Nathan Kleinman, 29, a human rights activist who worked for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, is mounting a primary challenge under the banner of the Occupy Wall Street movement against suburban Philadelphia Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, a reliable supporter of the president’s agenda in Washington.
A leading figure in Occupy Philadelphia, Kleinman was an aide to retired Admiral and two-term Congressman Joe Sestak’s successful primary against Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in 2010.
The challenge is the latest sign that the Occupy movement, which has kept a safe distance from the two-party system since it erupted last September, is starting to flirt with electoral politics so as to maintain energy and relevance while the press corps fixates on the presidential race and speculates about which party will control Congress in 2013.
“I’m running because I believe we’re losing our democracy in our country,” Kleinman told The National Memo. “I believe strongly in the principles of the Occupy movement as I understand them. In some ways I intend to use my candidacy to be something of an ambassador for the movement. I do believe it is important for people to be involved in the political process because the government has so much power. The more we wait, the more power they claim for themselves, and the harder it will be to take our country back in the future. I believe in a diversity of tactics, and I believe a multi-pronged approach is important.”
“Day 1 Occupiers,” as those who were present from the beginning in Zuccotti Park (and who help set the national tenor of the ongoing protests) tend to refer to themselves, are not on board.
“I’m skeptical of anyone with a background in electoral politics,” said Jeff Smith, a member of the Occupy Wall Street press team.
But it is only fitting that a Democratic activist would be the first Occupier to wade into the 2012 campaign. The cadres of young, mostly white idealists who propelled the president’s grassroots organizing four years ago — having rediscovered the euphoria of 2008 in the initial weeks of the protests last fall — find themselves compelled by the superstructure of American politics to deal with the electoral system.
“Occupy in many ways takes up the energy that existed among the volunteer base when President Obama was elected,” Kleinman said. “And I recognize that when he went into office, the volunteer organizations kind of faded away for a while. They weren’t prioritized. I think that was a mistake, and people are looking for an outlet now.”
The key change is that this time around, they do so independently of any individual politician’s campaign apparatus.
“I think there will be more of this sort of thing,” said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia professor and social movement historian who led Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. “It’s one direction for the more transactional people in the movement. I would expect that he would run into some flack from people in the movement and he’ll have to deal with that. This is a traditional dynamic. Tension between a movement and party, between a movement and organized electoral forces.”
Gitlin suggested that this effort and others like it that are reportedly cropping up in local races across the country, as well as more traditional Democrats like Massachusetts Senate contender Elizabeth Warren making the thrust of the Occupy protests central to their campaign themes, was about proving the movement could “deliver tangible goods” to supporters. Thus the recent emphasis on occupying homes to physically halt foreclosures, rather than rallying in public squares against the more abstract problem of economic inequality.
Progressive Democratic groups involved in electoral politics like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have hesitated to back Kleinman so far, though PCCC Chair Adam Green told The National Memo, “We’re looking at it.”
“This is a normal tension and I suspect it’s enduring,” Gitlin added. “There will be people who by culture, by personal disposition, by analysis, by some combination of all of the above will see room for maneuver on what Michael Harrington [author of the widely influential “The Other America” about poverty and founder of the Democratic Socialists of America] used to call the ‘left wing of the possible.'”
Kleinman has to be considered the underdog when it comes to unseating Schwartz, a four-term incumbent who won re-election in 2010 — a brutal one for Pennsylvania Democrats — with 56 percent of the vote.
“Allyson’s pretty popular,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College and a veteran pollster in the Keystone State. “She leaves no stone unturned. Unless there’s something I’m missing, I don’t see much in the way of a challenge here. If anything, you might make an argument that she’s too much of an Obama supporter. In the polls I’ve done, there’s a lot of concern among suburban voters, the kind she’d normally get to vote for her, about debt and deficits. A lot of these are business people, upper-middle class folks. Montgomery County is the wealthiest in the state.”
The demographics of the district — it houses the state’s largest Jewish population and is replete with college-educated women — favor a pro-choice female Democratic lawmaker holding on, though Kleinman argues the new territory it includes after a recent round of redistricting is more diverse and working class in orientation.
There’s also the matter of purchasing television ads on the Philadelphia airwaves, which an Occupy candidate opposed to the influence of big money on politics will have a tough time doing (though thanks to help from PCCC and others, Warren is showing fundraising via appeals to public resentment of Wall Street banks is quite feasible).
“You’re in the fourth-largest media market in the country,” Madonna said of southeast Pennsylvania. “It’s hugely expensive to run campaigns in the suburbs.”
Follow Political Correspondent Matt Taylor on Twitter @matthewt_ny