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Conscience and a Short Run for Congress

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I can point to the minute of the day last June as the moment of inception. I was returning to Trenton, New Jersey, following a session with my spiritual director. Maybe I would throw my hat in the ring for U.S. Congress. If I cared about God's creation and justice, then I could not ignore politics. But I first had to know much about my congressman, especially where he stood on record. If he was voting in ways that did not make our economy more just, functional and eco-intelligent, I could do no worse in life than taking him on. The problem, however, was that I did everything in reverse; I lacked mainstream political experience, and had almost no name or face recognition in the 4th District of New Jersey.

About six months later, with money starting to come in, a campaign team that was coalescing and visibility beginning to roll through a few cities and townships, end of year congressional redistricting tipped the balance of the electorate markedly to the right. This made relative fundraising an enormous strain in an unprecedented time of super PAC donations, and the possibility of unseating a 32-year incumbent seemingly impossible. A few days after Christmas and much of my savings gone, I withdrew from the race. What follows is a brief story of life in contemporary American politics.

Last summer I wanted to know how my congressman voted on the Farm Bill. I had finished reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and had seen the documentary Food Inc. several times. Agribusiness is a monolith; an industry that receives government welfare year after year, while exacting a huge toll on land, waters and climate. I learned that the incumbent voted to protect subsidies for Big Ag.

Despite deeming the incumbent's overall record on the economy and banking, energy and environment as regressive and uninspiring, I realized that I could not sustain a congressional race with a list of negatives; I had to put forth a positive vision. A fresh campaign message in New Jersey's 4th district needed to get out. So, meeting in a Jersey City diner, our policy team settled on the slogan: "An economy that works for everyone." These words would inscribe my campaign business cards, website and literature -- and highlight a few stump speeches.

When I first spoke with friends about thoughts for candidacy, they were eager to participate. Intelligent, idealistic and street savvy, these men and women were among recent college graduates who I knew would get the campaign moving. In fact, they did more to help me plug in with potential voters than I could have imagined, through building a solid website, leveraging social media, volunteering on the ground in Ocean County and generating lists of contacts for churches, businesses and environmental organizations.

Is there a definitive profile as to who or what a congressman is? My campaign manager and others held the opinion that yes, a congressman looks and acts a certain way. I had to shed my ruffled, comfort clothes; I had to forget about being an activist. And I had to learn to be cool, calm and collected, or at least more than usual. This was hard. A relaxed, easy going temperament is not one of my strengths, yet I would have to play the part. Congressional candidacy would put me in the public eye like nothing else.

So, stepping out in public, I dressed as sharply as I could. I tried to repress my activist instincts, but, alas, was unable. In November, my birthday gift to myself was to throw on my sweatshirt and jeans and head to Zuccotti Park. I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I believed that a serious candidate needed to visit "Occupy" and listen to people express their feelings about an unbalanced (understandably) monetary and political system. Money's influence and the wrong kind of financial deregulation had been tearing steep holes in the fabric of America's economy for too long. Constituents were angry about the financial bailouts and huge bonuses.

Looking for answers, I read Jeff Madrick's The Age of Greed and Nomi Prins' It Takes a Pillage -- both passionately and clearly argued critiques of Wall Street's "paper economy" value system -- and upgraded my website position on finance reform. It included calling for a modernized reinstatement of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which, until its dismantling in 1999, served to keep banking safe and friendly to depositors. The functions of consumer banking and investment banking had been separated for almost half a century, but erasing the lines of traditional deposits and speculative investments bred conditions that played a major role in the 2008 global financial meltdown. Around the same time, environmental concern and the future of America's economy led me to upgrade my position on energy. After exploring the issue of hydraulic-fracturing, or fracking, and the risks that natural gas drilling operations pose to America's water supplies, I decided that as part of a smart, environmentally-sound energy policy, there was ample cause for a federal ban on fracking.

Here is how my political reasoning went. Despite the morality we express among our families and communities, bad government has a way to undercut the progress we make in areas of education, small business development and environmental protection. We tell our children not to litter. And yet Congress would undermine the authority of the EPA and give large corporations expanded license to litter our atmosphere. We tell teenagers to be honest with their money and stay away from shoplifting. And yet government would give massive bailouts to the companies responsible for their own demise, while powerful political factions dismiss the simple need for reform and oversight.

Whatever my legislative intentions, I became increasingly troubled by the amount of money needed to get the message out and make my name known around district. In order to unseat a popular Republican incumbent with over 30 years in the House, some two or more million dollars would have been required to have any chance at victory. Both my campaign manager and fundraiser urged me to give most of my time in October, November and December to raising money on the phones: "Dialing for dollars," as they say. Family and friends were indeed generous, but that was just the beginning. Fundraising would prove a constant cycle throughout the campaign.

Once redistricting was made final, however, the new map showed a different ball game. The incumbent consolidated his Republican base. Towns I spent a lot of time in were moved outside the 4th District. Deciding to drop out of the race, of course, was not easy. On the one hand, I wanted to continue spreading the message that precious little attention is given our economy's deep dependence on the natural world.

Although lacking confidence in tallying the final margin of victory votes, I had been mindful that winning or losing was not a primary concern to Harvey Milk in 1970s San Francisco. Running four times for county supervisor, Milk eventually won. But even in the races he lost, Milk drew a large following of believers in the message of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. Thousands shared Milk's conviction that the campaign message transcended temporary defeat at the ballot box. Could I be like Milk -- or Ron Paul for that matter -- and follow a set of moral convictions throughout a long candidacy, win or lose? Could our congressional campaign build a movement rooted in principles of ecology and economic justice, win or lose? I wanted to believe this, but advisers and voters informed me that I could not project even the slightest doubt in my ability to defeat the incumbent, and in truth, the entire undertaking prompted no small measure of inquietude. I concluded that I could not convincingly enough take the vision of a socially and environmentally intelligent economy to campaign contributors.

I am grateful for having met democratic candidates for Congress, such as Montana's Dave Strohmaier, who are well-prepared to test Reverend Richard Cizik's hypothesis about faith, politics and science. In 2008, Cizik -- then the National Evangelical Association's Vice President for Governmental Affairs -- wrote a powerful opening essay in Love God, Heal Earth: 21 Leading Religious Voices Speak Out on Our Sacred Duty to Protect the Environment, in which he claimed, "The good news is that the climate deniers, aided and abetted by the religious right, are losing all the arguments on all counts -- theology, politics and science." Is this true? No doubt there has been a faith-related environmental awakening among Catholics and evangelicals, but to what extent this will translate politically in November is anyone's guess.

The climate crisis led to Reverend Cizik's conversion about a decade ago. Cizik's simple observation that caring for the environment is a biblical duty is catching on. There is a growing body of faith communities advocating for the religious and scientific urgency of participating in Earth's protection and regeneration. For Cizik, as evidenced by his evangelical push to bring aid to the world's poor in relation to the devastating meteorological and agricultural effects of climate change, caring for the environment and caring for God's people are one and the same.

While my former candidacy has made me somewhat jaded about national politics, I have no regrets. The young interns who worked on our campaign were charged and enthusiastic to fight for positive institutional change. They believe in America's better angels. And like so many who care about responsive, purposeful democracy, former staff and supporters have expressed disgust about the wanton role that money plays in politics. If money were not such a factor, more common, good-minded men and women might be willing to give congressional candidacy an honest shot.

My political conviction remains that God wills our attention to economic justice no less than green industry and renewable power generation. In this respect, the Occupy movement may very well prove a wild card in the 2012 congressional elections. I hope so. Whoever we vote for in November, it matters that we bring values of equality and eco-integrity to the process and policies of American government and commerce -- not just the most dollars.