to the community,” he says.

TechVotes, which formed last fall, has a much simpler goal: get more people to the polls. Many in Austin’s … Next Page »

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