Alex Katz reports for the Boston Globe: Dressed in a crewneck sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers, the third-year Harvard Law School student stood up calmly and approached the microphone at the Kennedy School of Government.
Little did he know this would be his political baptism.
Joel Pollak was there to question US Representative Barney Frank, who had just finished a speech on financial regulatory reform. Pollak’s query was provocative, but hardly impolite: “How much responsibility, if any, do you have for the financial crisis?”
Frank, the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, pushed back hard, lambasting Pollak for asking an “accusatory” question, dismissing his arguments as “totally wrong,” and asserting that he was part of a “right-wing attack on liberals.”
Almost instantly, the contretemps, in April 2009, made Pollak, at 31, a conservative cult hero. The moment – later dubbed the “Crimson Clash” – became a YouTube sensation and sparked national media coverage.
It also sparked a candidacy.
Pollak, inspired by the encouragement he received from Republicans after his composed performance in the confrontation, has returned home to suburban Chicago to challenge another established Democratic lawmaker, US Representative Jan Schakowsky, in Illinois’ Ninth District.
“Everybody said they wanted me to stand up to her, like I did with Barney,” Pollak said in an interview.
Pollak, now 33, is up against long odds but remains undeterred. And as he vies to unseat Schakowsky, a six-term House member who has historically enjoyed a lock on the district, Pollak is trying to persuade voters that he is a formidable candidate for the House in his own right.
A fiscal conservative, Pollak said his top priority would be creating new jobs through tax credits for small businesses. He also wants to repeal the recently passed health care law, which Schakowsky strongly supported. On foreign policy, Pollak, an Orthodox Jew, is a staunch Israel advocate who favors a hard line against Iran. Also on his resume: He wrote a song called “The Ballad of the Tea Party.”
Many political analysts expect Democratic incumbents to suffer this fall amid voter discontent about the economy, federal spending, and the health care law. Pollak believes voters, even in his left-leaning district, are fed up with what he calls the “power-seizing” of the Democrat-led Congress.
“Pollak’s presenting a strong case for himself even under normal circumstances, and these are not normal circumstances,” said Donald Gordon, an adjunct lecturer in Northwestern University’s political science department. “The time is ripe.”
No public polling data is available on the race, but other political analysts are not optimistic about Pollak’s chances. Both CQ Politics and the Cook Political Report predict that Schakowsky – who had 10 times the money in her political account as of June 30 – is safe in a district that hasn’t had a Republican representative since 1949. Voters in the Ninth District have also overwhelmingly supported Democratic presidential candidates – even George McGovern in 1972 – for decades.
“Launching your political career against Jan in that district is like launching a trans-Atlantic swim, except I think the swim would have a better chance of success,” Frank said in an interview, suggesting that Pollak, whom he said he did not immediately remember, would be wise to have a backup plan.
Indeed, Schakowsky has yet to face a tough race. Since 1998, she has won at least 70 percent of the vote in every election except one. Even in 2006, months after her husband was convicted of bank fraud and tax evasion, she handily won reelection.
Still, Schakowsky believes that Pollak is no pushover.
“I would say he’s my most aggressive challenger to date,” she said in an interview. “I don’t know how formidable he’ll turn out to be, but he’s certainly running an aggressive campaign.”
Schakowsky also criticized Pollak for being a frequent guest of conservative radio and TV personality Sean Hannity, and for being a golden boy in the eyes of conservative bloggers such as Andrew Breitbart.
Pollak, who was born in South Africa and moved to the United States shortly after, has long been politically active, having worked as a freelance journalist covering politics and a speechwriter to the South African Parliament’s opposition leader. But he was not always a Republican.
Until recently, he fancied himself a Clinton Democrat. While an undergraduate at Harvard in 1996, Pollak interned for then-US Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, a liberal Democrat. He was even active in a Democratic group on campus in his first year at Harvard Law.
It wasn’t until the Democratic takeover of the US House under Nancy Pelosi in 2006 that Pollak shifted to the right.
“There was nothing they were offering that I believed in,” he said.
So Pollak, who has authored two political books, went on to become a volunteer speechwriter for John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid and, ultimately, the student who made his name by taking on Frank.
After the Harvard clash last year, it didn’t take long before the Facebook friend requests and fan mail came pouring in. At first, Harvard Law School forwarded the letters to Pollak’s apartment. When they didn’t stop, the school told him to come pick them up. Today, Pollak said, he still gets approached by strangers on the train who ask him, “Aren’t you that Barney Frank guy?”
For his part, Frank, a Newton Democrat, said he has those kinds of run-ins all the time.
Another notable exchange came at a town hall meeting on health care last August in Dartmouth, where Rachel Brown, a Lyndon LaRouche supporter, accused Frank of supporting what she called a “Nazi policy.”
“On what planet do you spend most of your time?” Frank replied. “Trying to have a conversation with you would be like arguing with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.”
Now Brown, too, is running for Congress, challenging Frank as a Democrat in the Sept. 14 primary. “I realized I am more competent than those currently holding office,” she wrote on her campaign’s website.
Pollak, meanwhile, knows that, however central Frank has been to his own candidacy, success now depends on him.
“People need to know who you are,” Pollak said. “And what you are has to be more than just an argument with Barney Frank.”