The Techies Running For Congress Walk a Fine Line

Brian Forde shouts over the din of the crowd packed inside a coworking space on a November evening in Irvine, California.

“Hello! Hello! Hello! Thank you all so much for coming out,” he yells as he takes the stage.

It’s been exactly one week since Democrats pulled off upset wins in states across the country on election night in 2017, and Forde, dressed in a slim-fitting suit and button down shirt, looks the part of the fresh-faced, first time congressional candidate these energized donors have come to see.

As soon as they quiet down, Forde instructs the roughly 100 people staring back at him to take out their phones. “We’re livestreaming this on Facebook right now. Hellooooo Facebook,” he says, waving at the camera to his right. He then asks the group to search for his Facebook page—Brian Forde for Congress—and share the stream with their friends and followers. Some are taking longer than others.

“Scroll down a little bit,” he urges, guiding them through each step. Then, with a smile: “There I am. See?”

Former President Barack Obama and Brian Forde
Pete Souza

It's fitting that Forde would lead off with, essentially, a technology tutorial. The 37-year-old Democrat (and former Republican) only recently returned here to his hometown in California’s 45th congressional district after serving for a year as director of a digital currency initiative at MIT Media Lab. Before that, he worked as a senior advisor to President Barack Obama in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. And before that, he founded a Skype-like phone service to lower the cost of phone calls for people in Nicaragua. In a YouTube video that features prominently on his campaign website, Forde traces his career back to the first motherboard he ever dissected.

'Regulation being driven by legislators who don't even understand the internet is a bad idea.'

Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales

Forde’s intimate understanding of the tech industry isn’t just window dressing for his campaign. It’s the foundation. It’s why, for instance, he’s invited Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to deliver a talk on fake news at that evening's fundraiser. Wales and other tech titans, including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, billionaire venture capitalist Chris Sacca, and former chief technology officer of the United States Todd Park, are just a few of Forde’s well-heeled industry supporters. This week, Forde's campaign announced that for the second quarter in a row, he has raised more money than every candidate in the district, including Republican incumbent Rep. Mimi Walters.

If a tech backlash exists, Forde isn’t feeling it. Or at least, he's not fearing it. “Look at drones, self-driving vehicles, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Crispr, artificial intelligence,” Forde tells me, months after the fundraiser. “Every industry is affected by tech, and yet we’re missing the knowledge and expertise in Congress to understand that and see around the corner and be proactive, not reactive.”

His influential backers tend to agree. "Regulation being driven by legislators who don't even understand the internet is a bad idea," Wales says.

The complex and increasingly dangerous role technology plays in democracy, Forde believes, provides all the more motivation for people like him to run for office. And this year, many of them are. In states from Massachusetts to Michigan to Virginia to, of course, California, startup founders, developers, and tech investors are making a play for the 2018 midterms. One PAC called 314 Action has called on scientists and technologists to run for office; it received 7,000 messages from people announcing their intention to run in the near future.

It helps, too, that the largely liberal tech industry has been among the top donors to Democrats in recent years. Individual tech leaders, including LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, have already begun funding a slate of Congressional candidates in preparation for November.

And yet some candidates emphasize their tech credentials at their own peril. Just a few months ago, Congress dragged Twitter, Facebook, and Google in to answer for the Russian trolls that ran amok on their platforms during the 2016 election; some have likened it to tech's big tobacco moment. And a general unease has set in around the industry's overabundant power.

It's a bipartisan skepticism. Those on the far right, led by fringe group Project Veritas, suspect that Twitter and others have liberal bias powering their algorithms. Supporters of Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, have accused tech companies of getting too cozy with the Trump campaign, after learning tech companies embedded staff with the Republican candidate's digital team. For many, Big Tech has bred distrust—not an ideal quality for a political candidate.

'Someone who understands tech running for office with the intention of fixing those things, to me that’s very patriotic.'

Congressional Candidate Brianna Wu

"People are absolutely correct to be suspicious of Silicon Valley at this point," says Brianna Wu, a game developer and a central target of the mass harassment campaign against women in the industry known as GamerGate. Wu, who is running in Massachusetts' 8th district against Democratic incumbent Stephen Lynch, has emerged from that experience as one of the industry's chief critics. But, she says, "Someone who understands tech running for office with the intention of fixing those things, to me that’s very patriotic."

According to Republican representative Will Hurd of Texas, who has a degree in computer science and founded a cybersecurity company before running for office, it's not that Congress doesn't care about tech-focused issues. It's just that very few of the lawyers and career politicians that populate the House and the Senate can engage in sophisticated conversations about issues like cybersecurity and social media disinformation. "Whether there’s a tech backlash or not, we’re moving in an increasingly connected world and have to be prepared for that," Hurd says. "The more technologists we have, we can begin talking about higher level questions about the future, rather than where we are now."

On election night, 2016, Suneel Gupta and his wife, tech journalist Leena Rao, sat in their home in San Francisco, where Gupta's suitcase was already packed. As a tech advisor on Clinton's transition team, he had scheduled a meeting with then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez the next day to discuss the new administration's tech strategy going forward. Gupta, who sold his healthcare app Rise in 2016, had started his career as an intern in the first Clinton White House, and looked forward to shaping the second one. He never got the chance.

That night, watching the results roll in, Gupta says he decided he wanted to move back to the Michigan town where he spent 28 of his 38 years, and run for office. Among the first people he asked for advice was Hoffman, who had backed Gupta's business in the past. "That was the first time he got out from behind his desk and walked around and gave me a big bear hug," Gupta remembers.

"Congress certainly has its challenges, and it’s estimable of him to charge ahead at improving our country," Hoffman says. "I call this, as I did with him, 'jumping on the public service grenade.'"

But unlike Forde and Wu, Gupta is running in a district that Trump won, in a part of the country that has suffered economically while watching coastal tech epicenters amass unprecedented amounts of wealth. That makes the task of accentuating his experience in tech, without alienating voters who associate the industry with liberal elitism, tricky. "You have to be strategic about how you talk about yourself," Gupta acknowledged at a recent fundraiser of about a dozen supporters, held at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan. "If I'd gone out there and said, 'Hey I’m this guy who understands tech, and I want to bring that here to the region,' I don't think I would win this election."

In just the few short months since he's been back, the differences between San Francisco and suburban Detroit have been evident. Gupta, who is Indian, has had voters say they wish his name was Neil, not Suneel, or tell him straight-faced that "a brown guy can’t take this district."

"It’s pretty funny because in San Francisco, they're so politically correct," Gupta told the group at the fundraiser.

'Tech for me was an incredible learning experience. I got to learn how to be a small business owner, how to balance a budget, how to create jobs.'

Congressional Candidate Suneel Gupta

His central challenge has been convincing voters that despite his detour out west, he's still part of the community and understands what they've been through. And in a lot of ways, he does. Where Forde's stump speech touches on topics like the Equifax hack, the abuse of predictive algorithms in the criminal justice system, and Volkswagen using software to cheat on emissions standards, Gupta's focuses on his parents, both of whom worked at Ford for 30 years.

His mother, who came to this country as a refugee, was the company's first female engineer. Then, in a single day in April 2001, both his parents got laid off. Gupta's first campaign video centers on his parents' story, with the candidate posing beside a waist-high stack of papers that supposedly contain the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is often blamed for sending these and other manufacturing jobs overseas. It's all a little Trumpian, but Gupta hopes it's a message voters in this area will identify with, while also staying true to his own story.

"Saying I'm the tech guy who has all the answers to your problems is not true, and that’s not what people here need to know about me," Gupta tells me. "I'm part of an auto family that lost their jobs. Tech for me was an incredible learning experience. I got to learn how to be a small business owner, how to balance a budget, how to create jobs. That’s the experience I'm bringing to my district."

In Michigan, at least, Gupta won't be the only candidate evangelizing tech jobs. One of his primary challengers, Haley Stevens, most recently worked at the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute in Chicago and has been pushing an agenda based on bringing more advanced manufacturing jobs to the area.

This message about jobs was also central to Democrat representative Ro Khanna's successful run for Congress in 2016, albeit in a very different part of the country: California's 17th congressional district, which covers Silicon Valley. But he says in his first few months in office, he's seen his colleagues in states like Kentucky and Ohio prioritize tech as critical to creating new jobs.

"I'm all for technologists running for Congress," Khanna says, "but I think what’s more important is for every person in Congress to think that having some tech literacy and technology proficiency is important."

Still, Gupta, Wu, and Forde all maintain they're not running as cheerleaders of the industry. They're running because the industry has amassed a new and unprecedented kind of power that elected leaders in Washington haven't quite figured out how to handle.

That's why instead of hosting a rally for his campaign in November, Forde asked Wales to host a forum on fake news, a central challenge to US democracy. And it's why, when he took the stage that night, he made sure everyone in the room shared Wales' words with their friends on Facebook. As Forde told the audience that night, "This issue is too important for just us in the room."

They're Running

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