'No Impact Man' Runs for Office

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He renounced modernity, then ran for Congress. This is what happened next.

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Stanley Wong

My unlikely course in activist politicking started with a May call from a member of the executive committee of the Green Party of New York State.

The call came, I understood, because of the notoriety of my very-publicly performed 2007 experiment in extreme environmental living in the middle of Manhattan. The project had been intended to question and look for alternatives to the typical American's consumption-based way of life. It was also a vehicle to help bring broader public attention to the range of our environmental crises -- from ocean depletion to species extinction to climate.

To that end, I wrote a book and starred in a documentary film about the experience, both titled No Impact Man. The book, translated into a dozen languages, has been required reading for more then 100,000 American college students. The film has received over a quarter of a million ratings on Netflix, in addition to screenings in theaters and on television around the world. My non-profit, NoImpactProject.org, whose main program is an immersive, educational week of environmental living, had attracted over 50,000 participants.

While all that notoriety may have attracted the Green Party to me, it did not attract me to the idea of running for office.

I said no.

As far as I could see, the entire political process was corrupt. I'd become fond of calling the presidential election "a big sports-like event paid for by the multinational corporations in order to distract us from the possibility of real change." At that time, I had the same mistaken instinct as so many despairing Americans -- to abandon the political system and look for hope elsewhere.

But when I told my friends, family and colleagues of having refused the Green Party's invitation, instead of getting the looks and noises of understanding I expected, I got disappointment. Win or lose, at least in the wide circle around me, people wanted to be able to be part of a campaign that moved beyond the tired, 50-year-long Democrat/Republican argument about taxation, the size of government and reproductive rights. Win or lose, they wanted to try.

So I agreed to run. It would be six-month campaign in a 90 percent Democratic district against Hakeem Jeffries, a New York State Assemblyman the Washington Post would call the "next Barack Obama," and a Republican named Alan Bellone, who manufactured T-shirts professionally and ran futile political campaigns as a hobby. There was never any question of Bellone's or my winning.

But the minute I agreed to run, the phone calls started coming. When would our first campaign meeting be, people wanted to know? How could out-of-staters and international people participate? I sent out an email and put out on Facebook and Twitter that we would be having a potluck brunch at my friend Ryan Harbage's apartment to discuss what the goals of a losing campaign could be.

***

It's true that we would ultimately raise only $6,000 against Jeffries' nearly $1 million. Still, we recruited 40 active volunteers, handed out 20,000 flyers, hung 500 posters, gave tens of speeches, participated in three debates, and shook hands and gave encouragement to thousands of people.

The goals and methods of the campaign came largely out of that first brunch. There were friends, family and strangers there, a motley mix of Green Party members, idealistic young students, environmental activists, Occupy followers and people who had never been civically engaged in any way but felt too frustrated with American social progress to remain uninvolved.

Together, we set the tenor for the campaign. Everyone in attendance had a voice. Minutes were kept. The views of the group would be boiled down and turned into policy by a committee comprised of myself, my friend and colleague Lilly Belanger (the campaign's volunteer coordinator) and the campaign manager, a Green Party activist, actor and street entertainer named Jonathan Fluck.

The non-electoral goals of the campaign would be:

  1. To engage the largely poor and disenfranchised community of our congressional district -- the 8th Congressional District in Central Brooklyn -- on critical issues that Republicans and Democrats simply refused to talk about. For example, the failure of the consumption-based economy to provide security and happiness.

  2. To draw citizens into the democratic process on the grounds that one of the ways to get the money out politics was to get the people back in. Volunteer recruitment would come before fundraising.

  3. To model on a local, national and international level the idea that citizens themselves should run for political office since politics in the United States, in particular, had become a corporate-controlled industry.

A few aphorisms summed up our platform. We sent them out by tweet: "Renewable energy = no war for oil = lower military budget = money for education = a strong and happier nation." Or: "Invest in local communities which create local jobs not international corporations which create international jobs." Increased employment would come from climate change measures like building an energy efficient infrastructure including a robust mass transit and rail system. To avoid another financial crash, the functions of investment banking and retail banking should be separated. And so on.

A minor debate broke out amongst the volunteers over the wording of the proposed campaign signs they would be hanging in shop window over the next six months. We would distribute five different signs altogether. The favorite in our largely African-American congressional district would read: "Shouldn't we be helping young men instead of putting them in jail?"

Little did we know how much grief and suffering the climate-change-strengthened Hurricane Sandy would eventually bring to our district.

But it was the one about climate change that started the argument. As it stood, the poster read, "Remember Hurricane Katrina? Now you know what climate change will do to Brooklyn." Some of the volunteers insisted it was too sensational: "That's never really going to happen." Little did we know how much grief and suffering the climate-change-strengthened Hurricane Sandy would eventually bring to our district. We softened the sign. Still, we remained one of the very few Congressional campaigns throughout the country that made climate change a central issue.

Philosophically speaking, the campaign attempted to come from this simple place: our corporate and governmental institutions needed to be changed to reflect the kindness and compassion in Americans' hearts. That may sound idealistic, but most of us believed that a supreme lack of idealism in American politics was a big part of our problems. What hope for the future do the so-called "practical" politicians actually offer? Why are their objectives so sadly limited?

All this philosophizing and position-forming happened in a big rush in early June because the Democratic primary was on June 26. The press would consider the primary a de facto general election since the district always elects the Democrat. After the primary, the press would move on, and the opportunities to get coverage would be severely limited.

So we phoned and emailed and cajoled to get into the debates held before the primary. When we finally got our way, Jeffries withdrew from every debate I was invited to. His campaign said that having non-Democrats participate would be "too confusing for voters." As a result, the debates would be between myself, Jeffries' underdog opponent for the Democratic nomination, New York City Councilman Charles Barron, and the Republican T-shirt man.

I was frankly scared to face Barron. Operatives from the Jeffries campaign and the mainstream Democratic establishment had demonized Barron in the press, accusing him both of being anti-white and an anti-Semite, apparently in order to stimulate campaign donations to Jeffries from Jewish sources. The Democrats made Barron seem unreasonable and, frankly, nasty.

In person, I discovered the opposite. Barron's charisma, obvious dedication to his community, and willingness to say what he believed helped make our debates interesting and engaging to voters who listened. Surprisingly, Barron whispered words of encouragement to me while I spoke when I said things he agreed with. When I jokingly complained to one of his supporters in the audience that she never shouted "That's right!" to things I said, Barron himself started shouting it.

Indeed, one moderator, Mel Baxter, chairman of United Community Centers, which hosted the last debate, said that ours was the "most productive, thought-provoking political dialogue he had heard in over a decade." My volunteers were ecstatic. We were making a difference. We were causing real conversation in the community. This, we thought, was what democracy was about.

Then the Democratic primary came. Jeffries won. He closed up shop in our district. He began traveling around the country campaigning for other Democrats, ignoring, to my mind, the possibility of engaging his own electorate. The press, as predicted, moved on. Our district was so strongly Democratic that the election had been decided, four months before it actually took place.

"We don't have the resources to cover candidates who aren't likely to win," one New York journalist told me when I complained to him over coffee. Another, when I asked what it would take to get coverage, wrote to me, "You have to find something in Hakeem's voting history that is absolutely egregious to working people. Or you have to find adultery."

We needed scandal. Sure enough, we got it.

Vito Lopez, a powerful Democrat in the New York State Assembly to whom Jeffries had strong ties, was accused of sexual harassment. It emerged that previous allegations against Lopez had been swept under the carpet by the Democratic leadership. Green Party activists within my campaign volunteer corps wanted us to attack Jeffries over his weak response to the controversy.

The overwhelming majority of our volunteers, however, rejected attack-based politics. They could not see how wading into the Lopez scandal moved forward important discussions about the direction of our society, its fossil fuel dependence and the failure of consumption-based economics. Instead, the campaign put forward a set of policies that would, if adopted, prevent future ethical abuses. Needless to say, the press didn't cover our suggestions.

So we were back to pounding the pavement.

Every Wednesday and Thursday morning we leafleted and chatted with people standing on the subway platforms, waiting for their trains to work. Saturday afternoons were spent in the district's farmers' markets. Sunday afternoons, volunteers hung signs. This activity emerged as the favorite among us all. The ideas we discussed were popular among the people. Citizens recognized that we couldn't win. They saw that the agenda of the volunteers was really a heart-felt attempt to help. The last words we often heard as we walked away from constituents were "Thank you." We trusted that even if our efforts weren't measurable that we were doing some good.

Then came the presidential debates, in which not a word about global warming was mentioned, followed closely by Hurricane Sandy -- essentially the exact storm our campaign had worried was too sensational to predict. Tens of thousands of people were suddenly homeless in the Rockaways, Queens and Staten Island. Mostly poor people, many of them in our district. Our system had failed to address the most pressing problem facing humanity. Some cracked dark jokes about how New York should adopt a gondola-based transportation system like Venice.

But there was no sense of futility, at least not amongst my volunteers.

On Election Day, the volunteers were out in the cold -- dark by early evening thanks to the autumnal clock change -- canvassing voters one last time. They were the only canvassers on the streets that day. The Democrats weren't there because they couldn't lose and the Republicans weren't there because they couldn't win. But winning and losing meant a whole different thing to the volunteers of my campaign. 

***

On Nov. 6, about 30 of the volunteers arrived at my house to drink beer, eat salsa, and anxiously and unenthusiastically watch the election results.

The next morning I gave a talk to a group of about 300 community college students in midtown Manhattan. I asked, "How many people here are relieved about the election?" The entire room raised their hands. "How many people here are actually excited because they believe the United States will now get back on course and address our real world problems?" Four of the 300 raised their hands.

Here is what I wanted to demonstrate through our campaign: the idea that we can do better than that. The idea that we can return to some sort of idealism. That the professional politicians can stop setting up false arguments between the American people and begin to put leading before winning. That we can address the crises in the environment, the economy and our quality of life.

What did I learn? That climate activists like me have a chance of reaching a whole other audience by running for office. That there are many, many people out there who would like to be involved in our democracy but worry it is beyond repair. That citizens actually want politicians to talk about the real issues like climate change, like the fact that striving single-mindedly for economic growth can no longer be the panacea it once was. That we need more independent and third-party candidates who aren't part of the big party machines and beholden to corporate interests.

My campaign got just over 2,000 votes in the election. Jeffries got 159,000 -- 90 percent of the vote. On the other hand, outgoing congressman Ed Towns had also won 90 percent of the vote in the district. Jeffries hadn't actually won anything. He inherited something. My volunteers may have only got 2,000 votes -- but they had won every last one of them. There had never before been a Green Party congressional candidate in our district.

The morning after election day, just before our campaign manager got back to his performer's routine of busking for cash on the subway platform, he put out our last press release. "Social change is urgent but we must also take a long view," I said in the statement. "This campaign has been part of a large movement that is happening around the world. We can only grow from here."

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Colin Beavan is the author, most recently, of No Impact Man, the executive director of the No Impact Project and a former Green Party candidate for U.S. Congress from central Brooklyn.

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