Why Utah’s tech sector is mixing business with politics

Why Utah’s tech sector is mixing business with politics

With money and a megaphone, the Utah Tech Leads PAC could serve as a moderating voice, Robert Gehrke explains.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

When Sunny Washington first saw Entrata co-founder Dave Bateman’s anti-semitic, anti-vaccination conspiracy-laden tirade make the news, the recently installed director of Utah Tech Leads thought for sure he’d been hacked.

He hadn’t, and as Bateman’s unhinged rant spread across social media, the tech sector had to step in.

The board of Entrata forced Bateman out of the company. In about 48 hours, some 80 members pledged to be part of a dialogue on how to end racism, anti-semitism, misogyny and ant-LGBTQ sentiment in the state. The first panel discussion on “Faith In The Workplace,” will be held this week.

After meeting wit Rabbi Sam Spector, Entrata executives pledged to make a significant donation to the local synagogue.

“To me, that’s a really great indication of what the tech community is like here,” Washington told me last week.

It was a gut-check of sorts for the tech community, but it won’t be the last time the sector exercises its voice.

Washington said the goal is to make the state’s burgeoning tech field an ongoing voice on key issues in the state. Her PAC sent a survey to members and got a few thousand responses on the issues they think are most important — air quality was overwhelmingly the top concern, followed by jobs and economic growth, diversity and inclusion and affordable housing.

“We have a voice on Twitter. We like to voice our anger in 280 characters, but we don’t necessarily know how to do that effectively. And sometimes I think we’re shouting into the wind not realizing there are real things we can do toward making a difference here,” Washington said.

The group is non-partisan. Generally speaking, she said, the industry is inhabited with fiscally conservative but socially progressive entrepreneurs.

But these businesses can be hampered by the kind of socially conservative bills that grab headlines and hurt the state’s national image, making it more difficult to recruit workers — key for an industry that struggles to find enough trained workers — and discouraging investors.

“Sometimes I get the feedback that this is a social issue, I don’t know why tech cares. In a lot of these ways we can very much make a business case as to why it impacts us,” she said. “We’re tired of the message bills. We don’t think they’re effective we don’t think it makes us look good and it certainly creates headlines that make it difficult for us to overcome.”

Part of that will be outreach, she said, helping lawmakers understand the needs of the sector, but it will go beyond that.

In the coming months, the PAC plans to develop criteria to identify candidates it will support in the upcoming election. And Washington hopes tech workers will get more involved in the process, becoming delegates at nominating conventions or running for office themselves. It’s time, she said, that the Legislature has a Tech Caucus on Capitol Hill.

All of this bolsters what I addressed in a recent column — that this tech lobby has the money and the megaphone to be a significant voice in Utah’s Capitol. A voice, that if used correctly, could moderate some of the Utah Republicans’ fringier, conspiratorial and less inclusive tendencies. And that’s a good thing.

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If you’d like to hear portions of the discussion with Utah Tech Leads PAC director Sunny Washington, be sure to check out The Daily Buzz, a new podcast from The Salt Lake Tribune. If you don’t want to hear the interview, check out the podcast anyway. It’s good stuff.

A QR code for “The Daily Buzz” homepage at The Salt Lake Tribune’s webpage.