A trio of teenagers from New York state have successfully drafted former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel into the 2020 primary. The anti-war octogenarian famous for helping put the Pentagon papers in the public record made his debut with a campaign video underscoring the liabilities of other Democratic candidates and highlighting Gravel’s long political career, before cutting to the ex-senator, who now walks with the assistance of a cane. “It’s time to make some waves to change,” he tells the camera. “I’m Mike Gravel, and I’m running for president.”
Gravel’s candidacy is the brainchild of David Oks and Elijah Emery, both high school seniors in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and Henry Williams, now a freshman at Columbia University. Speculation that Gravel might launch a White House bid began in March when the former senator’s dormant Twitter account was was brought back to life, albeit with a markedly different voice. Gravel confirmed that he had turned the keys to the account over to a group of students who wanted him to run for president, and that he was considering the idea. On Monday, he made it official.
“I’m excited to run for president in order to qualify for the Democratic debates,” the 88-year-old ex-statesmen said in a statement announcing his candidacy. “My message, centered around an anti-imperialist foreign policy and fundamental political reform, is one that no other Democratic candidate is making the centerpiece of their campaign. After the first two debates, I will drop out and endorse the most progressive candidate.”
The campaign kicked off with a three-and-a-half minute ad titled “Rock 2.0,” a nod to the famous 2007 video in which Gravel heaves a stone into a pond, then walks away wordlessly. The video, like many of the tweets sent from Gravel’s account since the teens commandeered it, skewers several of the leading Democratic candidates before panning to Gravel, on a bench, shaking his head.
The campaign’s stated goal is to convince 65,000 people to chip in to secure Gravel’s place on the debate stage. And, according to the campaign, they’ve already made a significant dent in that figure. A campaign spokeswoman said in a statement that more than 5,000 donors have already contributed, adding that “popular donation amounts are $1 and $4.20, with an average donation hovering around $3.” (If Gravel doesn’t hit the 65,000-donor threshold, the campaign says it will donate any remaining funds to “organizations that will help Flint, Michigan get clean water, and to other charities.”)
Speaking with Rolling Stone several weeks before the official launch, Oks, who cites Hiram Long and Huey Johnson as his political heroes, said the idea of drafting a left-wing candidate to advocate a specific agenda came first, and the selection of Gravel as messenger came second. (Other people they considered for the role included a tech executive they knew personally and the rapper Akon.)
Oks said they landed on Mike Gravel after hearing the hosts of the popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House talking about him. (The Chapo hosts championed Bernie Sanders candidacy in 2016.)
According to Oks, Cynthia Nixon’s 2018 bid against Andrew Cuomo served as an inspiration for the idea (Nixon was credited with forcing the New York governor to lurch leftward on a number of key issues), along with the unapologetically progressive campaigns of politicians like Ben Jealous, Bernie Sanders and Jesse Jackson in 1984. (Oks himself ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Ardsley, New York in 2017.)