I’m in the corner room at the Middle East in Cambridge, guzzling beers and plowing through a fistful of falafel across from my favorite candidate for President of the United States. It’s not Bernie Sanders, the socialist Vermont senator who is also running for the White House. He’s cool, and perhaps lefty enough for me, but Bernie isn’t this cool. The hopeful with whom I am sharing appetizers has even considered asking Immortal Technique, the controversial indie rap artist from Harlem, to be her running mate.
“He’s a friend, but I don’t think he was born in the United States, so he can’t do it,” she says. “I have spoken with him though. I love Immortal Technique. He has great ideas—we need to hear from more people like him.”
As you may have guessed, I’m hanging with Jill Stein, who is likely to run for president in 2016 on the Green Party ticket. Since she formed an exploratory committee in February, and is the most progressive person considering the plunge, we thought that it was only right to let her use the DigBoston bullhorn. Stein is a Commonwealth resident, a licensed physician, and as a bonus whooped Mitt Romney in a Bay State gubernatorial debate in 2002. As the Green candidate for president a decade later, she was arrested for trying to enter a debate at Hofstra University on Long Island, where she would likely have delivered a belated encore shellacking. But in cases when Stein has actually been allowed to participate in candidate forums, she has impressed.
The doc is hardly an electoral powerhouse. Last jog around, her operation raised less than $1 million, while she captured only .36 percent of the popular vote (she appeared on the ballot in 36 states). At the same time, those 469,000 votes were enough to earn Stein the superlative of Most Successful Female POTUS Candidate in US History. That’s a feat in itself, and in watching her pitch our DigBoston photographer, a student at MassArt, it’s obvious how Stein attracted nearly half-a-million supporters with such meager resources.
“Do you have debt?”
The question hits home; the undergrad photog nods slowly but dramatically. “Oh yeah.”
“Would you like to have it abolished?”
“Oh yeah. I try to manage my money, worked five jobs over the summer to pay what I can, but that’s just for living expenses.”
Stein goes for the closer.
“You should listen to what we’re saying … Because if it’s important, then you can be sure that Jeb and Hillary are working against it—whether it’s student debt, whether it’s affordable college, whether it’s keeping schools open and having an education budget.”
The candidate looks back at me: “There is an enormous amount of misery, and especially when you cross the generational divide. Among young people there’s just no question that there is a revolt going on … they are highly discouraged, and cynical, but if they feel like there is a tool with integrity that’s available to them, they’ll use it.”
THE BIG DANCE
A few weeks before our dinner, I asked Stein’s media manager to arrange for an interesting meeting between us. So as to avoid simply slathering on the puffery that she deserves, I requested that we do more than just a interview. Her relatability has been brought into question, even by some who have supported Stein’s past nominations, and so I wanted to evaluate her down-to-earthness. Her team was amenable, but must have had no clue how out of shape I am, because they responded with an opportunity to join her for a hip-hop dance class.
I follow the candidate and her one-man entourage up a squeaky old staircase at the Dance Complex on Mass Ave. It’s unlikely that anyone would recognize her as a politician or presidential candidate; even those who know Stein well may be a bit thrown off, as she’s dressed super casually in purple Chuck Taylors and without her trademark tandem blazer and green blouse. Just steps inside the building, however, a young woman behind the counter looks up and asks, “Are you from Lexington?”
Stein does live in Lexington, where she has served as a town meeting representative. She enjoys the acknowledgment for a millisecond, but it turns out the receptionist doesn’t actually know her, but rather just made the connection from a logo for Wilson Farm, a Lexington staple, on Stein’s tote bag. In any case, another Dance Complex employee directs us to a studio on the top floor.
I’ve done these kinds of participatory pieces before, but never with a candidate for president. And certainly never in such a sweaty situation, as the studio is filled with roughly two dozen hot-steppers in appropriate exercise gear, whereas I’m dressed more like a backup dancer in a ’90s rap video with Timberlands and sagging jeans. As bass lines bounce off the walls, Stein grooves with the precision of a teen on a Dance Dance Revolution simulator, her every kick fully extended and arms flailing fiercely. I’m a much less admirable specimen, though I manage to hold my own as the instructor coaches us through a routine.
At 64 years young, Stein is the oldest person in here, and more than thrice the age of some classmates. Other than the teacher, I’m the second oldest, and so after 45 minutes I step to the rear for a breather and to scribble some notes. I’m shaking, perspiring too profusely to grip my pen, and in mid-routine Stein looks over and asks, “Are you alright?” To which I reply, “Yes, but the only reason I agreed to this in the first place is because you’re a doctor.”
As I’m marinating in sweat on the sidelines, it dawns on me that Stein is infinitely more hip-hop, at least in the traditional empowerment sense, than young schmucks like Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, the US senator from Florida who claims to be a fan of the genre. As snares kick and horns blow in the background, Stein crosses the hour mark with ease, and there’s a moment of camaraderie and triumph among classmates—exactly the kind of scene she needs to spur, over and over again, with voters all across the country if she plans to resonate at large. Some are wheezing, but not her. Stein explains her style and method.
“I just had to make some of the moves work for me,” she says. “I had my own flow. That’s what hip-hop is.”
Image by Dennis Trainor
IT GETS BETTER
Since beginning to formally consider another presidential push, Stein hasn’t been able to make it to the Dance Complex as much as she would like to. Instead, she has been busy touring border towns in Texas, where she visited striking oil workers and communities who are fighting fracking interests, as well as other groups of marginalized voters. Her idea, which is supported by Gallup polls showing that record numbers of Americans are identifying as independent, is that people are increasingly sick of big party dominance. As Stein puts it, they’re “tired of making excuses for their political abusers.”
“The vacuum is really intense now,” she explains. “After two Obama terms, people are dropping out … Our challenge is to get the word out to people across the spectrum … We’re tiny, but our voting base is larger than just the Greens. We’ve become the umbrella for the principled political resistance, and a big question out there is whether people who want to revolt will take that revolt to the voting booth, or if they want to stay home.”
Like a lot of progressives, I have doubts about the Greens—even though they’re probably the vehicle that’s best equipped to dent the dominant parties. At the same time, I am completely trusting of Stein, whom I have long believed to be one of the smartest pols in America. At the very least, her priorities speak to underlying issues: “It’s Black Lives Matter,” she says. “It’s the prison state, it’s the security state, and it’s student debt—those are the big things.” She’s not a warmongering scumbag either, which is unique in this day and age. On military spending, Stein rails against “Democrats and Republicans looking to go after anything that breathes.” “If it shows up on infrared,” she says, the establishment philosophy is to “shoot it!”
There’s also healthcare; though I’m not much of a gambler, I’d bet all 10 fingers used to type this profile that Stein would breakdance all over her opponents if given a chance to confront them on the issue. “Forget the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo,” she says. “We need healthcare from the cradle to the grave, for it to just be built into society. It’s an outrageous myth that it’s really expensive to cover everybody. What’s really expensive is having a thousand insurance plans whereby all the minutiae of your coverage has to be tracked … Companies are making out like bandits, but it hasn’t been a step forward for middle Americans.”
As for her chances … Stein’s communications director, Massachusetts filmmaker and video blogger Dennis Trainor, says their team is still determining exactly how far they should push the envelope in their messaging. So far, in addition to expected lefty press, the exploratory outing has been covered by national outlets including C-SPAN and ABC News, which are typically reluctant to report on third parties at all, let alone this early in the race. According to Trainor and Stein, the Greens aren’t any less progressive than in years past, but they have finally modernized—not just in their media operation, but in their organization as well.
“We’re looking to run around [the corporate media],” Stein says, “and to build a movement that is so big that it forces them to cover us. We get to piggyback on everything we did last time, and we have digital tools for organizing and fundraising that we never were able to afford before. It’s a totally different ballgame. For the first time, at the national level we are turning the crank.”
She continues: “We have ballot status. We can make voices louder, and stronger, and help connect causes like climate justice and prison transformation … The missing component here is connecting the dots. When you start putting together millions of students and former students who are in debt, with one out of three African-Americans who are in prison or on probation, with one out of two American families that are in poverty or heading for it, then we have not just a plurality, but a majority.”
If Stein can pull off anything along those lines, if she can bring such constituencies together, it will be her most impressive hip-hop move of all.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.