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 tech community moved there in recent years from other states, and they have been more focused on building companies and getting customers than paying attention to local politics.

“We had so many young people moving into Austin and, in many cases, they were first-time voters that didn’t know the basics of voting,” says Erin Defosse, the chief product officer at Austin tech startup Aceable and a leader of TechVotes. “That, combined with a lack of a culture that supports civic engagement, is a recipe for non-participation.”

TechVotes recruited a number of prominent Austin tech names—WP Engine, HomeAway, and Capital Factory, among others—as member companies that would encourage employees to register and vote in elections, starting with November’s presidential election. TechVotes also partnered with ride-hailing company Ride Austin to give first-time riders a $10 discount on trips to the polls.

In addition to being good citizens, Defosse says who else but the tech community should be part of policy discussions on topics such as the future of transportation and automation? “We have the expertise and the responsibility to share what we know to help the community,” he says.

Shion Deysarkar, founder and CEO of Austin analytics startup Datafiniti, says he was spurred to start Blue Squad following the results of last fall’s presidential election, which he considers a signal that the social progress he supports might not continue.

“We progressives kind of had it easy,” he told me. “Now we’re learning you can’t take it for granted. You have to fight for these things. People say, ‘Let’s not talk politics.’ But, no. The time for that is done.”

Blue Squad is recruiting volunteers from Austin’s tech community—software developers, web designers, and the like—who are willing to donate their time and skills to progressive political candidates. Deysarkar says about 60 volunteers have signed up and are starting to get connected with political candidates that they could help.

Kopser, meanwhile, started getting involved in local policy discussions about transportation issues after he sold his startup RideScout, a transportation aggregation app, to Daimler AG in 2014. “I put together a company from scratch, from a PowerPoint through to acquisition,” he says. “I’ve been through many of the challenges that small businesses go through.”

He says that experience, along with his military service and “raising three daughters in nine different public school systems,” gives him real-world experience that could help elevate the political discussion above partisan sniping. (Of course, many candidates say they want to rise above partisan bickering. Few deliver, and it might be even tougher to achieve in the current political climate.)

If he runs, Kopser would have a tall order to defeat a 30-year Republican incumbent in a district that mostly includes rural and suburban communities in Central Texas, as well as parts of Austin and San Antonio. But he says he’s received positive feedback since announcing his potential candidacy.

“If all these people identify with what I’ve done in the past and they’re Republicans,” he says, “maybe now when I start talking about issues of jobs and education and opportunity, they will see me more as a builder of consensus and less of a partisan hack that they will immediately shut off.”

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