Former teenage campaign managers of Mike Gravel talk progressive advocacy


Owen Stidman / Daily Senior Staffer

David Oks and Henry Williams speak to students in Seabury Hall. Topics ranged from Gravel’s bid for president to their new progressive nonprofit, The Gravel Institute.

Spencer Allan, Reporter

In the back of a Kresge Centennial Hall classroom, teenage political organizers David Oks and Henry Williams watched the seventh Democratic presidential debate alongside Northwestern students, cheering on U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) as they scrolled through leftist Twitter on their laptops.

Oks and Williams, now college students at the University of Oxford and Columbia University, respectively, are some of the youngest faces to emerge from a new wave of American progressive strategists. They first gained national attention last March when they registered former Alaskan progressive U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel as a 2020 presidential candidate.

Now, they travel to college campuses to advocate progressive politics. The Tuesday event was jointly organized by Northwestern Political Union, College Democrats and Young Democratic Socialists of America. Daniel Immerwahr, associate professor of history, moderated the discussion.

“Can you believe this?” Williams said, gesturing to his laptop screen.

It’s a sweater from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) campaign that says, ‘This isn’t flyover country, this is home.’ After a round of laughter from the room, he goes back to live-tweeting the debate, all while talking policy with a nearby student.

At the talk, the teenagers discussed topics ranging from a fiery Twitter exchange with John Delaney to convincing an eighty-nine-year-old Mike Gravel to consider a bid for president.

“We really imagined (Gravel) as a kind of anti-campaign candidate,” Williams said. “He is very attuned to the idea of movements that are larger than himself.”

The goal of the campaign wasn’t to win, rather to raise awareness to the far-left flavor of politics that the teenagers had largely not seen on the debate stage, Williams said.

“We called him up and said, ‘We need your Twitter account,’” Williams said. “He says, ‘Okay, but don’t don’t tweet anything I wouldn’t say.’”

What followed was a series of viral memes about other presidential candidates. Overnight, the teenagers received over 500 press inquiries and gained nearly 20,000 Twitter followers.

“By the morning, we were in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe and a few others,” Williams said.

Despite being underclassmen in college, both teenagers have been extremely active politically. At the age of 16, Oks ran for mayor of his hometown of Ardsley, NY before being sued by the Democratic party for failing to record signatures correctly.

Now, the teenagers have started their own progressive think tank, the Gravel Institute, which they affectionately call “PragerU for the left,” a reference to a right-wing think tank and YouTube channel popular among young conservatives. In Kresge, they discuss plans to meet with the founder of Tumblr and getting investors for their new organization.

Communication freshman Dylan Zou, a member of Young Democratic Socialists of America who helped bring Oks and Williams to campus, saw the event as an important component in raising visibility for the new organization.

“We want to show that we do have a presence on campus and that there is a place for left voices to be heard,” Zou said. “The Gravel teens are a very active voice in terms of the left and I think it was a great idea to invite them.”

Romie Drori, President of Northwestern College Democrats, sees an importance in bringing not only leftist but young voices to campus.

“We’ve been really missing a more far-left dialogue on campus,” Drori said. “They’re the youngest people we’ve ever paid to come to campus so that feels nice as well.”

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