Why you should care
Because he thinks by appealing to better angels can beat Trump.
As Joe Sanberg spoke with Democrats everywhere from Ohio and Nebraska to Arkansas and Missouri ahead of the midterm elections, he consistently asked his audience something few politicians would — to look away from him. “Close your eyes,” says Sanberg, this time in a St. Louis suburb. “Picture when you couldn’t afford a bill or worried about making rent,” the 39-year-old says. “Remember the insecurity you felt. Now feel what it must be like for those who don’t experience that fear occasionally, but every hour of every day.”
This is unconventional politicking. After working on Wall Street for Blackstone and Tiger Global Management, the Orange County, California native made his fortune investing in startups like meal-delivery service Blue Apron and pay-what-you-want financial firm Aspiration. In the last few years, Sanberg has risen in California political circles by convincing the state legislature to pass an earned income tax credit in 2015 and then launching a one-man, $10-million program to advertise that credit. Since then, his advocacy group CalEITC4Me has signed up more than 2.2 million low-income Californians to receive more than $4 billion in income earned tax credits.
Now, owing to his travel schedule, Sanberg is stoking speculation about his political intentions. He’s taking meetings with Democratic Party chiefs in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — the critically important first three states on the 2020 presidential primary calendar. The vehicle was his Working Hero PAC, a national extension of his California efforts that endorsed 17 midterm candidates who promised to support an agenda to end poverty, which includes expansion of the EITC, a $15 federal minimum wage and single-payer Medicare for All.
The Democratic primary is becoming a caravan of business leaders, philanthropists and nascent politicos asking “why not me?”
“The worst part about financial distress is the isolation that comes with it,” Sanberg says, sitting in a booth at a St. Louis pub, wearing a “Families Belong Together” T-shirt and Target jeans. Social media compounds that loneliness, he adds, with people feeling both alienated by others’ perceived perfect lives and, therefore, less likely to speak about their own monetary struggles or identify it as poverty, which carries a stigma. “If you haven’t experienced homelessness, you haven’t been poor, so you can’t complain,” is the mindset he describes.
But half of Americans can’t afford a $400 surprise expense. They are “a broken wrist, a few blown tires or a busted pipe in their home away from financial crisis,” as Sanberg likes to say on tour stops. It’s a feeling he empathizes with, having grown up with a single mom and moving into his grandparents’ house when theirs was repossessed.
Some believe his work outside the political realm can help inform future success within it. “What he was able to do as somebody not in political office was greater than the impact of any other Democrat in America over the past two years in terms of addressing poverty,” says Aspiration CEO Andrei Cherny, a former Arizona Democratic Party chairman and White House aide. “It makes you wonder how much he could do if he actually was in political life.”
Sanberg prefers to address the roots of questions and then, sometimes, the questions themselves. He has the earnestness of a nonprofit leader and the practicality of an entrepreneur. It tends to feel authentic, part of a persona that Melahat Rafiei, an Iranian-American progressive and former executive director of the Orange County, California Democrats, calls the “anti-Avenatti” — a reference to bombastic attorney Michael Avenatti who has become a Democratic star with his attacks on Donald Trump. While Sanberg refuses to say whether he’ll run for president, he’s clearly considering it. “I totally reject the idea that you defeat darkness with darkness,” Sanberg says of a Trump challenge. Instead, Democrats must appeal to “humanity’s best angels,” he says, often quoting speeches by John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The prospect of a Sanberg candidacy gaining steam seems unlikely. But in the aftermath of Trump’s election, the Democratic primary is becoming a caravan of business leaders, philanthropists and nascent politicos asking “why not me?” And more than a few party veterans see in Sanberg’s poverty platform a way to cut through the divisiveness of a primary shaping up around immigration, race and impeachment. “Being anti-poverty, you have the ability to talk about a lot of things — you are pro-kids, pro-women, pro-working families and pro-education,” Rafiei says.
In a crowded field, Sanberg’s relative anonymity will handicap him. Even in early states, such as New Hampshire, “name-recognition is a big issue,” says Catherine Corkery, the Sierra Club chapter director in the Granite State. Without celebrity, he will need to harness his signature issue to break through, the way Medicare for All did for Bernie Sanders. Few knew the Vermont senator in 2016, but he “had a message that resonated,” says Sanberg adviser Rebecca Katz, a Democratic communications expert who has worked with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Sure, Sanberg didn’t play in a punk band like Beto O’Rourke. As a White man, he wouldn’t set historic precedents like Sen. Kamala Harris or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. He doesn’t have the wealth of billionaires Tom Steyer or Michael Bloomberg, the experience of Gov. John Hickenlooper or Sen. Sherrod Brown, and certainly not the name recognition of former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
But while those potential candidates talk a lot about “inequality” and the middle class, the P-word doesn’t come up much. A Sanberg campaign would be an attempt to force poverty back into the presidential campaign discourse in a way it hasn’t been since John Edwards’ ill-fated 2008 run. This early primary-state tour could be an attention-grabber — not so much for a man but for an issue. “As we help more people, and as we explain how we’re helping people, I think people will pay attention,” he says.
Still, the man does have a personal narrative that resonates. When he closes his eyes, Sanberg sees the financial straits of his own childhood — including pots of Hamburger Helper that were stretched to last a week and the back room where he and his brother hid from gun-toting debt collectors when they came looking for their deeply indebted real-estate investor father. While Sanberg made it into Harvard, he had to borrow his way through his degree and couldn’t get home during the holidays owing to a lack of funds. And, after graduating, he applied for a Wall Street analyst gig with the high pay in mind — only because he wanted to support his family.
Most Americans will see themselves in that story, he figures, no matter whether they can also see him in the Oval Office.
Read more: Why are 1 in 5 Californians poor?