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Farewell, Overton Window!

By Sam Needleman

Henry Magowan on running an ultra-progressive presidential campaign

Henry Magowan, CC ‘22, may have helped run a presidential campaign this year, but his primary claim to fame among Columbia’s micro-body politic might be his audacity to slander the ever-popular senator from Massachusetts—you know, the self-described “capitalist to the bones.”

“I strongly believe that Bernie Sanders, when compared to Warren, is the best candidate to beat Trump,” Magowan, CC ‘22, told me on a crisp September day, hands clasped atop a table outside John Jay. We had descended into pure punditry, but we had met to parse Magowan’s role as treasurer for Mike Gravel’s presidential campaign, which he held from March until last month, when the former Alaskan senator threw in the towel.

Illustration by Yotam Deree

The campaign drew significant attention, especially on Twitter, for its leadership team—four white college students, with campaign manager Henry Ochs, CC ‘22, at the helm—and for its unabashedly progressive platform, which included calls to slice the military budget in half, decriminalize sex work, and “abolish the Senate as we know it.”

Magowan told me that his personal workload comprised tasks that presidential campaigns normally outsource, like managing and reporting on budgets. While the rest of his class crammed for final exams, Magowan ran to and from the Bank of America on 107th Street, where the campaign’s finances were based.

“I did my job correctly,” he declared, citing the meticulous filings he submitted to the Federal Elections Commission, which are available to the public online.

Magowan works hard, but he airs on the side of casual. He seems to bounce across campus, perennially en route to chit-chats, Russian history seminars, and concerts in Brooklyn. He belongs to Columbia’s distinct milieu of latter-day hipsters whose dynasty found its archetype in Ezra Koenig, but he is far more than his ilk’s infamous façade—he’s quick, careful, and impossibly sagacious.

The Gravel campaign’s roadmap always pointed toward a debate, where, they hoped, their octogenarian candidate could stir the pot by challenging the establishment incarnate, Joe Biden, on issues that Biden ought to be challenged on. But thanks to the Democratic National Committee’s draconian rulebook—to say nothing of their draconian rule changes—Gravel never made it onstage, despite gaining over 65,000 individual donors. Their plan to assail the kind of lackluster, ersatz progressive policies and mantras that are now de rigeur from Biden to Warren never came to fruition.

But the campaign made its mark, and Magowan has not lost faith in young activists’ capacity to shift the Democratic Overton window back to the left, where it will align with just about every other Western democracy. His ethos seems equal parts idealistic revolutionary and pragmatic reformer, if you’re willing to accept that age-old dichotomy. It makes sense, then, that Magowan now supports the candidate who embraces that balance best. “The campaign infrastructure is throwing the weight entirely behind Bernie Sanders in an effort to see him win the nomination,” Magowan said. He paused, then added, with a grin that suggested self-awareness, “Yeah, I’m a Bernie Bro.”

The team is also toying with the idea of launching a nonprofit think-tank, probably called the Gravel Institute, with two aims: to fund academic research that will support progressive policies and to create content to counter the unrelentingly popular misinformation zealots on the Right.

Predictably, this venture is not going to look like your high school friends’ YouTube diatribes against Ben Shapiro. A case in point came by way of a text the other day. “Had to miss the start of my CC class this morning to jump on a phone call with Snowden’s lawyer,” Magowan wrote. “The call went very well and we’re hoping to find ourselves in Moscow filming with Snowden before too long.”

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