I never would have guessed that Occupy Wall Street, given its staunchly outsider stance, would help breathe new life into electoral politics. These days people often connect Occupy to Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, but few likely realize just how direct a line it is. For example, Sanders’ 2020 senior adviser Winnie Wong, national organizing director Claire Sandberg, California grassroots director Melissa Byrne, national field director Becca Rast, and deputy national field director Nick Martin were all on the ground for Occupy, in one city or another, in 2011.
Beyond the Sanders campaign, lots of Zuccotti Park regulars are currently engaged in electoral work in various capacities, including Nelini Stamp, now the director of strategy at the Working Families Party, and Leah Hunt-Hendrix of Way to Win, a women-founded progressive donor and political strategy hub. There’s also Jonathan Smucker, who went from being a core member of Occupy’s ad hoc press team to the political director of Pennsylvania Stands Up, which supports insurgent candidates in his home state.
Former Occupiers aren’t just working behind the scenes; they have and are running for office all over the country. Law professor Zephyr Teachout blazed the trail, first in 2014, when she enlisted folks she met in the movement to help her run for New York governor (a worthy attempt to oust centrist incumbent Andrew Cuomo), and then, in 2016, when she sought a congressional seat (which she also didn’t win). Jillian Johnson, also at the vanguard of this trend, was more successful. A brilliant, radical, black, queer woman who played a prominent role in Occupy Durham, she just won her second term on Durham’s city council and is currently mayor pro tempore.
Looking ahead to 2020, Doyle Canning, a longtime activist and Occupy participant, is challenging a 33-year incumbent, seemingly awash in corporate campaign cash, in Oregon’s 4th congressional district. In Philadelphia, Nikil Saval (one of my co-editors for five issues of an Occupy-focused newspaper published in collaboration with the literary magazine n+1) has officially launched a bid for a state legislature seat, earning the early support of local activists and union organizers.