The Mayoral Candidates Talked Tech in Queens Last Night and Didn’t Sound PC


“What type of cellphone do you have, what carrier is it and what’s your favorite app?” At 7:30pm, after media and tech folk scrambled into the Museum of the Moving Image off 35th Avenue in Astoria, the NYC Tech Forum began. Hosted by Coalition for Queens–a non-profit organization that promotes the tech community from Long Island City and elsewhere–Sal Albanese, John Liu, Adolfo Carrion Jr. and Anthony Weiner were subject to numerous questions about the realignment of New York City as the next Silicon Valley. Let’s just say the phrase “coaxial cable” was in abundance last night.

“Currently, over 900 tech companies in New York City are hiring right now,” Jukay Hsu, founder of Coalition for Queens, said as he introduced the candidates. “Growth is happening all over the place.”

Moderators Nilay Patel of the Verge and Anjali Altavaley of the Wall Street Journal then took the floor and reminded audience members that this was a forum, not a debate. Surprisingly enough, the candidates remained civil throughout (reminder: Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio were not in attendance).

In their opening remarks, the Democratic and third-party contenders mixed campaign message with some shred of innovation. Sal Albanese, who seemingly knew the least about the topic area, reiterated that he wasn’t a “career politician” and railed against special interests; the indie Carrion Jr. declared that tech was “as important as air and water;” Liu summarized his Comptroller office’s transparency measures; Weiner–whose greatest foe was ironically once technology–advocated for a strengthened middle class to broaden the industry’s base.

The media circus gathers outside the NYC Tech Forum.

When asked about Bloomberg’s emphasis on tech, the candidates did not hesitate to honor the Hizzoner and Speaker Quinn’s efforts (of which are the focus of a profile here today). But, looking forward, Carrion called 2013 a “pivotal time for the city’s future” and focused on the lack of transparency in the franchise agreements that dominate New York’s broadband and telephone access, labeling Time Warner and Comcast as “monolithic.” Liu agreed: “Monopolies have gotten away with too much and need to be held to a much higher level of accountability. They’re not upholding their side of the deal.”

Soon enough, the conversation of competition would become a main talking point of the night.

While Albanese, Carrion and Liu called to revisit the years-old agreements, Weiner went a different route, seeing the agreements as a source of power instead of a solution. “There needs to be a tangible giveback for access to the marketplace,” Weiner energetically said. “We need to write in the agreements, ‘You need to provide X amount of service.” For context, think Google and AT&T’s free WiFi in subway stations; both gifts to New Yorkers in exchange for business.

Then, the conversation shifted to what the tech community calls “disruptors,” which are companies that opposing the government bodies standing in the way of innovation. “I like the disruptor title,” Weiner quickly quipped. “I’d like to think I did it to the mayoral race.” His rivals didn’t blink at the joke.

For example, a disrupter can be seen in Uber’s lawsuit with the City or the litigation against Air BnB. All four candidates announced that the legal codes would be dug up and changed for the modern times; Albanese went as far to say that he’d establish a Deputy Mayor of Innovation who would act as the “thought leader” of bureaucratic tech.

Naturally, with the high price of office space in DUMBO and SoHo, the intersection between tech companies and real estate came to the forefront of the discussion. The candidates, sticking to their ideological lines, all advocated for more affordable housing and a reversal of Bloomberg’s rezoning over the past 12 years. Albanese, who met a few “hipsters” in Williamsburg the other day, argued that the zoning in start-up locales like North Brooklyn is not up to par with effectiveness.

Patel of the Verge asked a more specific question relating to his personal career: how can city government handle the leases of rapidly fast-growing start-ups who need to move constantly? Weiner, Albanese and Liu agreed that city government really can’t do anything to help. But Carrion Jr. was the only one to positively respond, saying that it was time to “dial back, bring the stakeholders together and find out what’s right for everyone.”

On the topic of education, the candidates hoped to concentrate more money in the STEM schools and make computer science its own separate entity in schools. Weiner was the only one skeptical about this; he had a problem with “anticipating what kind of person we want our schools” and opted to focus more on the foundations of the public school system.

Projects like CityTime–the scandal that revealed millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on exorbitant corporate kickbacks–were raised as well. If tech is to rise in relevance, how do we ensure some level of accountability? As Comptroller, John Liu was obviously the first to argue that more governmental oversight was necessary. Moving beyond that, Weiner and him stressed the need to crowd-source and digitize all city information so New Yorkers can participate in budget talks rather than simply download data as PDFs.

Of course, in the end, it was Weiner, as per usual, who remained consistent with his constructive metaphors and general interest. “As Mayors, we need to see landing strips where businesses hover around the City looking to land… we need to diversify our economy; right now, we have white rice and we need pad thai.”

All in all, the candidates brought a surprising amount of knowledge to the table last night. Carrion Jr. might’ve said “techies” by accident but the proposals resonated with the attendees. And that’s wholly important, given the day and age we live in. Carrion Jr. was right: 2013 is a pivotal moment for tech here in New York. So the more these candidates seem to know, the more economically suited the city will be in the coming years.

Oh, and if you were still wondering: Albanese (Blackberry Bold, Verizon, MLB app), Carrion Jr. (iPhone, AT&T, Pandora), Liu (iPhone, AT&T, favorite app N/A) and Weiner (“Two camelbacks strapped to my leg, or what’s known as a Blackberry,” AT&T, favorite app N/A).