Outspoken Pollak ’09 enters politics


Joel Pollak ’09

When Joel Pollak ’09 asked Congressman Barney Frank ’77 (D-MA) a particularly uncomfortable question during a Kennedy School event last spring, Frank unleashed one of his trademark tirades. That much Pollak expected. What he did not anticipate was the outpouring of support that followed – a flood, he claims, of emails and other messages expressing gratitude for his willingness to challenge the Congressman.

While he had already been contemplating a career in politics, this, Pollak told the Harvard Crimson’s FlyByBlog, led him to jump straight in. Earlier this month, he announced his intention to take on incumbent Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat who has represented Illinois’ 9th District since 1999. 

Although he has a wealth of experience in politics, an actual candidacy is new territory for Pollak, who has served primarily as a speechwriter and as a journalist. After graduating from Harvard College in 1999, Pollak returned to his native South Africa on a Rotary Scholarship, working as a freelance writer and eventually pursuing a masters degree at the University of Cape Town in Jewish Studies. The relationship between Israel, Jews, and South Africa has proven a salient subject for Pollak, who last year published his first book, The Kasrils Affair: Jews and Minority Politics in South Africa.

Following a stint as speechwriter for the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, he returned to the U.S. to attend HLS, where he was an active writer for the Record. Occasionally, he broke into larger publications, such as the Washington Post, where he penned a controversial evaluation of Harvard’s Arabic courses. He was also a conservative activist, working on the McCain campaign. Pollak later developed his analysis of the election into a second book, Don’t Tell Me Words Don’t Matter: How Rhetoric Won the 2008 Presidential Election.

Assuming he runs as a Republican and wins the party primary, Pollak would face an uphill battle against Schakowsky. The 9th District is heavily Democratic, and it has enthusiastically reelected the Congresswoman – described as one of the “most liberal” members of the House and a confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – four times, before which she served four terms in the Illinois House. A known name in the area, she was responsible, as an activist in the 60s, for freshness dates on groceries.

Pollak appears undeterred in his efforts, describing the 9th District as his home. The race could have advantages other than a direct political payoff: Schakowsky could serve as a lightning rod for Pollak’s criticisms, allowing him to sharpen his rhetorical tools. The Congresswoman was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War and the involvement of private security companies such as Blackwater, and invoked articles of impeachment against Vice President Dick Cheney. She was favored as a Vice Presidential candidate by The Nation.

Pollak may even use his entry in the race as a soapbox for one of his preferred issues: Israel. On September 8, Pollak was back at Harvard for a discussion of President Barack Obama ’91’s Israel policy with HLS Professor Alan Dershowitz. The 9th District contains the heavily Jewish town of Skokie, the subject of the Supreme Court case National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977), which caused controversy for upholding a ruling that the First Amendment permitted a neo-Nazi group to hold a rally there. 

More importantly, perhaps, Schakowsky has expressed interest in assuming the Illinois Senate seat vacated by President Obama. If she were to surrender her House seat to seek higher office, the race for the 9th District would be blown far more open.

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