BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
Emboldened by the victory of Scott Brown, Republicans across the country are preparing challenges against Democratic incumbents in the 2010 midterm elections. But before Ted Kennedy’s passing opened the field in Massachusetts, recent Harvard Law School grad Joel Pollak ’09 had already thrown his hat in the ring in northern Illinois. Now that Pollak has secured the Republican nomination in the Ninth District, he will be taking on incumbent Janice Schakowsky in the general election this year, and he sees it as the first serious contest his home district has seen in a generation.
Joel Pollak is the author of two books, The Kasrils Affair and Don’t Tell Me Words Don’t Matter: How Rhetoric Won the 2008 Presidential Election. He was a regular writer for the Harvard Law Record during his time at HLS.
According to Pollak, the electoral demographics break down such that there is approximately a three to one ratio of confirmed Democrats to Republicans, 150,000 to 50,000, in his district. But the district also has a large independent middle of about 150,000 voters. Pollak believes that independents will turn away from President Barack Obama ’91 and the Democrats by a ratio of close to two to one, and if that happens, the district will be very much in play. Pollak’s next step is to embark on a major fund-raising initiative to amass a war chest of at least a quarter million dollars. If he can do this, he believes he will catch the attention of the GOP’s Young Guns program and qualify for additional funding.
To drum up the enthusiasm of donors, Pollak says he is making aggressive overtures toward journalists. He first gained the spotlight on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News by vocally challenging Barney Frank ’77 (D-MA) during an appearance at the Kennedy School, and now he plans to parley this exposure into the wider media attention he needs to gather campaign funds. He recently appeared on the Fox Business program “Happy Hour”, where he deftly avoided being characterized as a Tea Party candidate. His ultimate aspiration: an spot on Bill O’Reilly.
Pollak, who was born in South Africa, aspires to represent Illinois district nine because it is the seat of his youth home of Skokie, a predominantly Jewish town that fought a legal battle against Neo-Nazi protesters all the way to the Supreme Court. Pollak plans to court the voters of Skokie and cities farther west to offset the liberal bastion of Evanston closer to the waterfront, and to do that on a shoestring he will be making a direct appeal to the voters. He wants to distinguish himself by being accessible to voters and by nationalizing the issues to make the District Nine election a referendum on the incumbent. “The contrast you have to draw between yourself and the incumbent is, ‘I’m nice, I’m here, I’ll work for you, and she doesn’t.'”
He sees Schakowsky as vulnerable because of her open defense of President Obama’s policy agenda and the lingering questions raised by her husband’s conviction for federal fraud charges. And apparently his ground-up campaign is stirring up attention. Not only has he received the endorsement of the local Tea Party organization, he also has heard rumors that Schakowsky has taken notice of his candidacy.
Of course, the support of the Tea Party has the potential to work as a double-edged sword, turning off more moderate voters who would otherwise be interested. Pollak noted that he had heard some people wonder, “How can a nice Jewish boy be endorsed by the Tea Party?” Pollak maintains guarded respect for the grassroots activism of the Tea Party organizers, and he sees an alliance with them as important given the fractured nature of the Republican party, which he analogized a scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”. He believes there is a troubling lack of leadership in the GOP that is impeding the unification of its various constituencies behind a platform. “It’s not so much a question of what do we stand for, the question is where are the leaders who are going to drive that.”
Pollak has cultivated his relationship with the Tea Party groups in part by flexing his legal education. When the Obama administration announced a plan to move Guantanamo Bay detainees to Thomson Prison in Illinois, Pollak helped draft a legal attack on the plan founded on the international law. “I helped them make a case in international human rights law why it was bad to move these guys here.” And though the state commission voted 7-4 to approve the relocation plan, his efforts were much appreciated by concerned local citizens. “What was comforting to them was that someone in the political world was taking an interest in them and actually giving them a voice, helping them express their concerns in a way that didn’t just involve waving signs and showing up at rallies.”
Whether or not Pollak succeeds in displacing Schakowsky, he is enjoying the experience of running a campaign and connecting with the voters. “The most amazing thing about the process is learning what peoples’ lives are like, learning how national issues affect them and interacting with them when they ask you what you are going to do for them.” Priority number one for Pollak is helping the residents deal with the dearth of jobs. But he also hears frequent complaints about the Democratic health reform plans, and hopes to see a viable alternative emerge. “Republicans have yet to make the case why it is better to have individual patients in charge of making healthcare decisions.” If he is elected, Pollak says his personal policy interest would be the reform of the federal budgetary process and the corruption tied to earmarks.