Courtesy of Elijah Emery

Elijah Emery ’23 (pictured far right) called former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel's short-lived presidential campaign a success for helping to push the Democratic primary's current candidates further to the left.

November 21, 2019

Spurred to Action by Trump’s Election in 2016, Cornell Freshman Details How He Ran a Political Campaign Before Coming to College

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At 18, Elijah Emery ’23 has yet to vote in a presidential election, but he has already helped run a presidential campaign. From March to August 2019, Emery and three of his friends were at the reins of the presidential campaign of former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel (D-A.K.).

“When Trump won, we had this feeling of we should have been able to do more,” Emery said. “We felt that if there was any change we could make, then we should engage.”

It was this sense of responsibility, combined with strong self-described “left-wing” convictions, that led this group of four teenagers — David Oks, Henry Williams, Henry Magowan and Emery — to initiate and manage Sen. Gravel’s presidential campaign.

Last March, the group reached out to the former Alaskan senator, offering to run his presidential campaign. The goal of Gravel’s campaign was less to win the White House than it was to push the conversations happening in the Democratic Party to the left, particularly on America’s foreign intervention, according to Emery.

Gravel had run for president in 2008, and he was immediately receptive to the proposal to run in 2020, according to Emery — though said that he would first have to convince his wife.  Eventually, she signed on and the campaign could move forward.

Emery’s role within the campaign was primarily to hire new staff, which totalled around 65 people, all of whom worked as volunteers. Emery also communicated with media outlets, and helped manage merchandise distribution. Coordination amongst the campaign staff was primarily carried out online, with comparably little in-person communication.

“The nominal headquarters was David’s house in Ardsley, New York,” Emery said. But the campaign’s staff were located around the country, including Washington, D.C., Detroit, and San Francisco.

At times, the lack of physical headquarters meant that adjustments had to be made. For instance, when the campaign buttons arrived, the campaign team realized they did not have a place to store them. So, before distributing the buttons, a staff member offered to keep them in her house.

“There were pounds and pounds of buttons in her apartment,” Emery said. “Everyone in this campaign jumped in and did what needed to be done.”

Gravel represented Alaska in the United States Senate from 1969 to 1981. He was well known for his opposition to the Vietnam war, in particular for his effort to publicize the Pentagon Papers, Emery said. According to Emery, Gravel’s work in the Senate helped establish positions against foreign adventurism within the Democratic party.

“Politics is so much more than America, and the mistakes made by Dick Cheney, for example, are really felt by the families of people killed as a result of foreign adventurism,” Emery said. “We wanted to make the United States a more moral country.”

The campaign team nearly succeeded in landing Gravel in the first Democratic debate this past summer, getting 67,000 donors — 2000 donors above the qualifying number of 65,000 donors. But even with the qualifications, the DNC barred Gravel from participating in the debate without clear explanation, Emery said.

“It was super clear that the Democratic establishment just resented having his voice in the debates,” Emery said. “They wanted to control the process.”

Emery said that even without making the debate and officially shutting down in August, Gravel’s campaign succeeded in moving the conversation among Democratic candidates to the left, particularly on issues of foreign intervention.

This wasn’t the group’s first involvement in electoral politics. At age 16, Oks ran for mayor of Ardsley, New York, and Williams and Emery were his staff. Still too young to drive, they had to be chaperoned around town to knock on voters’ doors.

Despite frustrations with the Democrats’ refusal to allow Gravel into the debate, Emery seemed far from disillusioned.

“Working on this campaign opened my eyes to how huge the world is, and how meaningful engagement in the political process can be, even if it is at times difficult and disheartening,” he said. “It taught me that sometimes, doing something is a matter of just doing it.”