University alumus Zach Emig hopes to challenge New York City's only Republican representative.
Currently a bond trader, Emig graduated from the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business in 2005 with an MBA. In 1998, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked in software engineering before attending the University. He is now running for Congress in New York City’s 11th Congressional District — an area that covers Staten Island and a portion of southern Brooklyn — as a first-time candidate.
In an interview with the Daily, Emig discussed his campaign and platform, including his plans to improve worker pay, if elected in 2018.
TMD: Could you tell us about your background, maybe looking a little at your time at the University?
ZE: I attended the Michigan School of Business from 2003 to 2005 and lived down south of the (football) stadium on Main Street during that time. First of all, it was a great learning experience because I was transitioning careers at the time; it helped a lot with that. Besides that, I really just loved the Ann Arbor environment, my learning environment there and the people in it. That sort of period in my career — that two years — was in between the four years I spent as a software engineer and the past dozen years which I’ve worked in bond trading here in New York, and a couple in Asia.
TMD: When did you decide that you wanted to go into politics and run for office?
ZE: I’ve never run for office before. Last year I was fairly active as a volunteer on the Clinton campaign, especially as election day approached. So I was doing a lot of phone banking and voter registration down in Philadelphia, knocking on doors and so forth. I really enjoyed the experience of just talking to strangers, meeting people, talking about politics. So after the election, which was obviously a shocking disappointment to a lot of people, I just felt like we, as a society, can’t really count on politicians to be better unless we sort of force the issue. I have the temperament and a lot of interests and experiences and, I would like to think, the intellect to run a campaign — a successful campaign — and a successful insurgent campaign to take away a congressional seat from the current Republican incumbent and if you have the ability to do so, I feel like you’re almost obliged to do so.
TMD: Did your time at the University of Michigan kind of prompt you in this direction, or did it just sort of serve as a baseline? You said you weren’t really interested in running for office until kind of recently. Is there anything from the University you sort of took away?
ZE: I think the great thing about Michigan, in my educational experience, is the student body is really diverse, and they come from many different industries and countries, and there’s a focus on really working in teams and working to get things done together. So, I think in terms of how that will help … the campaign and has helped in my career and my future career, it’s a very practical idea: a diverse, skilled teams are always going to be better than the idea that one person alone can do something. As I build my campaign, my campaign is focused on getting lots of talent and interest from all the people here in New York City to help me with it. It’s not something any candidate is going to be able to do by themselves.
TMD: Could you talk a little about your campaign? When did you start? How has the process been? Who are you working with?
ZE: I’m running for the 11th Congressional District here in New York City, which is all of Staten Island and part of south Brooklyn. I launched my campaign formally about six weeks ago.
Launching a campaign is almost like starting a small business that’s only going to last 18 months until election day … When I launched my campaign, I had the website up to bring in volunteers and start building the organization to win. I have the social media to reach out to people — the Twitter and so forth. I’m really trying to draw in a campaign that’s very different from the model of the Democratic campaigns in the district over the recent history, which have all been the losing campaign. As you can see if you go to zachemig2018.com it doesn’t look like a typical, status quo campaign, because it’s not. I’m about taking money out of politics, focusing on workers, really focusing on results that are progressive, results that deliver benefits to the district, because the district is sort of unique within New York City, and in some ways, it’s representative of the whole country.
TMD: Could you talk a little bit about the principles you have lined out (on your website), and specifically what is going into those or what you’re doing to accomplish these?
ZE: One key thing I think that politicians maybe could do a better job of, and that I’m trying to do, is be very clear about what I’ll do when I’m in Congress. I have five key principles. The first one is getting money into workers’ pockets. That’s very simple and there’s a lot of laws that can be passed that would achieve that, that really the Democratic party and definitely the Republican party haven’t focused on. There should be an increase in minimum wage. Universal healthcare helps drive up salaries because people aren’t tied to their jobs for their health insurance.
Being much more aggressively anti-monopoly I think is a growing issue in today’s society — when you see things like Amazon, which almost owns all of online retail buying and Whole Foods. The overtime pay limit, that can be increased, which would help drive up people’s salaries. So there’s a series of discrete laws that I will fight for and try to pass in Congress, but the message to the voters is ‘I want to get more money in your pockets.’ In the end, that’s really what most people’s lives sort of revolve around day to day — certainly, in the 11th District. The other key priorities are, as I mentioned, universal healthcare, and then for Staten Island particularly … this opioid crisis is out of the control, just crazily out of control. I think Congress has dilly-dallied and done small measures, but when you have 91 Americans dying every day from opioid addiction and opioid overdoses, the time for small measures is over. There’s these pharmaceutical companies raking in literally billions of dollars of profits on these without much controls on their shipment of medication and they’ve been fined for a hundred million dollars here and there, but that’s not going to change things. I’ve worked in a corporation my whole life. You know what changes things? Handcuffs, not fines. That is the biggest thing. I’m generally a pretty even-keel type of guy, but I get very riled up on this issue. It’s astounding if you don’t see it day to day, what a cost it’s having, certainly on Staten Island.
TMD: You mentioned the 11th Congressional District is more of a right-leaning area. What are you trying to do, as a (Democratic) leader? Is there anything differently that you think has been done wrong in the past, perhaps by more liberal candidates who have been trying to appeal to this area?
ZE: I think in some ways the whole right-left dichotomy doesn’t really describe the district that well. I think it’s more a status quo-versus-insurgent type of district. By that I mean, Donald Trump, when he was running, he won the district by eight points or so — not so much because he was a hard right advocate, but more because he was a sort of ‘F you’ to the powers of the Republican Party. Bernie Sanders did very well in the district similarly. I think if you look at some of the past candidates who haven’t been successful on the Democratic side, they’ve all been from the sort of political machine — there has been local politicians or staffers of local politicians. I think the people are just a bit tired of the political establishment assuming that they know what’s best for everyone. It’s rare, certainly in the Democratic party, for someone who — like myself — you know, is 40 years old, has had a decent private sector career and is in the middle of their career, putting the career aside to say I think that I can offer a pragmatic, results-oriented, progressive vision that delivers for my district and also helps move the country forward. I think that alone sets me apart from past candidates. Then, you can tell, looking at the website, I don’t do ‘boring.’
The one other thing I would say is that I think liberals generally have gotten too caught up in being outraged and (there is a) sense of almost paralysis of feelings, like ‘Oh I feel bad about this policy or that tweet, and that feeling makes me so outraged,’ it’s almost like a paralysis really. I worked in bond trading, you’ve got to have thick skin. I’m basically never outraged. If someone’s doing something I don’t like, I figure out how to stop it, and that’s part of why I’m running for Congress. I think that’s the big difference from a lot of the Democratic candidates who came up through activist circles and nonprofit circles … their backgrounds are trying to capture feelings and channel it into protests and whatnot. That’s a very valid component of our civic culture, but I don’t know if it’s a winning formula for capturing a congressional feat. I think having a bit more of a thick-skinned, anti-status quo focus on results is what is going to win the district next year.
TMD: Going back to one thing you said, I know it’s outlined in your principles, is sort of reaching out to workers and making sure they’re comfortable. One of the things in the 2016 election that people were saying that perhaps one of the reasons Donald Trump won is because there was this working class that was being neglected for so long, and they felt as though he could help them — kind of that white working class. Is that the population that you’re speaking to or does it expand beyond that?
ZE: I would say I’m speaking to every population that I can, because I’m pretty fearless in the campaign, and I’m definitely not afraid of questions. Definitely on Staten Island, as I mentioned there are more registered Democrats than there are registered Republicans. So clearly, a lot of them voted for Donald Trump, and when I meet them on the ferry or when I’m going door-to-door, knocking on doors, canvassing, I talk to these voters who, maybe they registered with Democrats 20 or 30 years ago, they might be a union member, but they voted for Donald Trump.
In the end, first of all, I love talking to those people, because it’s more interesting to try to persuade someone who starts out on the other side, then persuade someone who is already on your side. I think a lot of them, whether it’s economic or cultural or this or that, I think there’s a tendency for Democrats to overanalyze things. The one thing I’ve found going door to door and talking to people on Staten Island is most people … they want to do what’s best for them and their families, and if they talk to you and they think you’re a decent person, there’s no downside to that interaction. When I talk to them — in the end, 2016 is in the past, it’s never going to be re-run again — what’s really important is the reasons they voted for Trump, whether it was because he talked about single-parent healthcare, which he did, or whether it’s because he talked about increasing salaries that are stagnant, which he did talk about. I think I, in Congress, can help achieve those things for the voter. If they voted for Trump and want to vote for me, great. I welcome them, and I think the Democratic party should welcome then. People have to get over their feelings about 2016; the feelings about 2016, that’s not what’s going to help us in 2017 and 2018.
TMD: Everyone (in the political environment) just seems very divided and I was just wondering, what do you think we can expect in 2018? Not necessarily in terms of results or who is going to be elected, or it could be about that. What do you expect in terms of campaigning, in terms of what different sides might be advocating for?
ZE: I’m an optimist by nature, so I take the turbulence as a big positive. There is opportunity for things to change a lot for the positives. R. Buckminster Fuller says you never change things by fighting the existing reality, to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. I think we’re going to see lots of new candidates, even in Staten Island, even local races that are happening this year — there’s a new candidate from the Democratic Party in all the local races, which hasn’t happened before. So there’s lots of energy, lots of people trying new things, trying new tactics, and that’s great. Some of them will work, some of them won’t work. I think that can only be a positive, and I think working in a dynamic business environment, like I do, I’m very comfortable trying new ideas, in terms of running campaigns, trying new ideas in terms of organizing. When things work, you push them harder; when things don’t work, you put them aside. As for the ultimate results in 2018, I think it’s shaping up to be a really good year for progressives, but it’s really in the hands of people young and old that have been tweeting about it, getting involved, and going and knocking on doors, and making phone calls, and organizing. I think it’s shaping up to a great year.
TMD: Is there anything else you would like to add?
ZE: The only down side from the campaign, if I can add something, is that my weekends now are busy campaigning, so I’m not going to get out to Ann Arbor to the Big House to see football … Other than that, it’s been fantastic. All of the students there, politics sometimes has a really grungy, tedious image to it, and if you actually get out there and you talk to voters and make speeches, it’s really personally rewarding and just very interesting, the things you learn.