When I announced my intention to run for Congress, I was told it would be a waste of time.
“You won’t make it onto the ballot.”
“You won’t get any media coverage.”
“You won’t get any endorsements.”
“You won’t be taken seriously.”
Of course, I was told these things because I was a newcomer. I wasn’t part of the elite. I hadn’t “paid my dues” within the establishment. Never mind the fact that Congress’ approval rating was somewhere around nine percent and the entire nation wanted fresh faces in office. The conventional wisdom was if you weren’t independently wealthy, you wouldn’t get anywhere as a political outsider.
I’m happy to say over the course of the past eight months, the skeptics were proven wrong.
In my district, the incumbent ran unopposed in the Democratic primary since being elected in 1998. As heavily Democratic as the district is, that means the people were without a real choice. Others, including a current New York City Councilmember, tried and failed to make the ballot in the past. The process involves collecting thousands of signatures of registered Democrats within the district. Many more signatures than are legally required must be sought because opponents challenge their validity. To top it off, you only have about a month to do it.
Admittedly, my team — special thanks to campaign manager Paul Rozenberg and media director Jay Carter — was overwhelmed when we started. We had a handful of petitioners who worked diligently, but time was not on our side. Going directly to voters’ houses took too long to get the needed results. Staying in public areas produced more signatures, but too many of them were invalid. We found that many people believe they are registered Democrats because they vote for Democrats, but are actually not registered to any party. These signatures had to be discarded. It didn’t help that due to redistricting, the new district lines hadn’t been finalized. It’s difficult to obtain signatures of Democrats in the district when you can only approximate where the district is.
Our daily meeting place was the JFK AirTrain lobby in Jamaica, one area we knew would remain in the district. Someone thought we should try petitioning at the nearby 40 Projects (South Jamaica Houses). Not only did petitioning there prove wildly successful, but several of its residents soon joined the team. Before we knew it, we had a dozen or so people collecting signatures for us. Most were not satisfied with the status quo, and the 40 Projects in particular embraced our quest to change things.
When it was all said and done, we had almost three times the required number of signatures. We achieved something that hadn’t been done in 14 years: forcing a primary election. A few minutes after submitting our petitions to the Board of Elections, I was having lunch in Albany with Paul and Jay when the phone rang. It was The Wave, the largest newspaper in the Rockaways, requesting an interview.
The Times Ledger reported that I leveled the “strongest and most pointed criticisms” of the incumbent at the debate.
We surprised everyone by making the ballot, and media coverage started intensifying. There were previously stories about the campaign, mainly about my Q&A session going viral on the popular site Reddit. We’d also received press from great local publications like Communities of Color. After securing our spot on the ballot, however, it reached a new level. The Wave. The Queens Chronicle. The Queens Tribune. The Queens Courier. Newsday. And the list goes on. In fact, we received more media coverage than any candidate in our election, including the incumbent.
Last weekend, I was endorsed by The Wave. As Jay put it to the Valley Stream Democratic Club on Monday, the incumbent likes to talk about being from Rockaway. What does it say when your hometown newspaper endorses another candidate? A local Indian newspaper endorsed me due to my engagement with that community (and I have to thank Harpreet Toor for interviewing me on Punjabi TV and inviting me to speak at the gurdwaras). The former blogger for the DNC and attorney for the New York State Senate minority, Howard Graubard, endorsed me as well.
I also encountered my share of disappointments, particularly with union reps who told me they agreed with everything I had to say, and disliked the incumbent, but would not endorse me unless I could produce insanely large amounts of cash. These same unions preached about the importance of giving the “99 percent” a voice. Obviously, their rhetoric is empty.
To those who said I wouldn’t be taken seriously: ask the 1,500 people who voted for me to represent them in Congress. Ask the incumbent, who needed endorsements from President Obama and Senator Schumer to retain his seat. I’m proud to say we outperformed 11 other congressional candidates throughout the state on Tuesday. We spent around $10,000, or $6.67 per vote. The incumbent’s nearly half million dollars of corporate money put him in the vicinity of $60 per vote. On a level playing field, we win handily.
Over the past eight months, I’ve seen more of my home area than I’d seen in my life. I’ve also met so many great people, including the future leaders of my community: Clyde Vanel, Jacques Leandre, Donovan Richards, and Milan Taylor, to name a few. You are the next generation and I look forward to continuing to work with all of you.
Thanks to the elected officials who supported me and told their constituents to vote for me (or at least took meetings with me). Thanks to Mr. Bell, Anthony, and Dice at the Sean Bell Community Center for all your support. Thanks to Principal Mitchell and PS 48 in Jamaica. Thanks to the PTA of PS 135 in Queens Village. Thanks to Howard Schwach and the whole staff of The Wave. Thanks to Karen Clements, Rich Bockmann, and all the other reporters. Thanks to The Restaurant in Rockaway Beach and Sip This in Valley Stream for hosting meet and greets. Thanks to Once Upon a Time in Richmond Hill for hosting my announcement speech. Thanks to Far Rockaway NAACP President Dr. Ed Williams for letting me ride your bus. Thanks to John Cori, 100th Precinct Community Council President Danny Ruscillo, his wife Linda, and Norman Silverman for your hospitality in the Rockaways. Thanks to all the voters, volunteers like Khaleel from the Rockaway Youth Task Force, and contributors. Most of all, thanks to Paul, Jay, KJ, Rafael, Jahrod, Mom, and the rest of the Scala for Congress team for working tirelessly throughout the campaign. Get some rest. The real work is about to begin.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. It’s frustrating when everyone is dissatisfied with Congress but keeps sending the same people back to Washington. Not a single incumbent lost his or her primary bid in New York State this year. However, progress is often slow. In my area, there hadn’t even been a challenge to the incumbent before. Because of our efforts, he was forced to run an actual campaign. He had to defend his record. He had to answer for his questionable voting history. Perhaps he wasn’t held as accountable as he should have been, but it’s a start.
Waste of time? Not a chance. I’m just a rap artist from Rosedale, Queens, who scared an incumbent Congressman into getting help from the President of the United States to keep his job. And it doesn’t end there. I pledge to stay active in the community and do whatever I can to make a difference. The young generation will be inheriting this country, and it’s on us to make sure we have one in the future. If nothing else, I hope I inspired some other new blood to get involved.
Far from a Harvard student…