Many tech workers in San Francisco have a new side hustle: Local politics 

SAN FRANCISCO – Like many tech workers arriving in San Francisco, Siva Raj has considered himself apolitical when it comes to local issues – at least for a while.

Born in India, he came to America’s tech hub in 2016 during the last boom and spent most of his time working on a healthcare app he founded.

“Just a classic tech worker – running my startup, totally out of touch with politics,” he said.

This has changed over the past year. A father of two, Raj observed that public schools in San Francisco remained mostly closed last year during the pandemic even as other districts and private schools reopened. He and his partner began to follow the school board, which at the time was embroiled in a battle to rename schools, including one named after Lincoln. He became frustrated.

This frustration turned into action. Raj, 49, is now co-leading an effort to remove three school board members through a recall election in February – the first recall election for a local official in San Francisco since 1983.

“This is not a conventional political campaign,” he said. “We are currently living through a real and serious crisis. Our children are in danger.

And he has company. More and more tech industry employees, founders and investors who used to ignore local politics showed a sudden and fierce interest in the San Francisco government in a way that could both remake the city and have national repercussions. Many of these new entrants into local politics consider themselves left even as they target some of the state’s most high-profile Liberals on issues ranging from crime and schools to housing shortages and small business regulation.

Tech workers and venture capitalists are helping fuel an attempt to recall district attorney Chesa Boudin, a rising progressive star, and last year some joined an unsuccessful effort to oust Governor Gavin Newsom. (Boudin and Newsom are both Democrats.)

Siva Raj and her partner, Autumn Looijen, distribute shopping bags with information about the San Francisco school board recall.
Peter DaSilva for NBC News

“Everyone I know is just crazy – deeply, deeply crazy,” said Zach Coelius, a venture capitalist and former startup founder who moved to the Bay Area in 2005. He said he and his friends were practicing a “benign neglect” of city politics. for years, but now “all the friends I have are suddenly very engaged.”

But what tech white-collar workers see as solutions is often anathema to established San Francisco politicians or other residents, some of whom accuse privileged tech workers of evicting low-income neighbors. And the tech community is far from a politically homogeneous group, with a certain energy towards causes such as the organization of work.

Faauuga Moliga, one of three school board members who will participate in reminder bulletins in February, said that while he has a lot of respect for the tech community, he is not sure that its members all want to work cooperatively. with the rest of the city.

“How do we create a San Francisco for all of us? Or do you just want to create a San Francisco for yourself? Moliga, the vice chairman of the board, said. The first Pacific Islander on the school board, he grew up in the city and saw family members get paid.

San Franciscans have long criticized non-Native tech workers for not giving back, despite the riches they earned in the latest version of the California Gold Rush and the gentrification they helped bring about. . Tech executives, if they engaged with the town hall, often focused on their tax bills. And many tech workers have left town with the spread of the coronavirus, as San Francisco’s high rents have become harder to justify.

“About 10 years ago, political insiders started to take an interest in technology and ask, ‘When is technology going to vote?'” Said Joel Engardio, a journalist who also does public relations for tech startups and is active in school board recall and other political fights. “Tech workers were pouring into the city, but they weren’t hired.”

For tech workers who are used to traveling or living in places that do things differently, complaints add to the stagnation.

“If you go to other big, world-class cities, they don’t have these issues,” Coelius said. “We can’t build anything. We can’t fix anything. And we can’t seem to have a city that can function on a basic level. ”

So far, he has channeled his anger by donating money to the campaign of fellow tech entrepreneur Bilal Mahmood, who is running in a special election for a San Francisco seat on the National Assembly. State. And like many people in tech, Coelius has expressed his frustrations on social media in often brash posts, including one calling opponents of the change “idiots” and “morons.”

San Francisco politics are not always welcoming to newcomers. The city that launched Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in their political careers is often dominated by tight-knit neighborhood groups and a labyrinth of rival political organizations affiliated with Democrats who in most areas places, would all be on the same side. (San Francisco has not one but two major Democratic LGBTQ clubs.)

But now more and more software engineers, designers and entrepreneurs are taking root. While many tech scholars saw the pandemic as a chance to move to cities like Austin, Texas or Miami – places they saw as having better governance, or at least cleaner streets – d others have stayed and are spending even more time in the heart of the city with suburban office parks closed.

As newly awakened activists, they are relatively wealthy, experienced in business, and increasingly angry with long-standing local issues in what is considered one of the country’s leading progressive cities.

Their past disengagement prompted elected officials to question their motivations.

“When I hear about the tech industry and the money going into school board recall, the first thing I think of is, are these people really concerned about kids? Said Moliga. He added that he wonders if they are more concerned with ideological issues such as the weakening of the teachers’ union – an echo of a national political debate over schools.

Along with the school debate, a fight against crime is taking place before a vote in June on the dismissal of the city prosecutor. Boudin, 41, has gained national attention since his 2019 election due to his opposition to mass incarceration and his unusual track record. A Rhodes scholar whose parents were Weather Underground members who served prison sentences, he briefly worked as a translator in the Venezuelan government and as a public defender.

Several wealthy tech venture capitalists – including Garry Tan, an early Coinbase investor, and David Sacks, PayPal co-founder and longtime Republican donor – are among the biggest donors to the campaign to take out Boudin. Tan gave $ 50,000 and Sacks $ 75,000.

Opposition to Boudin is not only fueled by perceptions about crime rates and a series of retail thefts and other high-profile cases, but also by a technology dispute: Boudin in 2020 continued l DoorDash delivery application for worker protection.

But the recall election also attracts tech activism in favor of Boudin. Billionaire startup Ripple co-founder Chris Larsen said he donated $ 100,000 to the anti-recall campaign and expects others to give even more over the next six months. , for and against Boudin.

“I think it’s going to be a national campaign, in a way,” Larsen said. “We’re all crazy about what’s going on in the city. … Blaming the prosecutor is an easy blame game and he fails to recognize the complexity of the problem.

Larsen said frustration and political activity have both increased in the tech industry. A native of San Francisco, active in local philanthropy and civic projects for years, he said the industry could be much more influential locally if people stay interested and don’t alienate others.

“The tech industry needs to get involved and involved in a way that they stay sustainable – and get involved in a way that doesn’t try to take control of government,” Larsen said.

For some tech workers, this hasn’t meant the creation of new companies but new political organizations in an attempt to shake up the city’s policy on housing, transportation and other matters.

“I love the people here, I love the culture here and I want to live here forever,” said Steven Buss, who spent five years as a software engineer at Google before resigning last year to work. focus on local politics. He was already involved in a movement to build more housing – known as YIMBY, for “yes, in my garden” – and he is a co-founder of GrowSF, which tries to counter the opposition of many San Franciscans to the development.

“There’s this truism in startups: either you grow up or you die. And I think that’s true for cities, ”Buss said. “Our local politics are dominated by degrowth progressives. They don’t believe it should be easier to build homes or start businesses.

He and his co-founder, Sachin Agarwal, a former Apple engineer, said they raised $ 500,000 for a new political action committee. They also produce voter guides, podcast episodes and an electronic newsletter which they say has 20,000 subscribers. They point to horror stories of San Francisco’s inefficiency, including the city’s refusal to grant a permit for a new ice cream shop, the decades it would take to build a new railroad line, and a municipal by-law developed on the replacement of the windows of the house.

The kind of difference tech workers are making might not be known until the next round of municipal elections. Agarwal and Buss hope to start races for the city’s supervisory board, where recent victory margins have been as narrow as 123 votes.

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