Can This Policy Wonk Race His Way Into Office?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he combines progressivism’s purity with pragmatic policy.
By Nick Fouriezos
Vivek Viswanathan is running for office in California. For most Golden State politicos, that’s code for flying between the voter-rich locales of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and spending the rest of the time wringing money from well-heeled donors. But it’s different for the 31-year-old vying to become state treasurer.
For one, the former Hillary Clinton campaign hand has sworn off all corporate or special interest money, a Bernie Sanders–like turn that Viswanathan believes is necessary for anyone who wants to ethically manage California’s $75 billion investment portfolio. Second, Viswanathan, unlike his peers, is literally running — 625 miles from Sacramento to the Mexican border, a journey he documents daily through Facebook videos and cheery, philosophical Medium posts.
Plodding nearly 20 miles per day, with stops at Indivisible meetings and open mic nights along the way through the dusty Central Valley, an area some derisively call the “armpit” of California, is just one unconventional tactic from the peculiar first-time candidate. While organizations like Our Revolution and Justice Democrats have drawn headlines by funding unapologetic progressives, Viswanathan joins a group just conventional enough to seem counterintuitive: Clinton alums throwing their hats in the ring this cycle, from former California state director Buffy Wicks competing in San Francisco’s East Bay to fellow policy wonks like Sara Jacobs in Southern California and Ed Meier in North Texas, to name a few. “We’re all in this process. Instead of the policy papers, we’re making that next argument: What is my story, and why should voters trust me?” Viswanathan says.
Fittingly, Viswanathan shares his old boss’s proclivity for lists and bullet points, professing a nerdy love for both presidential trivia and reading policy papers on the weekend. However, the Long Island–raised son of Indian immigrants is more than just a Clinton clone. He’s playing the anti-establishment role she never could. His main challenger is Fiona Ma, the former California Assembly speaker who has almost 100 endorsements — including both of California’s sitting U.S. senators, and the current treasurer — and more than $2 million in donations for her treasurer bid. Meanwhile, Viswanathan has raised just a tenth of that, at nearly $200,000.
With a 10-point platform (because, of course), Viswanathan wants to offer all California babies a college savings account, enact public campaign financing and increase retirement funding.
Ma, who did not respond to our request for comment, is favored to finish first in the June 5 primary. To make it to a head-to-head November matchup with Ma, Viswanathan will have to beat out two Republicans and a challenge on his left flank too. It’s unclear whether Viswanathan has a base, and some, like socialism-espousing Peace and Freedom Party treasurer candidate Kevin Akin, are skeptical he is willing “to challenge the power of the billionaires.” Viswanathan says he’ll stand up to the Daddy Warbuckses of the world, pointing to his contribution policy and plans to reform election financing. He describes his attempted marriage of progressive purity and establishment pragmatism as “this idea of being both fiscally strong and progressive.”
When we speak over Google Hangouts, the 6-foot-2 former high school basketball forward has finished his first four days — and 76 miles — on the road. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, but Viswanathan is smiling with all the incessancy of a living emoji. His unassailable cheer was legendary in the Clinton camp, says Ann O’Leary, who helped craft the campaign’s health and education policy. More substantively, Viswanathan made the complicated and critical issue of college affordability legible, she says. He was one of the first to understand that federal aid programs cover most low-income students’ tuition already; what they need are housing and books. “He was so smart about thinking about what were the unintended consequences,” O’Leary says.
With a 10-point platform (because, of course), Viswanathan wants to offer all California babies a college savings account, enact public campaign financing and increase retirement funding. Next to those lofty goals is the boring stuff that makes the math work, from expanding the rainy day fund to broadening the sales tax base and raising property taxes on second homes. The Big Progressive Goals can be traced in part to his most recent job advising Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. But an appreciation of the nitty-gritty comes from an unlikely Republican source.
While earning a joint MBA and law degree from Stanford, partially covered by a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, Viswanathan served as a teacher’s assistant to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He remembers writing a paper critical of the Iraq War. “In the comments, she certainly questioned some of my logic — but she gave me an A,” he says. The real lesson? Precision in speech and writing, a trait he says Rice shared with Clinton. “I’ve seen how much a well-argued two-page memo to the president can change everything,” Rice used to tell him. Her recommendation, he says, played a part in getting on the Clinton campaign.
The election is getting closer. The miles pass beneath his feet. But Viswanathan, who rarely plays music or podcasts during those great distances, doesn’t mind the quiet. It reminds him of December 2016, in the aftermath of Clinton’s presidential election loss, when he escaped to the Canadian wilderness for a Vipassana meditation retreat. Over 10 days in absolute silence, he found no answers. But the experience cultivated “a spirit of acceptance,” one that he takes into his own candidacy today. “It’s so exhausting. I can’t imagine another race right now,” he admits, though a campaign without marathon running might be less tiring. Yet win or lose, you can count on one thing — this is not the end of the trail for Viswanathan. “This isn’t a one-and-done,” he vows.