Beej Das '91 Talks Politics

"I never thought I'd run for office," Abhijit "Beej" Das '91 revealed to Brooks School government students gathered to hear from him about his candidacy for U.S. Representative from the Third District of Massachusetts.

But the lawyer-turned-hotel-developer told the 25 students in the Science Forum on Monday evening that he'd found himself inspired to answer the call to public service last summer. Shortly afterward in September, the Democrat dove into the 11-candidate race and announced his congressional bid (with a shout-out to his alma mater: "I learned at Brooks, the value of community among strangers," Das said during the speech on his 44th birthday. "We came together; we supported each other and it was an amazing experience.")

Offering Brooksians an amazing experience of their own through his hour-long talk on April 23, the North Andover native gave students a rare inside view of life on the campaign trail, and shared the frank realities of challenges that candidates face.

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"I want to give you a sense of what it is you do to piece together a campaign that works," said the president and CEO of Troca Hotels, who also teaches sociology of law classes at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Sharing a tool of the trade, he displayed the voting record of history teacher Alexander Konovalchik P'14, P'17 with the database VoteBuilder. "We want to target the people who are going to show up," he explained about one piece of his strategy. "Participation in the system matters," Das continued, urging students to vote when they're eligible, too. "All of elected office matters because it effects your rights."

Without enough money, though, no candidate will be successful, he leveled. "The race will take between $1.5 million and $1.7 million to win," Das added, citing the necessity of buying TV ads to get his name and positions out there, and pulling polling data among other costs. Fundraising is "basically a stickup," he said. "You call your friend and say, Give me all the money you can.'"

Then there's the challenge of reaching his constituents. "This is a gerrymandered district," said Das, displaying the landscape of his 37 city-and-town territory on a map, and pointing out how different areas in the district are concerned about different things. Logistically, that means Das travels a lot, too. "In three months, I think I've driven 9,000 miles just getting out and talking to people in the district," he said.

As the child of immigrants from India, history is stacked against him, as well. "There is no Indian-American who has ever won federal office," he said pointing to the east coast on a projected map, "from Maine on down to Florida."

So why is he running, considering all of the hurdles?

Following the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, Das said, "Seeing the nasty stuff that came out ... and his reaction to [the August 2017 death of three people and injury to 34 after a white-nationalist rally in] Charlottesville, I thought, 'Now it's time.' Enough things happened that I thought, 'Our country is in trouble.' And, like lots of people, I thought, 'Let's give it a shot.'"

Politicians in Washington, reads a message on Das's campaign website "have become overgrown unruly children who can neither get along nor get out of each other's way. We're stuck with an expensive, dysfunctional and unbecoming political system...I want to do more. I know we can."

Take the economy, he told Brooks students. "The biggest question I have is, 'What are we all going to do in the future? How will we live our lives?'" he asked, before delving into the implications of the ever-growing "gig economy" of independent workers, calling it a "massive structural shift in our economy."

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After spending some time talking about the issues his campaign will address, including gun control and trade policy, Das took questions from his audience.

Students and faculty got the chance to ask him more about trying to get into office — such as whether he thinks candidates can win without taking out negative ads (for the record, Das believes they can) — and what he would do when elected.

Asked whether he'd distance himself from House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Das responded: "Like lots of Democrats, I would support new leadership changes in the party."

Challenged with the question of how he'll work with red-state Republicans on issues including gun control, Das suggested starting first with collaboration on "reasonable regulations" on ammunition. Putting guns aside for now, he said, "We need to look deeper into why people need and have so much ammo."

For students studying these questions in class daily, Das's visit was a real treat, according to history teacher Konovalchik. "We've emphasized the obstacles of running for office and Das's experience gives them a real-life example of someone trying to overcome those challenges and hurdles," he said.

"Students have also just discussed a question about Congress as 'the broken branch,' of our legislature, for another example," added Konovalchik. "We summarized the negative images of Congress that we're hammered with as the three P's: The incumbency rate is so high we call it 'permanent;' the need to raise so much money to participate, is the 'purchase;' and in this hyper-divided era we call it 'partisan.' So, I think it's inevitable that when you have someone speak to them, it renews some hope in public service. It puts a face to their academic study."

And it inspires as well. Before he bid farewell, Das offered students a sign-up sheet to apply for internships on his campaign. At least one student took him up on his offer and hopes to work for the aspiring Congressman this summer.

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