By Dan Rivoli
Just off Broadway in the bustling Union Square area, a few dozen well-dressed 20- and 30-somethings mingled in a spacious loft. Reshma Saujani, a first-time candidate running for the House seat that represents the East Side and western Queens, was among the web-savvy crowd.
Her campaign had organized a May 3 technology summit to discuss ways to spur entrepreneurship, encourage start-up businesses and attract new technology companies to the city. But this was unmistakably a Saujani campaign event. Her website was projected onto a wall, displaying continuous Twitter updates of the event in real time. Her team was collecting email addresses, recruiting volunteers and giving out buttons.
Saujani is attempting to unseat Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a long-time incumbent who is likely to retain much of the institutional Democratic Party support from party leaders, elected officials and labor unions. Saujani, whose parents fled persecution in Uganda under dictator Idi Amin, was raised in Illinois, and graduated from Harvard University"s Kennedy School of Government. The 34-year-old attorney took a leave from Fortress Investment Group and launched her campaign January 31, stressing that the incumbent was out of touch with the needs of the district.
She has found enormous support in this emerging business community and made technological innovation a centerpiece of her campaign. She created an â€œInnovation Advisory Board made up of investors, consultants and some of the minds behind Facebook (including Randi Zuckerberg, founder Mark Zuckerberg"s sister, who is marketing director for the social networking website) and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.
At the summit, Saujani laid out her platform to bring technology jobs to the city in the wake of the financial collapse.
â€œ[The] United States is one of the few countries that doesn"t have a national innovation policy, she said. â€œWe have to diversify our economy and it"s going to be this community that increases tax revenue.
Difficulty obtaining initial seed money for a company was one of the more common complaints among the panelists. Saujani proposed a â€œnational innovation bank to provide initial seed funding to start-up companies. In the aftermath of a tough Arizona immigration law that sparked national debate, Saujani has called for new reforms to include visas for foreigners who have funding for a start-up company in America.
â€œWe"re proud to say our opponent introduced that legislation last week, Saujani said, referring to Maloney"s bill, which was modeled after a Senate version.
Saujani’s campaign notes that this has been a central plank in her platform since starting her campaign website in December.
George Arzt, spokesperson for Maloney’s campaign, said the congresswoman had sent letters to her colleagues April 7 about introducing the visa legislation.
“Congresswoman Maloney was working on StartUp Visas with Senator Kerry long before Ms. Saujani mentioned the idea in her Huffington Post Article,” Arzt wrote in a statement. “While she continues to push this false claim, the facts are clear.”
The crowd applauded her proposal to push the U.S. Department of Education to establish scholarships for science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors.
â€œWe should be rewarding people who go into math and science instead of Goldman Sachs, people who actually create start-ups, Saujani said.
The downside to being a favorite of the tech-set is that many live outside the district. But as an outside candidate, Saujani said her campaign will need them to help canvass the district and collect petition signatures to get on the ballot's a heavy lift for a candidate without party support. Maloney"s campaign, not taking the race for granted, has criticized her primary opponent for running in a district she has only lived in for a few years, and for her ties to Wall Street.
But Saujani"s previous work as an attorney and her connections as a former Democratic fundraiser for Hillary Clinton have helped her net more than $800,000 in campaign cash.
Franklin Madison, an event panelist who works for a nonprofit that helps start-ups, said the push to recruit these new types of business are key for politicians.
â€œThis community represents the future of voters, he said.
Madison, who is not affiliated with the campaign, said elected officials need to better understand the tech world, as new companies in New York could be working for the Department of Defense or NASA.
â€œWe need to know that and be aware of it, Madison said. â€œAnd our elected officials need to know that.