Republicans and keg stands: At this year's SXSW, tech and politics collide
Last year, Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) came to South By Southwest for the first time dressed in a suit and tie and spoke to a room large enough for several hundred people that was mostly empty. This year, he said, he had “evolved.” He was wearing jeans and a sports coat, looking only a belt-notch more formal than the gingham-shirted masses that had swarmed into Austin for the 28,000-person-strong Interactive festival.
Sen Moran’s first appointment at SXSW was to speak to a room of about 100 people – in a much more appropriately sized space, this time – about why public policy matters to startups. Much of his talk revolved around his Startup Act 3.0, which, among other things, would provide for an entrepreneurial visa for foreigners to come to the US to start companies. That particular provision has so far been missing from the immigration reform proposals discussed in Congress.
The Republican senator was received well by the audience, some of whom asked what they could do to help advance innovation-friendly issues in Congress. Others stuck around afterwards to ask for photos. Moran was relaxed, aware that he didn’t quite fit in with the techies, but happy to glad-hand with them. While his midwest accent and geographical references placed him very firmly in Kansas, here he was building up a new constituency: the startups that Moran says will play a key part in the future of the American economy. (Technically, they have for a while. But let's give Washington credit for finally figuring this out.)
In an interview after his talk, Moran said he came to SXSW to learn. “People give me suggestions on policy, and it encourages me because I can see evidence of what can happen with an entrepreneurial environment in the US, and so I get inspired by talking to startup owners, to entrepreneurs, to innovators.” He was also here, he said, because he wanted to encourage the community to help get legislation passed in Washington DC. Earlier, he had praised the grassroots success of the effort to strike down the Stop Online Privacy Act and Protect IP Act (both of which he opposed) but urged people to rally to not only stop bad legislation from happening, but also to help seed and influence legislation.
The next day, Moran continued his outreach efforts, sitting in a closed-door meeting organized by startup community advocacy group Engine Advocacy for an informal discussion with people from local and national tech companies and groups. There he engaged in a frank exchange about why crowdfunding still hasn’t been implemented despite last year’s passage of the JOBS Act, how the government needs to free up more wireless spectrum, and how government needs to be more nimble and iterative in its approach to policy making, being able to get stuff done faster and willing to discard pieces of legislation that aren’t working.
Moran wasn’t the only high-profile political figure in town for SXSW. This year, in fact, was probably the busiest ever for the intersection of tech and politics at the festival, organizers said. Sen Mark Warner (D-VA), a co-sponsor of Moran’s Startup Act 3.0, took part in a panel hosted by Startup America about crowdfunding. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO, 2nd District) was interviewed in a different session by Netroots Nation founder Gina Cooper and PolitiHacks’ Craig Montuori in a well-attended session (although, because he was snowed-in in Colorado, Polis had to beam in via Skype). And Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a future Senate contender and oft-touted as a Presidential hopeful, spoke at a featured session about the need for a more open and transparent democracy.
The strong political presence at SXSW this year speaks to the emergence of a growing cross-cultural awareness between two parts of the country that had long operated on almost entirely different planes: Silicon Valley and Washington DC. As groups like Engine Advocacy and Startup America rouse the startup community into recognizing the importance of policy issues to the future success of its businesses, a few key figures on Capitol Hill are starting to realize the value in reaching out to a well-moneyed and potentially powerful part of the country. As well as Moran, Warner, Polis, and Booker, other members of Congress such as Sen Chris Coons (D-DE), Sen Roy Blunt (R-MO), Rep Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), and Rep Suzan DelBene (D-WA) have been actively courting the startup community.
The increased interaction comes at a time when issues such as immigration reform, online privacy, and cybersecurity are expected to come before Congress. It also comes as a recent report from the Kauffman Foundation has estimated that a “startup visa” could help create as many as 1.6 million jobs in the US after 10 years. Meanwhile, the startup community, while still in many ways politically naive, is better organized than ever, with such initiatives as the March for Innovation raising awareness and getting more people involved in policy issues.
The heightened awareness cuts both ways, Moran said. “When I got involved with these issues, there were only a handful of members of Congress who paid attention to startups and innovation,” he said in our interview. As a Kansan, he had an advantage when it came to entrepreneurial issues because the Kauffman Foundation is based in Kansas City. “But I do think that because of a number of startup advocacy groups and the presence of startups and entrepreneurs on Capitol Hill, more and more members of Congress – Republicans, Democrats, House, Senate – are interested and engaged in these issues.”
Moran urged the startup community to get to know their elected officials. While social media can be very effective at bringing attention to an issue, the best way to make an impact is to connect personally, he said. People in startups should tell their elected officials what they do, what they want to accomplish, and invite them to visit their businesses. “That connection is of great value, and when an elected official sees something good happening in their home state, it captures their attention.”
At SXSW, Moran would no doubt have been hoping that the same theory would hold true in reverse. Here he was, on the startup community’s home turf, looking to capture some attention.