In tech hubs across the country, the technology industry is taking a more active role in politics. It’s certainly true in Washington D.C., where many tech titans’ public policy teams reside. But it’s also happening in Silicon Valley and Seattle, where some of the biggest players and smallest startups are working to influence elections and policy.
There’s been a particularly dramatic shift around the upcoming Seattle City Council election, in which seven of the nine seats are up for grabs. The region’s tech industry hasn’t always made a point of civic engagement but that has changed over the past year.
The latest signal of a shift comes from the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), the biggest tech trade group in the state. Today, WTIA is endorsing political candidates for the first time in its history, picking favorites for Seattle City Council positions 1-to-7. The organization represents more than 1,000 tech companies in the state, including Amazon, Microsoft, Tableau, Expedia, and others.
“[The tech industry] has woken up and realized we have such an opportunity to be active participants in solving problems … we aren’t a startup as an industry, we’re a huge player in the society in which we operate,” said WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler.
WTIA asked employees of its member companies to volunteer to interview and vet candidates based on a rubric. Criteria included how well the candidates understood tech issues including 5G, the next generation of wireless technology, and artificial intelligence.
Volunteers also assessed candidates’ understanding of what WTIA sees as the top three issues Seattle faces: housing, homelessness, and transportation. Eighteen candidates sat down with the volunteers for in-person interviews, which WTIA used to make its endorsements.
One candidate that received WTIA’s endorsement has experience in the tech industry. Phil Tavel started a video game company. Others such as Alex Pedersen and Jay Fathi caught volunteers’ attention because of their focus on data-driven policymaking. But most were selected because the volunteers felt they were pragmatic and not motivated by ideology.
WTIA said the endorsements were awarded based on experience and the perception among volunteers that the candidates were willing to engage stakeholders. The trade group also considered fundraising and electability.
“It was a spectacular sea change,” Schutzler said. “You have the employees at large and small companies who participated in this process, who focused not [on] the tech industry as if it was its own thing. We focused on how are these candidates going to help this city.”
It’s the latest in a series of signs that the Seattle tech industry is getting more politically savvy. Over the past few months, Amazon has donated $200,000 to the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee and hosted a private candidate event for employees. The Chamber’s PAC released its City Council endorsements last month, several of which overlap with WTIA’s.
In June, a volunteer organization formed by Amazon, Zillow, and other tech companies, called Sea.Citi launched a new initiative that asks tech workers to pledge to vote in the Aug. 6 City Council primary. Employees who opt-in will be invited to candidate forums and events and receive reminders about election deadlines.
Seattle tech workers are also self-organizing around a variety of issues. This year, thousands of Amazon employees formed an environmental advocacy group to push their employer to act with more urgency in reducing its carbon footprint.
Another grassroots organization, Tech 4 Housing, cropped up last year to bring tech workers together to advocate for housing policy reform. In June, the group launched a fund with Bellwether Housing in which everyday people can invest small amounts of money into affordable housing projects.
Update: Several Tech 4 Housing members have expressed disappointment in WTIA’s endorsements since they were released. The criticism is focused on some candidates’ positions on housing issues.
Washington Technology Industry association just listed their endorsements for Seattle City Council and they are ~bad~. If you work for Microsoft/Amazon/Expedia/Tableau/other member companies, please write your leadership to push back! https://t.co/4VURcOtIB2
— Calvin Jones (@calvinrjones) July 10, 2019
As someone who tried to work with WTIA to encourage tech leaders to support better housing policy, these endorsements are incredibly disappointing.
WA and Seattle has the most regressive tax structure in the nation and these candidates are unlikely to push for change. https://t.co/XFGYMX5o0a
— Rachael (@raludwick) July 10, 2019
Schutzler said the tech industry’s newfound appetite for civic engagement is the reason WTIA decided to endorse candidates for the first time. But there’s also another reason the tech industry is getting more involved in civic life.
Last year, the Seattle City Council passed a per-employee tax on the city’s top-grossing businesses to pay for affordable housing. The business community fought the controversial legislation, calling it a “tax on jobs.” Amazon went so far as to threaten to slow its growth in Seattle. Shortly after passage, the City Council repealed the so-called “head tax,” ending a heated months-long battle.
“Chaining yourself in front of Amazon and declaring them to be an evil empire is not really conducive to conversation,” Schutzler said, in reference to demonstrations that City Councilmember Kshama Sawant held on Amazon’s campus during the head tax debate.
He said WTIA tried to identify candidates that presented a less ideologically-driven alternative to the current Council. WTIA plans to continue making endorsements in select elections but won’t weigh in on every race. “We’re very new at this so I think we’ll tread lightly,” Schultzer said.
WTIA’s City Council endorsements are below:
Seattle City Council Position 1: Phil Tavel
Seattle City Council Position 2: Mark Solomon
Seattle City Council Position 3: Egan Orion
Seattle City Council Position 4: Alex Pedersen
Seattle City Council Position 5: Councilmember Debora Juarez
Seattle City Council Position 6: Heidi Wills Jay Fathi
Seattle City Council Position 7: Michael George