Can Occupy Wall Street Trust Its Own Candidate?

Running for Congress, George Martinez calls himself the Occupiers' candidate. The rest of the movement isn't so sure.

Others in the movement are ready and even eager to bring the energy that was born in Zuccotti Park into the halls of power, to harness the dynamism of the streets to a focused drive to reclaim political power, and to show that the people, working together, can still recapture the political process from a flood of corporate money.

The Martinez candidacy poses these questions at a delicate time for Occupy Wall Street. Seven months after it was forcibly evicted from Zuccotti Park, the movement has metastasized, carrying on in working groups and circles of mutual trust, pursuing agendas ranging from finance reform to sustainable agriculture to an end to the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy.

But without the park, and in the absence of regular media-friendly spectacles, the profile of the movement has diminished in the popular consciousness, and with it media coverage of the issues it briefly forced to the top of the national agenda: income inequality and corporate control of politics. May Day, heralded all winter as the moment to wait for, the definitive proof that the movement was not just still alive but also growing, has come and gone. Some organizers now concede that pegging such high expectations to a single event was a mistake, and while the turnout for May 1 was substantial—estimated at more than 20,000—it failed to spark the kind of revitalized movement many activists were hoping for. In the hangover of the past six weeks, Occupiers have been turning inward, returning to first principles and asking one another how the movement has to change, what new strategies and tactics it has to adopt to regain the momentum that it held last fall.

As he rushes around the district campaigning, Martinez is often accompanied by his wife, Clara, and their son George.
Mark Hewko
As he rushes around the district campaigning, Martinez is often accompanied by his wife, Clara, and their son George.

Some activists see in the Martinez campaign an avenue for focused action, a wheel to put their shoulders to, a replicable model that could, if successful, overturn the political order and fill legislatures and city councils with candidates responsive to their constituents rather than their campaign donors.

But the Martinez campaign is also running in the shadow of Wisconsin, where the defeat of a recall effort last week cemented Governor Scott Walker's union-busting agenda and left many on the left wondering if electoral mechanisms can ever be a useful tool when the campaign-finance decks are so thoroughly stacked.

Martinez's profile—a young, charismatic, urban community organizer with a promise of hope and change—also recalls a sour taste in a lot of mouths of the Occupy movement. Many came to Zuccotti Park precisely because they had put enormous faith in Barack Obama and his promises to build a new kind of politics only to have that faith dashed as Obama assembled a plutocratic economic team, expanded wars and drone killings, failed to close Guantanamo, and negotiated a health-care overhaul that only strengthened an already near-omnipotent insurance industry.

With Obama running for president all over again this summer, the question of how Occupiers should use the backdrop of the campaigns and conventions, and what the movement's intervention in the cycle should be, is on every activist's mind.

"It's a question we're getting asked a lot," says Jo Robin, an Occupier who identifies as an anarchist. "There are a lot of conversations about how we should be working in relation to the elections right now."

Martinez is running in the new Seventh Congressional District, reconfigured this year in the most recent round of redistricting. Once known as the Bullwinkle District, it stretches from Sunset Park up through Red Hook and Cobble Hill, dipping into the Lower East Side, and snaking up through Bushwick into Woodhaven. Its rough shape dates back to 1992, when a previous round of redistricting created a Latino-majority district.

Although there is technically no incumbent in the race, the biggest shadow is cast by Nydia Velázquez, the 20-year-veteran representative displaced by the redistricting from her stronghold in the old 12th District.

There are a lot of reasons to bet on Velázquez in this race. Her new district shares a lot of turf with the one she has had locked down through 10 terms, she's firmly ensconced in Brooklyn's Democratic machine politics, and she's operating with a reported $800,000 war chest.

The strange timing of this year's congressional primaries further props up Velázquez's candidacy. For reasons that remain murky, the party decided to hold this year's primary—for congressional candidates only—in June, far earlier than usual. That gave candidates without a preexisting power base or campaign industry hardly any time to organize, while candidates like Velázquez, confident in a host of endorsements, donors, and longstanding relationships, have a head start.

Understandably, incumbents are playing the primaries as quietly as possible, hoping no one besides their dedicated voting blocs even notices the unseasonable election.

The Velázquez campaign didn't respond to requests for comment and in other interviews has consistently deflected questions about her opponents and the race while reiterating that voters will make their decision based on their familiarity with Velázquez and her record.

But Velázquez does have challengers. Erik Dilan, an 11-year councilmember, is also running, and has forged a peculiar unofficial alliance with a third candidate, Dan O'Connor. Dilan is considered the strongest threat to Velázquez, or at least he was until he was caught failing to fully disclose the source of more than half of his campaign contributions in April.

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