➗The Calculus Behind Urban and Tech Politics
Podcast: Bradley Tusk explains to JT the rationale behind all the inputs and outputs of politics
Happy Inauguration Week! 🇺🇸
It’s pretty much a perfect week for the conversation featured in today’s edition and on the Urban Tech Podcast.
Last week, on the same day the House voted to impeach Donald Trump for a second time, I spoke with someone who is an expert on the strategy of politics. I got to speak with political strategist and investor Bradley Tusk.
Where to listen
Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Amazon Music | Select Podcast Player
We covered a ton in the conversation:
What qualities are needed for the next generation of mayors and city leaders
Why Bradley is supporting and advising Andrew Yang’s candidacy for New York City Mayor
The conditions that founders, executives, and companies should consider when choosing a city to plant their flag
How blockchain technology (not Bitcoin) could be the solution for our election problems in America
We also both geek out on our mutual love for NYC parks
Let’s get to it.
JT: Bradley, Thank you for taking the time. Many readers are likely familiar with your background. But maybe if you want to give the audience an idea of what you’ve worked on previously and what you do know.
BT: I started off in government and politics. I was Mike Bloomberg's campaign manager and also worked for him at City Hall. I spent four years as the deputy governor of Illinois.
I spent a couple of years in Washington as Chuck Schumer's Communications Director. Then in 2010, I started a bunch of different companies. Tusk Strategies, which is a consulting firm; Tusk Ventures, which is a venture capital fund; and then Tusk Philanthropies, which is a foundation that promotes mobile voting and other causes. I ran a bunch of campaigns to legalize ridesharing across the U.S.
Currently, I'm the CEO of Tusk Ventures. As far as I know, we are the only venture fund that is focused fully on the intersection of regulation and technology. We are early investors in companies in highly regulated industries.
I'm the chairman of the Ivory Gaming acquisition corporation. It's a public company on the NASDAQ. We did a SPAC a couple of months ago and are putting together a physical, digital new type of gaming company. I’m also incubating a startup in the field of telereligion.
Outside of investments, I run a consulting firm called Tusk Strategies. The most high-profile thing we're doing at the moment is running Andrew Yang's Campaign for Mayor of New York City.
Additionally, I'm CEO of Tusk Philanthropies. It’s a foundation where we are funding and running the effort around the U.S. to make it possible for people to vote in elections on their phones.
I think the only way to solve the polarization problem is to have radically higher voter turnout. As long as there is gerrymandering, turnout has to come in primaries. The average turnout in primaries right now is 10-15%, I think we can only bring things to consensus and moderation by getting closer to 40-50%.
It’s only going to happen if people can vote on their phones. To make it happen, we've funded elections in 18 different jurisdictions around the U.S.
We also run campaigns around the issue of childhood hunger and we've passed breakfast after the bell, the programs like that and make them all 11 States. Now about 2 million more kids now have access to regular meals as a result.
Separate from all of that work, I do some media stuff. I write a monthly column for Fast Company. I host a podcast called Firewall, which is all about all tech and politics. I also teach this stuff at Columbia business school.
JT: I guess I'd say you're a little busy. You recently wrote a column focused on new tech hubs like Miami or Austin that are emerging. There's a lot of online conversation about this topic right now, especially on Twitter, but I think your column cut through a lot of the noise and articulated why these cities are so attractive at this moment.
Can you walk me through your argument in the column?
BT: We have seen both San Francisco and New York, especially are really starting to lose businesses to other jurisdictions. HP, Oracle, Dropbox, Tesla, all moved to Texas from The Bay Area. Goldman Sachs, Carl Icahn, and others are moving some or all their operations from New York to Florida.
And the question is why? There are a few reasons it's all going to happen. The first is a little broader. If you look at the flight of manufacturing in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century, what really happened was at some point manufacturers realized: “Oh, I can make the same thing at good enough quality for a 10th of the cost in Taiwan and Mexico.”
Once manufacturers realized that insight, there was no going back. There were efforts to incentivize people to stay and try to keep them, ut at the end of the day, even if it was over a 40 year period a lot of manufacturing left the United State and cities that were dependent on the industry.
Cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, or Detroit have never fully recovered. They occasionally run a PR campaign to say that they're recovering, but they are still struggling.
The reason why cities like New York and San Francisco, while they also lost many manufacturing jobs, didn't end up suffering that much is that they were also hubs for different sectors. Especially in New York, for example, the white-collar hub of the U.S. The perception was if you are a big law firm, consulting firm, investment bank, tech company, advertising, marketing, media, etc. you had to be in one of those cities. If it was entertainment, you had to be in Los Angeles.
I think, unfortunately, the office version of that Ah-Ha moment happened during COVID. All of a sudden, everyone went to work from home. Everyone went on Zoom and the realization is, it's okay. I think we'd all rather not have the limitations on our freedom that the quarantine imposes for safety, but basically, my employees have been pretty much equally productive remotely as they are in person. The biggest challenge I’ve found is onboarding new people and training them is harder in this environment.
For example, if someone great on my team really, really wants to move to Austin and they are productive, then I probably have to accommodate them on it now. What basis do I have to say no?
So the problem is at scale when employers realize that you don't have to be in New York or anywhere specific, then all of a sudden they start to ask: do I want to be here?
They start to consider all of the negatives. For example, there's a lot of positives in New York. I live in Manhattan and I hope to never leave.
There's a lot of negatives, too. Taxes are high. There's a lot of regulation. Office space is really expensive. Then, as cities start suffering through cycles of decline, things really shift. Crime goes up. Quality of life goes down. Homelessness rises. All of a sudden the overall value proposition starts to shift too.
This is especially true if, after COVID, entertainment, food, and culture don't recover like they were before the pandemic, you have employers saying, you know what? I can move somewhere else. I can save a lot of money. Those places are pretty good too. My employees can live with it and I'd rather be in the nice weather all the time. So that's the macro.
Then the more specific piece in the column was about is if you look at the cities that are really benefiting from these trends, they're blue cities in red states because they provide at least in theory, a progressive liberal environment with an emphasis on culture.
Austin is a great example of this trend for example.
JT: I'm from Texas. I grew up in Houston, but my family lives in Austin and I spend most of my time in Texas these days there so I appreciate the example and have seen it.
BT: My wife is from Austin, her family lives there. And so I've been going there since the mid-nineties. To see how it’s grown is pretty remarkable, but it's still this place that it's considered like this incredibly creative, fun, progressive city. And that makes it exciting for Tesla, Oracle, HP etc. They can say we're going to move our office to Austin, but guess what? They also have no state income tax and very few state regulations.
So being a blue city in a red state is a real sweet spot right now because you have all the cultural and normative attractions and arguments that New York or San Francisco would try to make, but then you also have a far better economic situation. For employers, you put those two things together and that becomes really hard to beat.
To me, we've either got to look at what's driving businesses out of New York and San Francisco, and seriously say, Hey, how do we stop that? That sounds reasonable, but it's actually the opposite of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) agenda. The political zeitgeist right now in most major cities is on the far left.
You can focus on canceling rent, defunding the police, and raising taxes, but it's probably only going to hasten the flight of businesses out of New York, out of California, and into other states. And while the goal of people on the far left is they want to help working people but it's hard to help working people if there are no jobs for them to work.
Option A is to stop some of the behaviors that are driving jobs and companies out. The other option would be just flip the script and say, okay, let's turn Texas blue. Let's turn Georgia blue. Let’s turn Tennessee blue. Then in doing so, those states start to impose more taxes, more regulations. The competitive disadvantage disappears to some extent because all of a sudden you've made them more like you.
And so politically you got people like me. In New York or San Francisco who are engaged and active and have plenty of money to give to candidates. We focus on things like taking back the U.S. Senate. I was glad to see that it happened in Georgia last week, but the reality is if you really care about your hometown, you may be better off investing in the governor's race or in state legislative races.
And if you can't make your hometown, a little less dark blue, then you might want to try to make some of these other cities, a little bluer to compete and even things,
JT: I love that thought on local involvement. Part of the reason why I'm personally about all of these issues is I truly believe the world would be a better place if everyone was engaged with their local government and local issues a little bit more.
To your point on Austin and blue cities in red states that are becoming increasingly popular, I am hearing my friends and people in my age group increasingly curious about these cities. Personally, I know quite a few people who have relocated to Austin during COVID.
I know you're involved in all of this in a lot of different ways. When you're talking to local leaders or people in leadership positions, whether on the government side, the nonprofit world, or the private sector, what skills or qualities do you think we need in local leaders to make the most of our cities and the opportunity in front of us?
BT: Yeah. Look, it's a great question. I'm somewhat, or maybe very much biased because I worked for I think the greatest mayor in New York history and in many ways, the prototype of what you would want in a mayor in Mike Bloomberg.
I'm heavily influenced by that. But having spent time working for Mike at City Hall, having run his mayoral campaign here are the things that I saw that to me reflect a really good mayor and what you want. These are also the qualities for why I chose to support Andrew Yang for mayor this time around because I felt Andrew came closest to checking these boxes than any of the other candidates.
I think these qualities are important whether it's New York, San Francisco, or any kind of major city like that. The first thing is his talent, right? So Mike in part, because the upside of being the outsider that no one supports is if you win, you don't owe anybody anything.
When the winner from the system wins they already owe every job or some political patron or someone a favor. And so instead of hiring on talent, they're hiring on politics. For example, when Bill de Blasio became Mayor of New York, all the jobs in the administration got filled with hacks.
But when Mike Bloomberg became mayor, He said I don't care about politics. I don't care about anything other than talent. So I am going to hire the smartest people, but I don't care if you're from New York or Kathmandu. Then, I'm going to make them hire all the smartest people they can find. Then once we were all there, Bloomberg let us come up with big ideas, and if they failed, but we went about them the right way that was totally fine.
You and I mentioned and were talking about Dan Doctoroff before we started recording. And Dan, if you think about it, who was Mike’s Deputy Mayor and a recent legend in New York City government. His two biggest things failed, right?
They were both right, but he tried to get the Olympics and he tried to get congestion price, which by the way, eventually did end up happening, but Dan was literally 15 years ahead of his time. The conventional person would have said, this guy just failed some big initiatives. Do you know what Mike did after Dan lost both of those?
He made Dan CEO of Bloomberg L.P. and Dan did tremendously well and grew the company significantly. It was a great choice.
So, the first thing is you need to be able to recruit talent. Then, you've got to empower them. And if you're willing to do that, a lot of good things can happen. If you made a list of the hundred best things that happened during Bloomberg mayoralty I don't know that Mike thought of any of those hundred things. He created an environmental culture that made it possible for all one hundred things to happen, so that's number one.
Number two on the list is city government is an operational job. I’ll tell you a famous story. In the early 1970s, New York had John Lindsay as mayor. Lindsay was this very dashing good-looking guy who saw himself as the next JFK.
In Chicago, the mayor was the original Mayor Daley, right? The ultimate insider. They couldn't be more different. According to this story, they were at some dinner together at the same table and Lindsay is going about the Vietnam War and his opposition to it. Finally, Daley has had enough, he leans over and he says, “your job is to pick up the trash.”
The truth is, there were a lot of bad things about Richard J. Daley, but in a sense he was right. City governance is an operational job and your job is not to create a certain type of society, in my opinion.
Your job is to give people a clean, safe place to live that makes it possible for jobs to want to be there. It makes it possible for tourists to want to come. The city has good schools that people can send their kids to without having to move to the suburbs or needing to go to private school.
If you can create those conditions, really good things happen. But that means focusing on operations. It means making sure that the water is coming through the tap cleanly. It means making sure that the traffic light is changing at the right intervals. It means making sure that the trash is being picked up in the right place at the right time, every single day.
If you look at city government as some of the recent politicians, San Francisco or New York have, as more of an ideological exercise and not on the operational job it is, then you screw things up. Then ultimately, the city is a lot less palatable to live. Jobs go away. And that ultimately only hurts, working people. So, this operational focus is so crucial.
The third idea would be you have to understand that it's a mosaic of things that make a city great. If a city is only about, millennials from really great schools working in high paying jobs, then that ultimately sucks. They're having fun. But ultimately that's not a great city.
But if the city says, if we can create as many opportunities as possible, whether it's private-sector jobs, culture, or nonprofit sector jobs, or tech jobs, and gives people a variety of things to do in the city, places to work, places to live, housing that's affordable. If you can do that, you're going to take all the best elements of a city, put them together into one place, and that's going to give you a great place to live. And that's what attracts talent and jobs and opportunity.
You've got to believe in that. Bill de Blasio and I feel I’ve spent this whole podcast picking on Bill de Blasio, but he's never stepped foot on the Highline. As a matter of principle, he opposes the highlight. Anyone who listens to podcasts on a Highline, it is lovely, right?
It's a wonderful park that is open and free to anyone who wants to come there. If you look at the city and say, I'm inherently opposed to 40% of it because they don't fit my ideology, then you're just going to miss the point and that's what's happened.
JT: I think certainly in terms of de Blasio, the narrative has shifted a lot this last term, but I think those criticisms are pretty valid. Saying that even as someone who, frankly, my first job out of college involved working on the de Blasio reelection campaign in 2017.
Both of us are pretty optimistic about the opportunity at the local level for mayors and local leaders to do a lot of exciting things. That idea seemed true 12 months ago before COVID, but I think the job of the next generation of city leaders, mayors, will be a very different kind of job.
You're not going to get to do the ambitious big projects and exciting stuff. You're going to have to make a lot of tough decisions like cutting city services and doing hard things to help your city recover from Covid. I'd love to hear about your thoughts on that and what the next few years look like for leaders in big cities like New York
BT: Sure. The first thing is thinking about the Yang campaign, and obviously, we're spending a lot of time thinking about what the next mayor should be like? What do the voters want to hear? What do they need to hear? Or what do we need to do?
I think it's a mix of a few things. One is you're right. There's gotta be a focus like I said before on just getting shit done because right now in New York City, they can't distribute the vaccines correctly. They are literally so inept that we have vaccines sitting in this city and they're not getting in people's arms because the basic functionality isn’t there, so you need a mayor to say, “I'm going to make sure the vaccines get distributed.” God willing, by the time the next mayor takes office, everyone will have one.
The next mayor will also need to say we lost a million jobs during COVID. Countless small businesses, restaurants, bars closed. I'm going to really focus on making it easier for them to reopen and really try to give them a chance to build back their businesses. A lot of it's gotta be blocking and tackling.
At the same time, there are some really big bold items that also need to be addressed. For Andrew Yang, obviously universal basic income is his big issue. Without giving anything away, I think you can expect to see that a lot in our mayoral race over the next few months.
Some of it is what are big, new, exciting things that we can do even in tough economic times. And then some of it is what are the basics that have just not been addressed by the previous administration?
It's funny, you've seen the city of New York and it was probably true in San Francisco to some extent as well, it really declined over time. As you went from a mayor, focused on competence and operation like Bloomberg to a mayor like de Blasio.
In the early years, you still have this hangover of the systems that Bloomberg put in place. The people were still there and they were able to compensate for the lack of focus by the Mayor’s office. Then over seven, eight years, those people leave, they move on, and eventually, you start to see streets that are dirty, graffiti, public urination, a rise in homelessness, city schools getting much worse, all of that.
You've gotta be able to address that, but at the same time, voters do want to hear big ideas as well. And so whether it's New York, San Francisco or other cities, I think the person who can say I can make the trains run on time, but I also have some big thoughts and ideas -- that's the person that I think will have the best shot.
JT: I'm curious when you're talking to people on the government, political side, that's one side. But when you're talking to more people on the tech side, when you're talking to LPs (limited partners/investors) for your venture fund, or when you're talking to startup founders who are looking to relocate to new cities, what kind of advice are you giving them when they're choosing a place to embed themselves?
BT: First of all, at least when talking to people in New York, I tried to convince them to stay because I love the city and I want it to continue to be incredible.
Sometimes though, it really just doesn't make sense for them. For me, at least my type of people I talk with, I’ll try to explain there may be high taxes, but there may be tax incentives that you could qualify for that you're not aware of. There might be new rent discounts that go into place because there's so much vacant real estate because we've lost so many jobs. There may be more willingness to be accommodating today when 6- 12 months, the city was blowing you off.
Just like ironically, a lot of startups that have products that are controversial, but potentially really lucrative from a tax revenue standpoint, they are going to benefit tremendously from Covid. All of a sudden, if you're a Fanduel, DraftKings, or if you're a cannabis company everything you do is gonna get legalized now, right?
When times are really good politicians say, I don't need the political heat of dealing with this issue. The implementation is much slower when the choice, all of a sudden is not allowing a mobile sports betting thing, and you get some criticism or not. It doesn't really matter. You don't do it.
But if the choice is to slash funding for schools or hospitals, raise taxes, or let them just bet on the phone, on the football games, all of a sudden mobile sports betting, that doesn't sound so bad.
So ironically, tech regulation in some of the really big cities over the last five years has been pretty harsh because when times are really good and the city doesn’t need money, it’s politically feasible to be against tech. For example, you saw it inNew York, when it prided itself on driving Amazon's second headquarters out of town. Or with San Francisco, planning all kinds of new restrictions on short-term rentals, Google buses, or whatever it is.
Cities can afford to do those kinds of things when times are really good. When all of a sudden, they need the jobs. They need the revenue. They have to behave differently, especially when those companies are now showing you they will leave.
And so in a weird way, I think over the next couple of years, the sort of regulatory/political climate for startups and tech companies in some of the big cities might be more palatable and more pleasant than in the last few years. But on the federal side, it's going to flip. If you are. Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, whoever, things will get stricter.
Between antitrust threats, privacy legislation, the repeal of Section 230, a far more aggressive Department of Labor, and other federal agencies, these companies are going to have a harder time over the next couple of years. This will happen in contrast to the local level, where I think it's going to be the reverse. Cities are going to need jobs and businesses.
JT: You also recently wrote a column, after the Capitol attack, on what's going on at the federal level. Can you explain your argument for why it made sense for tech companies to react to Trump like they did?
BT: Yeah, I wrote that mainly out of frustration. I write a monthly column for Fast Company, and I actually already did something for January, but I was sitting there thinking that the same people that are freaking out right now and calling all these platforms left lingers and dictators and whatever else. The shoe was reversed with 99.8% of consequences for Trump's presidency. He had a platform on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and all these other things.
The answer is not that the politics shifted within these companies. The answer is the companies don't care. They're not conservative. They're not liberal. They're not good. They're not bad. They only believe in maximizing value to their shareholders and their team. And that's it.
Donald Trump, is a guy, who I think he's the worst human being in American history at this point. But, he was a godsend for Twitter and you know that because when they banned him, the market value dropped $5 billion in one day. It's not that they didn't know this.
They said: “we're going to keep this guy on our platform for as long as we possibly can because the only things we care about are clicks and eyeballs because that generates revenue.”
Whether you're Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any other platform, you want to maximize a utility. You want to maximize eyeballs. So it’s not like they didn’t know what Trump was like.
They just said, “okay, we're going to keep this guy on until the last possible second. Once it becomes politically impossible for us to do so, or the cost of having him outweighs the benefit, then we'll kick them off.”
So we got to that point after what happened at the Capitol on January 6th, where the costs suddenly outweighed the benefit where you had employees freaking out, you had customers upset.
The most important thing you had was advertisers that were saying, “look, I'm getting a lot of pressure, Facebook, Twitter to not advertise on your platform. If you're giving Trump a forum.” To hear from enough of those advertisers, and all of a sudden the same people that were telling them up until that moment, “we don’t care what the politics are; just get us as many eyeballs as possible, and we'll pay you as much as we can.”
Now, all of a sudden they were saying, “we don't want the heat on this thing, so we can't be advertisers on Twitter if you're going to give Trump a continued platform.” That's what caused the platforms to do it in the end.
All this talk that it's the ideology for these platforms, and they are one side or the other, it’s not the ideology — it's just business. And that's it. Their political decisions are predicated on anything, but politics.
JT: That was something I really appreciated about the column because I think certainly anything around Trump and federal politics gets heightened so heavily.
Your column really cut through that and did a good job explaining why now for these companies making the moves.
I think this connects well to another topic I’m interested in hearing about. I know you're super involved with mobile voting and increasing participation.
Can you share some updates on that project and what you're working on?
BT: Yeah, so just to give a little bit of background, I know I mentioned it a little earlier when I was going through the stuff I'm up to, but here’s some context.
So I've worked in government at lots of different levels. I've worked in city government, state government, the federal government, the executive branch, the legislative branch, and in all different parts of the country. I love campaigns. I feel like I've seen the system pretty inside, and the main takeaway I have is that all policy outputs are driven by political inputs.
The 99% of people who run for office desperately need the validation and affirmation that comes with being somebody and holding office. It literally fills a hole in themselves and expecting these people to do anything and to put that at risk, it’s just unreasonable. It doesn't happen.
So take guns for example. When there's a school shooting, there are thoughts, prayers, vigils, and calls for change. And then do you ever see an assault weapon ban happen? No. And the reason why you don't see it happen, say you're a Republican congressman from Florida.
Turnout in your primary is 12% and the district is gerrymandered, so the only election that really matters is the primary. You probably know intellectually that it's insane that someone can walk in off the street and walk out with an AK 47.
But to the 12% of voters primary voters, guess what? Half were NRA members. And if you vote for an assault weapons ban, you’ve lost every single one of them.
And so you're saying, yes, I could maybe do this thing, but I would be sacrificing the rest of my career to do so. Guess what? They don't do it ever. And that's true on both sides of the aisle. I'm an independent at this point. I hate both parties and think they're both wildly corrupt.
And so nonetheless, the way that we try and get things done is totally wrong, because we say: “I understand all of your interests and incentives are here, but you should still do the sane thing because it's the right thing to do.” That doesn't work.
So if you want different outputs, you need different inputs. Ultimately right now, when primaries have 10-15% turnout, who is it that turns out? It’s either the furthest left or the furthest, right. And it’s big, special interests who can move money in those low turnout elections and therefore really influence the outcome.
We talked earlier about how New York in 2019 rejected Amazon's HQ2 proposal — which was a disastrous decision because we lost a million jobs during Covid. We could have desperately used those jobs.
But the politicians from the district that really led the fight against it, politically, they were exactly right in what they were doing. They said, “okay yeah, 60% of my district may support this. And 70% of the city might support this, but the random 10% of the 10,000-20,000 people who actually show up and vote in my primary, they hate Amazon. So I don't need to make everybody happy. I just got to keep these lunatics happy.”
As a result, as long as turnout was really low, all the political incentives were to oppose the deal and not support it. And they did oppose it. They killed it. And in the best sort of evidence of their calculation being right, is that they all came up for reelection in the primaries last June, and all the leaders got reelected with over 70% of the vote with turnout of about 10% in their elections.
Now imagine the same race but turnout is at 40%-50%. If you look at the polls, half in the district who's voting, they want this Amazon deal. So now you're flipping the script completely because you want to stay in an office. So therefore now, you're saying I support Amazon. You're saying I support an assault weapon ban because most people don't think you should be able to buy an AK-47off the street — but most people who vote in the Republican primary say differently.
There's so many different issues where 70% of the country agrees on basic principles. So like guns. Most people agree that you should not be able to go buy a gun wherever you want, anytime you want, whenever you want it. And most people wouldn't support walking into every home of the U.S. and confiscating everyone's guns, right?
That's 70% of people, but the 15% of the left and the right, we don't hold either of those views. They're the ones who actually built some of the ones who matter. Take immigration, most people don't support deporting everyone here illegally; nor do they support having completely open borders and letting anyone walk in from anywhere.
But again, that 70% doesn't vote in the primaries, so they don't really matter. If we want to see consensus on issues like healthcare, climate, education, guns, immigration, etc. we actually have the consensus in terms of the views, but what we don't have is in terms of the influence and that's because people don't vote.
When I was running the campaigns to legalize ridesharing back in 2011-2013, the way that we beat the taxi industry at the time, Uber was this tiny little startup and Taxi was this powerful cartel with all kinds of political muscle. But the way that we won was that we were able to turn our customers directly into political advocates, right?
All of a sudden, people who never vote in a primary, who generally are politically disengaged got an alert on the app saying, “look, if you liked this Uber thing, if you like just pressing a button and getting a car instead of hoping that a cab happens to come by, you've got to say something because otherwise, it's going to go away.
And we created a tool for people to engage with officials directly. If you pressed this button in the Uber app, it connected you to your city councilman, state rep, state senator, whoever the relevant person was in that particular situation. As a result, millions of people over a period of years ended up weighing in on behalf of Uber and behalf of ridesharing.
And we won in every single jurisdiction in the United States. Ridesharing isn’t legal everywhere in the world but is legal everywhere in the U.S. I remember thinking, as this was happening, if we only we could vote like this, it would change everything. But at the time, the technology around it wasn't quite there.
Then two things happened. One: blockchain really developed. Cloud also really developed too.
Two is I had taken my fee from Uber in equity back in the Series A and held onto it and all of a sudden it became worth, by the time they were ready to go public, a lot of money.
So I said, A, the technology's there now and B, I can fund this thing myself now.
And so I started the Mobile Voting Project. We’ve supported financially all of the costs of administering elections in 18 different jurisdictions around the U.S. Some in liberal states like Washington and Oregon and some in really Republican states like West Virginia and Utah. In all of these places, people have been able to vote in their primaries on the phone.
So far, we’ve focused on two demographics. The first is deployed military because it's also extra insulting that you're literally risking your life to protect our right to vote and we don't bother to vote.
Then also if your military, oftentimes your vote isn’t actually counted because by the time election officials get your vote via mail from Baghdad or Kandahar, the election happened a month ago and the ballots get thrown in the trash.
The second group we’ve focused on is people with disabilities because if you’re blind or deaf, often you don’t get the privacy of the ballot and the ability to vote is just more difficult.
Those were two groups that we were able to make the case for giving them a chance to do this on their phone instead. Some votes were done over the cloud and some were done under the blockchain, but in all 18 cases, The National Cyber Security Center Independently honored each election. They all came back secure.
Now, we are talking small amounts of votes 5,000 votes, 2000 votes, 600 votes. So yeah, North Korea is not targeting two counties in West Virginia -- I understand that, but it worked. And more importantly, turn out on average, more than doubled, because guess what? It was a lot easier. Not shockingly, just as every single other app has proven when you reduce friction, you get pick up.
So that's where we are. One of the things that I and the team realized in the second half of last year is the companies doing the work were, but they're running on a very, small scale. And to me, while I'm happy to make it easier for people with disabilities to vote or deployed military to vote, my goal is to make it possible for everyone to be able to on their phones.
What I really want to do is get a turnout in those primaries up from 10%-15% to 40%-50%, because that's what forces the changes. Then inputs change, the political incentive, and that's what changes the policy outcomes.
Now, we did an RFP process in the second half of 2020 asking companies to apply, to have us fund the construction of new mobile and the technology. We put $10 million into the project, but it's completely non-profit, so whatever we do, it will be open source and given away to governments. 25 different companies and academic entities applied and we're down to the final four and hopefully making the selection soon.
We will fund the creation of this new technology where we can really show that we can securely transmit hundreds of thousands of votes or millions of votes, or even in a presidential election, tens of millions of votes online as opposed to just being a couple of thousand votes. So we're making that choice soon, and that's the next frontier.
JT: My first question: what's it like talking to people in government, who for them, technology might not be their first strong suit when you're talking to them about blockchain? How often are people asking you about bitcoin?
BT: 100 percent of the time people confuse blockchain with bitcoin. They say, “I don’t need Bitcoin for my election.” You don't. We agree. Bitcoin has nothing to do with this. Blockchain is just plumbing, right?
Bitcoin is an ideological conceit. One, I happen to generally be sympathetic to but, you can make a perfectly valid argument for or against bitcoin on ideological grounds. Saying the blockchain is ideological is like saying that the gas pipes underneath your house are ideological. It's just a way to transmit data more securely from point A to point B — that's all.
Once we explain that it helps a little bit. It’s interesting because we've had pickup from some election officials on both sides of the aisle. There are people whose personality is to innovate and try new things. And those people regardless of what their political party is, they gravitate towards this, and are the ones that we've worked with.
Then, there are a lot of people who are really risk-averse and afraid of trying new things, even if trying those things would really make a material difference and doing their jobs better. They're gonna need to see a lot more proof of concept before we get them there.
JT: Not to pivot too much, but you've had an amazing career and have a great bio. I think one of my favorite things that sticks out from your background though is when you started working in New York politics, you started in the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
I'm personally a lover of NYC’s Parks Department. Truly, I think it's maybe the best park system in the country. I love LA parks. They're great. That's where I live now, but I think the New York City parks department is one of the best park departments in the world.
As a fellow park lover, I'm curious what's the most underrated park in New York City, in your opinion? Also, what type of innovations are you seeing in regards to parks and public spaces on the investment side?
BT: Yeah, that's such a great question. There was this parks revitalization that I feel proud that I was a small part of, but in the mid-1990s into the early 2000s, there was a real revitalization of New York City Parks where there was a lot more effort on making them cleaner, more fun, more active, safer. And also really investing in capital infrastructure to build new playgrounds, new facilities, things that people would go to take advantage of, and that really transform the entire system.
There's 28,000 acres of parkway in New York City, which you wouldn't expect in a concrete jungle like this, but there are over 2000 parks and playgrounds in New York City and a lot of them are really wonderful.
One that I think it's really interesting is Morningside Heights park up by Columbia University. It’s a park that has incredible natural beauty. It has a wooded area. It has cliffs but it had been very dangerous for a very long time given the 1980s and early 1990s. It developed a terrible reputation. Columbia students were afraid to go in there. By the way, it's where Andrew Yang is launching his campaign tomorrow because he went to Columbia.
But as the city kind of got safer and better in the 90s, and all of a sudden this park opened up again, and people could start really using it and enjoying it. It made a huge difference.
But, as we talked a little while ago, if you have a bad mayor for long enough, things start sliding back. As parks are getting more dangerous again, a young Barnard student named Tessa Majors was stabbed to death in the park by a group of kids. She was there trying to buy weed, which was illegal, though It should be legal, but something went wrong and she was killed. And that really showed kind of the rise of that park and the fall of that park. And I think hopefully it can rise again.
That's a place that I really love. I live downtown, so the park closest to me is Union Square Park, Madison Square Park. Washington Square Park. When my kids were little, I spent all of our time at the playgrounds and really knew the ins and outs of every little kind of corner playground on a different street.
There was one I remember on 11th or 12th between Aves A and B, that was like the most beautiful playground. And it was so out of the way for people that there was always tons of space. It was like the most lovely place. Maybe that in some ways is my answer.
In terms of innovation, look, I haven't seen that much in recent years simply because the de Blasio administration here in New York, It's not focused on innovation. They've been pretty hostile to innovation. So as a result, the commissioners of the agencies have not been encouraged to embrace innovation.
You could envision a world where construction technologies improved significantly. That you could meaningfully bring down the cost of building a playground or building fencing or building new benches or anything else maybe you don't necessarily need as we're forced to do it, maybe you can do it with robots.
Maybe it's all pre-fabrication. But ultimately the system is completely dependent on how much money gets invested in it. And if you could rebuild a playground for $500,000 instead of a million dollars, guess what? You can build two playgrounds instead of one. And so I think at least on the construction tech side, there's probably a lot of opportunities to bring costs down.
Politically, though It might be hard because people would say that you're hurting union jobs. But from the ability of delivering the greatest, good to 8.6 million New Yorkers that may be a way to do it.
JT: I don't want to take up too much more of your time. I know you're obviously got some big things going on right now, including a mayoral election. But is there anything that I didn't ask you that you thought of during the conversation that I should have? Anything you want to leave the audience with?
BT: Usually, when I get asked that question, I say mobile voting, but you actually asked me about mobile voting. Can I talk about the Gotham Book Prize for one second?
JT: Please go for it. Where should Urban Tech readers be looking for the next great New York City story?
BT: You might know at least of Howard Wolfson, or maybe you've dealt with him in your time in New York City politics, but Howard and I for a couple of years we’re surprised that there was no prize given every year to the best books set in New York City.
And we thought it might be cool to create that. Then when COVID really hit and started really decimating the city our thought was: there's two New York, right? So if you live in New York, it's the physical, real New York. It's the streets; It's the playgrounds; It's the subways, it's the schools.
But then for the rest of the world, there's a New York that exists in a conceptual realm in books, movies, TV shows, and songs. That’s New York that clearly has so much appeal to people from all over the world. For as long as the best and the brightest and most talented people all over the world say, “this is a place that I want to be”
We, as two individuals, couldn’t really do a lot to change the physical plight of the city from a philanthropic standpoint over the next couple of years, but we found our way. If the mystique about New York that draws people remains. If that aura of creativity is still alive, and people are incentivized to write about New York, make movies about New York, then it will help New York long term.
So, Wolford and I, set up The Gotham Book Prize which is a $50,000 award each year that will go to the best books that are based in New York City. We recently announced the nominees and we'll announce the first prize in April.
Like I mentioned before, my hope is to open up a bookstore and podcast studio on the Lower East Side as part of the initiative. The project connects to some of my family’s history in New York. My grandfather had a retail shop in the 1950s nearby, so I love the idea of bringing it full circle while creating some retail jobs in New York.
JT: I love to hear that you're working on that and continuing to tell great stories about New York. Best of luck on the bookshop and the podcast studio. Also, on the mayoral election. I’m sure you’ll be busy.
Hope we get to chat again soon.
BT: Thank you. This was great. Incredibly smart podcast. I really enjoyed it. So thank you so much for having me on.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Bradley! Urban Tech will be back on Monday with the essential city and tech stories you should know to start the week.