Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Chicago techies rally 'round Emanuel

Chicago techies rally 'round Emanuel

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel with Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman (at podium) at the company's new offices in the Merchandise Mart. - John Pletz
John PletzMayor Rahm Emanuel with Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman (at podium) at the company's new offices in the Merchandise Mart.
As Mayor Rahm Emanuel finds himself locked in a surprisingly difficult race to keep his job, Chicago's tech community is rallying behind him.
With blog posts, social media campaigns and gatherings like one held last week at the River North offices of software startup Modest, tech sector leaders are trying to mobilize young techies to vote for Emanuel in his race against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner.
“Rahm has been unbelievably active and supportive in shouting from the rooftops that tech is a growth engine for jobs in the city,” says Matt Moog, an entrepreneur who runs tech company PowerReviews and who helped organize the event at Modest. “All of us are pragmatic, business minded and want to make sure the city is an attractive place to live and work, and we favor his hands-on, results-driven style.”
Tech has been one of the few consistent bright spots of the economy for Emanuel, though, even in this arena, he often has been criticized for using company launches and expansions as photo opps and taking too much credit for their growth.
Emanuel has shown more interest in tech than his predecessor, says Brett Goldstein, a techie who worked at restaurant-booking site Open Table and was chief information officer for the Emanuel administration and author of a blog post in support of his former boss. “You have a mayor who gets it and is engaged in this community," he says. "The mayor has a passion in this space. I haven't seen that with Chuy.”
The tech sector, like the rest of the business community, was caught off-guard when Emanuel failed to win re-election outright in the Feb. 24 election and was forced into a run-off with second-place finisher Garcia.
“People sent me notes saying, 'We didn't know the election was going to be close,' ” says Howard Tullman, a 69-year-old serial tech entrepreneur and longtime Democratic political supporter. “It's not guys who are 50 who don't appreciate Rahm. It's the guys who are 25 who aren't engaged in politics.
“We're having a couple of offsite events to educate the younger generation to get invested in the political process,” says Tullman, who is best known now as CEO of 1871, the government-sponsored nonprofit center for tech startups in the Merchandise Mart. “My interest is to simply get the vote out. It's embarrassing to have such a discouraging turnout.”
Moog estimates BuiltinChicago, a tech website he launched in 2010, has 150,000 members, with an email list of 25,000 and almost 30,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook. It's anyone's guess whether these thousands (some of whom live outside Chicago) will be a match for the 30,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union, who are used to knocking on doors and coming out to vote and, in this election, are united behind Garcia.
“Generally speaking, other groups have historically been more mobilized—like organized labor,” says Moog, who also has written a blog post in support of the mayor. “The tech community isn't that organized. Generally—not just in tech or business— people go about their lives and don't wake up every day thinking about politics.”
What Emanuel needs more than money is votes. “Everybody believes now that the best thing you can do is get out there and vote, get your people and employees to go vote,” Tullman says. “If you want to attract (employees), it's more than the job. It's where they want to live and where they want to be. The mayor is an important part of that.”
Even though techies are often painted as disengaged from politics, millennials showed themselves to be a powerful voting bloc in President Barack Obama's two successful elections.
Goldstein acknowledges, however, that “the tech community has less exposure to media coverage of local politics. They're getting their news from Mashable, Twitter and Facebook, rather than the nightly news. So part of the challenge is to get the word out." He continues: "When we put in the effort to say you need to care about this (via social media and blogs), it resonates."
An additional challenge for Emanuel and his tech supporters is timing. The April 7 election comes during spring break for many students, which could hurt turnout. That's one reason the tech community, not unlike the teachers union, has been encouraging people to vote by mail.
Moog sees the mayor's race as a potential watershed moment for the tech community, which has grown into an economic force during the past decade as startups have attracted capital and created jobs while many other industries in Chicago struggled or stagnated.
"It's a turning point," he says. "As the tech community matures, people start to realize it's time for them to get involved."

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