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Occupy Congress

A protester runs for office.

On the evening of Wednesday, February 22, protesters pitched tents in front of the district office of Democratic Representative Allyson Schwartz in the small hamlet of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. The group—which numbered about five, and has since expanded to 15 members, including at times veterans of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Philadelphia, and Occupy Delaware—was met with a mixture of alarm and bemusement from the mostly middle-class residents of the commuter town, population 4,000, located just north of Philadelphia; but Ed Foley, the mayor of Jenkintown, declared that they were welcome to stay as long as they behaved. “In Jenkintown, we’ve struggled with traffic calming and they’ve had an excellent traffic calming effect,” he told Citizen’s Call, a local website. “No one is rolling through that stop sign anymore.”

Occupy Jenkintown was an act of solidarity with Nathan Kleinman, an avid Occupier and Jenkintown resident who is running to unseat Schwartz in the April 24 Democratic primary—and who has been dubbed “the first Occupy candidate” by Politico. Four people close to the Schwartz campaign had challenged the approximately 1,500 signatures Kleinman collected in order to appear on the ballot, and, as a result, the 29-year-old now found himself forced to wage a write-in campaign. Occupy Jenkintown wasn’t officially endorsing Kleinman, but they most certainly were livid at Schwartz. Hence the encampment outside her office. “There is strong precedent for showing force against a candidate who makes problematic decisions,” Chase Doyle, a Jenkintown Occupier and friend of Kleinman, told me.

For his part, Kleinman says that the Occupiers acted of their own volition. “The first I heard of it was from [Jenkintown Occupier] Michael Mizner,” Kleinman told me. “He said it, I thought as a joke, and I said, ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’ And Mizner said, ‘Autonomous action is a bitch.’” Now, whether Kleinman wanted it or not, Occupy Jenkintown exists. And, along with Kleinman’s campaign, it represents a noteworthy—and, to date, unusual—example of the Occupy movement inserting itself directly into electoral politics.

KLEINMAN GREW UP in Abington, right next to Jenkintown, where he attended a Quaker high school before enrolling in Georgetown in 2000. His passion for human rights led him to Madeleine Albright’s class as a senior and to the gates of the White House in 2005, where he fasted for twelve days to raise attention for Darfur. Back at home, Kleinman worked as a field organizer for the Obama campaign and as a press aide for Joe Sestak’s failed Senate bid in 2010, following which he took a job with a local state senator.

Kleinman first set foot in Occupy Philadelphia on day six of the encampment, and, soon after, he resigned from his job in order to embrace the movement full time. “I was just really glad that people were standing up and refusing to accept the status quo any longer,” he told me.

The status quo that Kleinman ultimately decided needed changing the most was Schwartz, a socially liberal, fiscally moderate Democrat who has represented the 13th district since 2005. “I used to volunteer for her,” Kleinman says. “I thought she was a real progressive, but I’ve become increasingly disappointed.” Citing her votes for free trade deals, the Bush tax cuts, the PATRIOT Act, and the war in Afghanistan, Kleinman declared his candidacy on January 23 and proceeded to gather the requisite signatures to get on the ballot.

Following the challenge against his signatures, Kleinman represented himself in court on March 2 but quickly determined that a protracted legal fight wasn’t the best use of his limited resources. “It didn’t look like it was going to go my way, to be honest, and the judge clearly was not listening to my arguments, though I had the law on my side,” Kleinman explains. “I decided that I would be a write-in candidate from here on out.”

When I met Kleinman on March 8, he had a full schedule. After distributing food to the homeless and speaking at a candidates’ forum hosted by an LGBT group in Philadelphia, Kleinman drove to Jenkintown where he was hosting his third “open strategy meeting”—an Occupy-inspired idea in which he broadcasts his thoughts about the race and solicits feedback from anyone who cares to attend.

At the meeting, which took place in a gazebo next to the Occupy Jenkintown encampment and was attended by about 20 people, Kleinman began on a positive note, announcing that he’d secured a large donation: “Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s donated two thousand twelve dollars to my campaign, which is really huge,” he said. “I’m hoping to get Jerry to donate, too.”

Kleinman delivered a lengthy speech, then took suggestions from the assembly—which included registering new voters and encouraging supporters to pitch small tents on their front lawns. At one point, after a long digression into the drug war in Mexico and a campaign to divest from the Chinese oil company Sinopec, a volunteer pleaded, “So what strategies do you have in place to actually get this stuff going?” “You mean the policy stuff?” asked Kleinman. “No, no, I mean the actual campaigning strategies to get you elected,” the woman replied. “We haven’t been leveraging our volunteers as well as we could,” Kleinman admitted. “That’s something we’ve got to change.”

Finally, Kleinman addressed the problem of the toy store located across the street from the encampment. “If anybody needs to buy toys, buy some from Rhinoceros, because they tell us that their business is down since the tents sprung up,” he said. “Apparently some parents with kids are not so keen on coming here.” The Occupiers scoffed at the idea that they might be considered dangerous. “I’m bringing my kids up, we’re going shopping, that’s fine,” Kelly Maldonado, an attendee and avid Kleinman supporter, told me later. “We’ll battle right back, because, you know what? I want to support local toy shops.”

The meeting, conducted in the style of an Occupier’s general assembly, revealed a lot about the challenges Occupy activists face when attempting to get involved in electoral politics. While many of Kleinman’s stances were admirable, the Occupiers’ insistence that their “horizontal” style of communication is their most important message led the conversation to often mimic an episode of “Portlandia.” During the course of the meeting, Kleinman ranged from peasant struggles in Honduras (“Adbusters said these folks were the first Occupiers”) to proper terminology for transgender people (“I said, ‘transgendered,’ but it’s ‘transgender’”) to the recent South Korean free trade agreement (“a backdoor NAFTA for China”) to the make of his cell phone (“Good question, I have a Samsung”) to starting a community garden focused on local flora (“I have a collection of seeds with a strong focus on the Lanape Indian heirlooms”). The tendency to allow conversations to drift is “pretty much true for everyone I’ve met at occupations,” admits Doyle. “You’ll start a discussion about one issue and an hour and a half later you’re like, ‘Why are we discussing workers’ rights in India?’”

MEANWHILE, OUTSIDE the Occupy bubble, Allyson Schwartz is generally well-liked. “She has a reputation of being a very hard worker, a good constituent server,” G. Terry Madonna, a professor of politics at Franklin and Marshall College, told me. “The district she represents is a district in which she’s pretty much in sync and consistent with most of the voters and on most of the issues.”

Despite the long odds, however, Kleinman remains optimistic. At the bottom of all the e-mails sent on behalf of his campaign, there is a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” When I asked him about this, Kleinman said: “That’s just a quote that has seemed very relevant to me throughout the campaign, and it seems to be working. My campaign seems to be following it to a tee. They did ignore me at first, they’ve laughed at me, and they’ve fought me now. And I suppose next I’m going to win.”

Jesse Zwick is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.