The teens behind Mike Gravel’s unorthodox presidential campaign
Jeff Blake/The State/MCT via Getty Images(NEW YORK) — David Oks and Henry Williams may only be in their teens, but they are seeking to rock the boat of the Democratic Party in the 2020 presidential race by working from within — and running a campaign.
It all started when the two 18-year-olds from New York were listening to their favorite podcast, Chapo Trap House, and heard the hosts discuss the positions of former Alaska Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel and their love for Gravel during the 2008 Democratic presidential debates.
Oks and Williams thought it would be “really cool” to draft a candidate for the 2020 Democratic primary, and instantly knew Gravel would be the perfect candidate for the job. So they reached out to the 89-year-old senator.
“Do you realize how old I am?” Gravel told ABC News he responded to them. Oks and Williams, however, had done their research to appeal to his interests.
“They really had a sense of what really floats my boat, which is direct democracy,” said Gravel, who is writing a book on bringing about a “legislature of the people” that would allow Americans to create their own laws through popular referendum.
The teens also told him there was “more of a market today for his ideas,” citing a “substantially more energized, very online, very young leftist movement that would work to see him in politics.”
Gravel made it clear he would only run if they agreed to make it as easy as possible for him. The duo reassured him he “wouldn’t have to go anywhere” and it would be a “front-porch campaign” through which he could get his message out to the public on direct democratic reforms and non-interventionism.
Now, they manage everything from day-to-day operations to a notorious Twitter account filled with fiery roasts and memes.
“I think I’m pretty confident saying that we probably have the best social media game of any campaign,” said Oks, claiming they “have a more authentic voice than most other campaigns.”
Gravel agrees with the Twitter content for the most part. And, he said, “They assured me that I had veto power, and I’ve only used it once in asking them to tone down the F-language.”
Oks, a rising first-year at University of Oxford, and Williams, a rising sophomore at Columbia University, met in high school through Model UN and debate. Williams proclaimed that Oks is a “savant when it comes to history and politics.”
“He can probably tell you the exact electoral totals and every candidate who ran and every presidential election since the beginning of American history,” Williams said. As for himself, he said, politics is “more of an interest than it is an obsession.”
The two are known to test unconventional ideas. Previous plans have included a “future bike” with a camera so “parents could watch their kids” and Oks’ 2017 mayoral run in his hometown of Ardsley, New York, for which Williams served as chief of staff.
“I did run for mayor. I remember that. That was a disaster. That did not go well,” Oks said.
In terms of why they’re running this campaign, Williams said, “We’re making a sort of point, especially to young people on the left, that your politics can be more than this, and that where Mike Gravel is now might be where the center of the party is in another decade.”
“[Gravel] was probably the furthest left senator when he was in Congress,” Williams said. “At that time, he was the only Democrat to support gay marriage. He was the only Democrat to support ending nuclear testing in the Pacific, to paying reparations to victims of our wars, to reading the Pentagon Papers in the Russian record.”
While Oks and Williams supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential race, they don’t believe Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are taking a strong-enough stance on foreign policy.
“Bernie and Warren aren’t perfect. They are especially lacking on foreign policy and on being genuinely anti-imperialist, and you need someone calling that out,” said Williams.
Still, Gravel, Oks and Williams all mentioned Sanders as part of their “ideal ticket” in the case Gravel does not win the nomination. Gravel told ABC he also supports Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, “because she’s got the courage to challenge the military industrial complex.”
Initially, Gravel said, “I was not running for president to be president; I was running for president to get into the debates.”
But now, he said, he is running seriously as his teen advisers informed him it “would help our efforts if you really said you’re going to run for president.”
“I mean, we’re wanting to win as seriously, as, you know, Andrew Yang or Seth Moulton,” Williams claimed. “Most of them in reality — and they won’t tell you this honestly — they’re running to raise their speaking fees, they’re running to run for another office down the line. You know, they’re not serious.”
So far, Gravel has not made it into the debates. He was one of three candidates to not qualify for the first debates, which were held in late June, as he fell short of the 65,000-donor threshold. Oks said the campaign has over 40,000 donors.
Gabbard invited Gravel as her guest to the first debates, and while he couldn’t attend due to surgery recovery, Oks and Williams went.
Despite missing the first round of debates, Gravel praised the “kids.” He said he speaks with them every day and joked sometimes he thinks “they’re just checking to make sure I’m still alive.”
“I have a sense of how precocious the two kids were. I refer to them as kids, and that’s not derogatory. That’s honorary from my point of view because they truly are very talented. They know the issues up and down,” Gravel said. “I’m just proud to be associated with them, and obviously they’re proud to be associated with me.”
Gravel has yet to attend an official campaign event in person due to his old age and limited mobility.
“I’m reluctant to travel. I’m 89 years old. I use a cane,” he said, chuckling. “Well, I sit on my patio. And so I’ve got a patio campaign being conducted primarily by the kids.”
If Gravel were to qualify for a debate in the future, however, he said he would most “certainly” attend in-person.
The campaign will make a big push to qualify for the July debate, but one thing is for certain: This venture has already proved much more successful than many may have thought for two teenagers.
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