“Innovation” a New Campaign Theme for Local Politics in San Diego

Something unusual has been happening to the innovation community in San Diego. Local pols are starting to pay more attention to entrepreneurship, and to the clusters of innovative tech and biotech startups sprouting throughout the region.

In contrast to San Francisco, where local politics gets polarized over tech startups like Airbnb and Uber, San Diego’s startup scene doesn’t usually provide much fodder for the body politic.

In San Diego, local elected officials, candidates, and voters are more likely to get into a political lather over a proposed real estate development—any development—or whether the San Diego Chargers are really, really, this-time-they-mean-it planning to leave town.

But something is different in this campaign cycle. A number of political candidates have been touting their support for that innovation thing that entrepreneurs do.

The list includes Barbara Bry, a tech entrepreneur and investor who is running for an open seat on the San Diego city council; Gil Cabrera, a candidate for city attorney; and Denise Gitsham, a Republican challenging the incumbent Democrat, U.S. Rep. Scott Peters in the 52nd Congressional District.

If elected, Bry told me, “I would be the first tech entrepreneur on the San Diego City Council.”

Whatever is happening, it’s not limited to political candidates. San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer gave a Tedx talk on “fostering innovation,” and he was on hand when a new Fab Lab facility was dedicated in downtown San Diego. He speaks frequently about innovation, and made it easier for the organizers of San Diego Startup Week to use the Broadway Pier for their opening ceremony in June.

“I do feel that there is a bit of a sea change” that’s been positive for the tech community, says Austin Neudecker, an entrepreneur and mentor who has helped build the startup ecosystem in San Diego by advising companies, founding Startup San Diego, and organizing mentoring programs for startups admitted to the no-strings-attached EvoNexus incubator. “I don’t know if it’s just [politically] popular, or what.”

Of course, if you’re a political candidate, who is going to be opposed to innovation? It’s like motherhood and apple pie.

Tom Shepard

Tom Shepard

Tom Shepard, a longtime local Republican political consultant, says that with a few exceptions the leaders of San Diego’s innovation economy were not engaged in local politics in the past. “They were focused on the state and federal level, where they retain lobbyists to work on the issues that are important to them,” Shepard says.

But Shepard says that began to change in 2012. That’s when Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs crossed party lines to endorse Carl DeMaio, a conservative Republican, instead of Democrat Bob Filner, in the city’s mayoral campaign. Although Filner defeated DeMaio in the November general election, he resigned the following August amid allegations that he had forcibly kissed, groped, and sexually harassed at least 19 women.

A special election to fill the remainder of Filner’s term (which ends in 2016) led to city councilman Kevin Falconer’s inauguration as San Diego mayor in early 2014.

As Falconer settled into his new role, some tech entrepreneurs sought his support for making downtown San Diego more of a hub for tech startups. They enlisted the new mayor to help get Google Fiber to bring its gigabit Ethernet service to San Diego. They also asked Falconer and other city officials to consider turning the city’s old downtown library into a startup incubator for new tech companies—a proposal that City Council president Todd Gloria seized upon.

Neudecker told me he’s “extra happy” that Gloria has been vying with Falconer for props as a local tech booster, saying, “I would rather them fight over which one of them is doing a better job of supporting the tech community.”

According to Shepard, there’s now an evolving sense that San Diego’s identity is tied to the early stage companies advancing innovation in technology and the life sciences.

“Those companies are a driving force in growing our local economy,” Shepard says. Fast-growing companies contribute directly to the local economy, and they pay better-than-average salaries to attract scientists and other highly skilled workers.

Many of those companies—and their employees—are clustered among San Diego’s coastal communities encompassed by the 52nd Congressional District, which Peters claimed in a narrow victory over Republican Brian Bilbray in 2012.

Gitsham, a Republican who announced her candidacy earlier this month, moved to San Diego in 2010 while working for Sapphire Energy, the San Diego industrial biotech, and started a small public relations firm, now called SVN Public Relations in 2012.

Her firm helped promote San Diego’s Startup Week in 2014, and Gitsham said she particularly wants to speak up for the district’s creative, technology-based start-ups and entrepreneurs.

But incumbency has its privileges.

Last week, Biocom, the San Diego life sciences industry group, gave Peters its “Elected Official of the Year” award. The group cited Peters for his advocacy on behalf of federally funded scientific research, for co-founding a “life science caucus” in the House, for working to repeal a federal tax on medical devices, and for advocating for balanced and targeted patent reform.

“The life sciences have come to the vanguard of the innovation economy in San Diego,” Biocom CEO Joe Panetta says. “It’s significant from a political standpoint because biotech is creating jobs, jobs that are paying very well. And it’s a segment of the population that votes.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

Trending on Xconomy