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The father of net neutrality could become the next lieutenant governor of New York

The father of net neutrality could become the next lieutenant governor of New York


Columbia law professor Tim Wu is a tech hero, but is that enough to put him and running mate Zephyr Teachout in office?

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Tim Wu (left) and Zephyr Teachout speak at an event at Meetup's headquarters in Manhattan
Tim Wu (left) and Zephyr Teachout speak at an event at Meetup's headquarters in Manhattan

Update Tuesday, September 9th, 10:44 pm EST: Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu lost their respective bids in the Democratic primary on September 9th, according to reports. Still, they performed better than expected and their late-stage traction may set them up for other political futures.

Most of the tech industry will be focused on Cupertino, California, tomorrow, where Apple is hosting a much-hyped event, likely to unveil a new iPhone 6 and iWatch. But September 9th could see another tech milestone: the election of Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor nicknamed the "father of net neutrality," as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of New York state.

If Wu wins in the primary against his rival Kathy Hochul, a former Congresswoman, it would be a huge upset, making him very likely to win the general election in November. Wu's running mate is Zephyr Teachout, a fellow law professor at Fordham university who has an even tougher race to become New York's first female governor, challenging sitting Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo (she has extremely low name recognition, according to a recent poll).

"I have pushed ideas from the academic fringe to the mainstream."

Still, Teachout and Wu made an aggressive final push on Monday to court the votes of New York's tech entrepreneurs, appearing at an event at startup Meetup's headquarters in Manhattan to unveil their tech policy platform. Their plan includes a fierce opposition to Comcast's attempted merger with New York-based internet and TV provider Time Warner Cable, as well as enshrining net neutrality into state law, and opening up more radio spectrum for wireless internet experimentation in the state. "I have pushed ideas from the academic fringe to the mainstream in defense of an open internet," Wu said. "Net Neutrality was an obscure academic idea ten years ago, even fifteen years ago...I don't take all the credit for that, but I take some."

Read more: Tim Wu talks about tech policy’s worst year

It's no surprise Wu is leaning so heavily on his tech bonafides. That's where he has the most experience and could draw the most support. He coined the widely-used term "network neutrality" in 2003 to describe the idea that internet service providers shouldn't discriminate against different types of traffic by making users pay more for online video, for example, and his idea is now under siege. He served as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission back in 2011, with a focus on tech and consumer protection. He's already won the endorsement of the New York Times, and just today, he and Teachout received the endorsements of numerous tech founders, including Reddit's Alexis Ohanian. Altogether, Wu may be the most tech savvy political candidate outside of Congressman Jared Polis from Colorado, cofounder of several early consumer web companies and a Techstars advisor.

Wu is running for a seat that was left vacant by former lieutenant governor Robert Duffy, who announced his retirement in May. Wu's opponent, Kathy Hochul, is a former Republican Congressman from upstate, who switched parties after being handpicked for the job of lieutenant governor by Cuomo. And while she and Cuomo may have more name recognition to voters than Teachout and Wu, the voters still get to decide.

Cuomo and his supporters may be more worried about the race than they let on: Cuomo's campaign filed a lawsuit to remove Teachout from the ballot over residency questions (it was dismissed), and The New York Post reported today that the governor and his allies, including New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, have been threatening fellow Democrats in power not to support Teachout and Wu. Teachout and Wu aren't exactly taking the hits sitting down though: their campaign also filed a lawsuit against Cuomo's over mailings and fliers, which Daily Kos suspects is actually a move to get them more name recognition in the run-up to the vote.

"no longer a lackey or a bystander, but an advocate for the public."

In New York, you don't have to vote for the governor and lieutenant governor as a package deal, so it is conceivable that Wu could end up winning his race while Teachout loses hers. If that happens, Wu says he would support Governor Cuomo but still maintain his independence and advocate for positions favorable to New Yorkers and to tech entrepreneurs. He's campaigned over the past few months on a promise to be a "public advocate" if elected, someone unafraid to publicly disagree with his boss if their views don't align. "I propose to re-invent the lieutenant governor position as no longer a lackey or a bystander, but an advocate for the public," Wu said at today's event, citing the Comcast-Time Warner merger as an example. "New York state has the power to block the merger; it should use that power. This merger is no good for consumers."

Whether Wu has that opportunity to be that kind of politician remains to be seen. Either way, tomorrow will be a big test of the draw of a candidate whose main appeal is based on their tech bonafides. The polls in New York open at 6 am ET and close at 9 pm.