PW sits down with the human-rights activist looking to unseat U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz in the 13th District.
On Jan. 24, Washington newspaper Politico described 29-year-old Jenkintown native Nathan Kleinman as “the first Occupy candidate.” Kleinman, a member of Occupy Philadelphia since its fifth day at Dilworth Plaza, is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 13th District (parts of North, Northeast Philly, suburbs) against Rep. Allyson Schwartz. A moderate on fiscal issues, health care and taxes, Schwartz has become one of the Democrats’ rising stars and is considered by many the frontrunner to take on Sen. Pat Toomey for Senate in 2016. With that in mind, Kleinman, a graduate of Georgetown University and former aide to Joe Sestak’s 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate, believes that Schwartz can—and should—be challenged from the left. PW recently caught up with Kleinman and chatted about a range of topics including his motivation, his place within the Occupy movement and the real burning question: Is this guy for real?
Based on a lot of press that I’ve seen, people can’t seem to figure out if you’re an Occupy member or an establishment Democrat. How do you define yourself?
I consider myself a human-rights activist. I’ve worked on human-rights issues in other countries and I’ve worked on human-rights issues in this country. I look at my work in the Occupy movement in that context. And I also look at my run for Congress in that context.What gave you the idea to run for Congress?I’ve been interested in politics since I was 10 years old, when I first volunteered for Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, when she was running for the office I’m now seeking. I’ve long been engaged in issues of public policy. Now, in 2012, I really fear that we’re losing our democracy. We’re losing the character of what America means.
In what ways would you say that’s happening?
We have the Patriot Act, which has a classified legal interpretation so we don’t even know what the government believes it can do with the authority under the Patriot Act. We have the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act], the most recent defense bill, which Congresswoman Schwartz voted for, just like the Patriot Act, which codified arbitrary indefinite detention. These are dangerous and I really believe our rights are slipping away and I don’t think we have enough people in Washington fighting for the people and fighting for our rights.
As a U.S. representative, what would you do to right those wrongs?
I would work everyday to repeal those dangerous bills.
What has the general reaction been to your run from people who aren’t affiliated with the Occupy movement?
I’ve received so much support from people in the district, people across Pennsylvania and people across the country … There is such a strong will among people of conscience in this country, for justice and fairness, that even among the quote-unquote establishment here in Montgomery County, I’ve received a lot of support already. I have current and past chairs of local democratic committees circulating petitions for me. I have support from elected officials, including the president of the board of commissioners in Cheltenham. People … who think it’s a bad idea for me to run against Allyson Schwartz, they say, ‘Well, what if you hurt her in the campaign and then we lose the district, or if you’re too progressive for the district?’ I say, ‘Have you looked at the new map?’ The Republicans gerrymandered the heck out of the 13th District and took all the more conservative areas and excised them from the 13th and handed them to the swing districts that are held by Republicans adjacent to this area. So now the district includes the most progressive parts of Montgomery County. It includes large, diverse working-class boroughs like Norristown, Ambler, Conshohocken and Lansdale. It includes a large swath of North Philadelphia as well; Olney, Oak Lane and Cheltenham. It is an incredibly Democratic district and there is no Republican that can possibly beat either one of us in November.
What role do you think the Occupy movement will play and does play in electoral politics now?
The movement is nonpartisan. We had an interesting write-up in the Metro yesterday [Jan. 30]. They ridiculously said I was snubbed by Occupy Philly when Occupy Philly voted to not endorse candidates. What the article failed to mention was I was there. I supported that proposal and I agree that Occupy should not be supporting candidates. That’s the first step to being co-opted by mainstream politics. Occupy is engaged in a long-term movement for changing this country and it seeks to get to the roots of the problems. We recognize it’s going to be a long process and I fully expect to be a participant in Occupy Philadelphia, in its Free University and in its Occupy Vacant Lots program working group when I retire from Congress in a few terms.
I know you’ve been working in the Occupy Free University and Vacant Lots programs. What of your involvement within that has influenced the way you would conduct yourself as a representative of the 13th District?
I don’t believe, and most people in Occupy don’t believe, that government has all the answers. Or the government can solve all of our problems. I believe that people working together with their friends and their neighbors can achieve so much for their community and I believe it’s the job of a member of Congress to be a leader of a community and to get people together and to get educators together for tutoring or English as a Second Language programs. There are plenty of people who are willing to volunteer their time to improve their communities and it takes real leadership to make that happen.
Moving onto money issues. What’s your take on where the federal tax system is right now compared to where you think it should be?
You have wealthy people, like Warren Buffet, who are paying a smaller share of their income than their secretaries. It’s just not fair. Anyone who makes a significant portion of their income off of capital gains, they can afford to pay a little bit more to make our country better and to make everyone else’s lives better. The tax rates during the Reagan years and during the Clinton years were much higher and I didn’t hear Republicans complaining about it then.
A lot of people would say that no taxes at all should be raised, especially during a recession.
We can keep digging ourselves deeper and deeper into a hole or we can start digging out of it. That’s pretty much all I’d say about it.
What do you think Allyson Schwartz and the rest of Congress have done to lengthen the recession we’re still suffering from today?
Congresswoman Schwartz voted to extend those Bush tax cuts on the rich. She’s voted for quote-unquote free-trade agreements that ship jobs overseas. And in health care, which is supposed to be her best issue, she voted with Republicans and a handful of Democrats to scrap the most important cost-cutting measure in the Affordable Care Act, which is the Independent Payment Advisory Board—and very few people know that. I really believe that moderate Democrats in Congress, like Congresswoman Schwartz, have worked to undermine the president and haven’t had his back on important issues, like health care, like civil liberties, like tax cuts for the rich.