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George Martinez is on his grind, stalking the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street in Brooklyn, while intercepting pedestrians, shaking hands, and passing out handbills.
"How are you? George Martinez. I'm running for Congress in the Seventh District. We've got a primary coming June 26."
Martinez, 38, dapper in a brown suit, with a shaved head and rimless glasses, doesn't have a campaign o≈ce, just a folding table stocked with literature. His scheduled appearance at the senior center on 53rd Street was delayed by a fire drill, and Martinez knows better than to try to hold residents' attention during lunchtime.
Instead, he has ducked out to the street to work the passersby while he waits for a Telemundo crew scheduled to shoot an interview with him. When they arrive, Martinez gives the interview in Spanish, tailoring his message to the audience, and telling the reporter that his involvement with Occupy Wall Street is part of a campaign of activism, but "I'm interested in protecting my people."
After the stand-up, the Telemundo crew follows him around for a while as he works the blocks on Fourth Avenue, buttonholing pedestrians and popping into businesses. Outside the New Five-Star Barbershop, he chats up a guy in a nylon smock on break. "'Sup, what it is?" he says as the camera rolls. "Lemme tell you what's poppin'!"
Introductions made, the TV crew films Martinez and his family entering the barbershop. Then they come back out, and the Telemundo crew goes inside to get a shot of them coming in again. Finally, the whole entourage is packed into the cramped confines of the already-crowded barbershop, where one of the barbers, Jason Pena, tells the camera he supports Martinez.
"It's hard to change politics. You're going up against big money," Pena says. "But for some reason, I just believe in him."
A few more visits like this, and the Telemundo crew peels off. Martinez and his team carry on to the next stop, the weekly prayer service at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge. Martinez slips off his shoes and seeks out the imam, but there has been some miscommunication: The mosque didn't know he was coming, and the imam tells Martinez there won't be any time for him to address the congregation today. Undaunted, Martinez sits through the hour-long service. When the loudspeakers blare out the final prayer, the worshippers spill out onto Fifth Avenue, and a mosque attendant circulates among them with a big wooden box, loudly soliciting zakat. Martinez is right next to him, pressing the flesh, as his volunteer field manager and his wife pass out handbills.
This is all the basic stuff of Brooklyn retail politics, the story of an upstart candidate backed by a ragtag crew of idealistic volunteers pulling 18-hour days in a desperate effort to make up with sweat what they're lacking in money.
What makes Martinez's candidacy unique is that he's proudly announcing himself as an Occupy Wall Street candidate—the first one ever to get on a congressional ballot. That makes him an anomaly in the world of electoral politics and a contentious figure inside the movement. Is he committed to this thing called Occupy, or is he piggybacking on it to advance his own political ambitions? Does it even matter if his intentions are pure, if Occupy Wall Street has been clear from the jump that it won't rely on elected politicians to bring the changes it demands?
Campaigning in Sunset Park, Martinez wants me to meet Moaffaq Askar, a Palestinian restaurant owner he worked with after September 11, 2001, to diffuse anti-Arab tensions in the neighborhood. Askar is taking care of business in the back of the restaurant but motions for us to wait. During the pause, Martinez starts talking.
"It comes down to this," he says. "I see people who are hurting and struggling, and I just know that I—that we—we could do something about it." He pauses. "If you know you could do something about that, and you don't. . . ." Another pause. There's a hitch in his voice now, and when he continues, the words are strained with emotion. "If you don't, that's failure. And I want to encourage us not to fail."
After another silence, he re-collects himself. "Damn, I got choked up on that," he says. "I didn't think that was going to happen. I'm going to have to work on that." Hearing an aspiring politician brought to tears by his own inspirational generalities, you don't have to be a cynical journalist to wonder: Is this guy for real?
It's a question many people inside Occupy Wall Street are asking as well.
Given the movement's ambivalence (at best; more often, antipathy) toward electoral politics, Martinez is a lightning rod. His campaign exposes ideological and tactical fissures as old as Occupy Wall Street and older.
For some, his candidacy reeks of co-option, representing a textbook example of the ways a corrupt, broken system recuperates and metabolizes every threat into a neutered, defanged format. A movement organized in opposition to a national politics so thoroughly captured by corporate power that the people are voiceless regardless of whom they elect can't be expected to take seriously someone who proposes running for office as a solution, they say.