Re-Engineering Tech-Worker Apathy

A Google engineer is running for office to push back against all the programmer bashing.

Gus Hartmann readily concedes that he has no chance of beating Sally Bagshaw. “I’m going to lose and I’m comfortable with that,” he said last week. He seems almost relieved of his imminent defeat. “Being on the Council would be a less pleasant work environment than I currently enjoy.”

After filing his candidacy papers, two days before the May 15 deadline, the 39-year-old site reliability engineer at Google took to social media and offered a rather flippant rationale for his decision to challenge the entrenched and well-bankrolled incumbent in the newly created 7th District. “So after some more research,” he posted on Google Plus, “it looks like I’d actually be expected to show up at the City Council like, every day. Plus a massive pay cut and no more free lunches. So I’ve decided to file and then basically not run. Well, I intend to be a pain in the ass of the incumbent because I think that’ll be fun.”

But Hartmann, who grew up in Wisconsin and recalled doorbelling for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential campaign, denies that he’s a nuisance candidate. “I’m sincere about this,” he says, adding that he really does intend to be a thoughtful, engaged contender and talk about issues that matter to him. In particular, he wants to ensure that the city’s high-tech hotbeds like the Denny Triangle area and South Lake Union are further developed without displacing existing residents.

More important, he wants to engage the tech community, hoping that his Google pedigree will translate into votes, but admits that may be too much to ask. “I’m going to try and coax them out, but the little fuckers don’t vote, to put it bluntly,” says Hartmann, who moved to Seattle in the late ’90s. “They are not civically engaged. They take civic responsibility lightly, and because of that they are used as scapegoats. They are blamed for showing up and driving up prices. But do we blame the lumberjacks who came here, the aerospace people who came here? To blame the tech workers is like blaming the tide for coming in.”

Electoral data from the 7th District would seem to back up Hartmann’s frank assessment of tech-worker apathy. Encompassing the established single-family neighborhoods of Queen Anne Hill and Magnolia—where Hartmann says he has no plans to campaign—the district also includes downtown high-rises and Belltown, the apartment buildings of Lower Queen Anne, and the high-tech worker boomtown of the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union, the two fastest-growing neighborhoods in Seattle.

The district has the highest percentage of single people (56 percent) and renters (63.6 percent) in all of Seattle, which would seem to indicate a young, liberal voting base. As is, however, the district is one of the city’s most conservative. That’s because the electorate in Queen Anne and Magnolia are older and vote in much greater numbers, says political strategist and pollster Ben Anderstone. In 2013, Kshama Sawant, in her victorious council race over Councilmember Richard Conlin, received only 43 percent of the vote in what is now the 7th District, her lowest vote percentage in the city; Ed Murray beat the more liberal Mike McGinn in the district by a 60 to 40 percent margin.

In the 2014 midterm elections, Anderstone tells the Weekly, voters under 36 were much less likely to vote in Belltown (34 percent turnout), Denny Triangle (34 percent) and South Lake Union (36 percent)—the three areas with the highest concentration of tech workers—as compared to Capitol Hill (46 percent), Fremont (49 percent), and Ballard (50 percent), places also rife with young transplants.

“What drives turnout is a feeling of commitment to a community, and these people in high-tech often don’t feel that they are a part of Seattle,” theorizes Anderstone. “They are well-educated and have higher incomes, but there’s no real political engagement.”

Postulates Todd Bishop, the co-founder of GeekWire, a Seattle-based national technology news site: “There is an underlying current that technology will save the world before our political leaders will.”

Elizabeth Campbell, a 36th legislative district board member who oversees get-out-the-votes efforts for Democrats in Belltown, LQA, and the Denny Triangle, says there are two main obstacles in getting high-tech workers to cast a ballot. First, she says, many of them reside in high-security buildings that are not conducive to door-to-door registration efforts; second, “They tend to live online, which is not as effective as personal one-on-one contacts.”

Dan Munro, the longtime owner of Nollie’s Café, located a few blocks from the heart of the Amazon campus, has for some time had a somewhat strained relationship with the high-tech workers who’ve come to monopolize South Lake Union. “Me and my fellow restaurateurs here have all noticed that they have this sense of entitlement,” says Munro. “And when you are so self-involved, there’s no room for community involvement. Plus for a lot of them, this is just a stopover place before they move to the next job somewhere else.”

Hartmann, who has worked at Google for seven years and rents a $2,100-a-month one-bedroom apartment in Belltown, says it’s unfortunate that his high-tech brethren are not more involved in the city’s public affairs. “It is a mistake on their part, but they don’t see government as relevant to their lives.”

As to the campaign ahead, Hartmann, who has raised about $5,000, deadpans, “I have to prepare for the worst—that I might win. But then, I could just never show up and they’d have to impeach me.”

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