One of the pivotal moments of Marc Friedenberg’s political awakening involves a room of hundreds of people yelling at a cardboard cutout.
Friedenberg, a professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University, had taken note from a progressive group called Indivisible, which sought to create a fun house mirror version of an effective Tea Party tactic: town halls designed to express support for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), rather than opposition as in its original iteration.
However, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, who then represented the since-redrawn 5th District encompassing State College, did not attend. Thinking quickly, Friedenberg created a cutout of Thompson, turning the event into a group airing of grievances. The contact information reaped that day turned into the list that would come to form the Pennsylvania chapter of Indivisible, which produced videos, letters to the editor and billboards trying to sway Thompson and public opinion away from repealing the ACA.
When Thompson voted to repeal anyway, Friedenberg learned a valuable lesson.
“What I saw there is that I could write postcards until my hand falls off, but it’s not gonna be enough to change some people’s minds,” he said. “So I had to get involved.”
He did, running for a redrawn seat in what is now PA-12, losing decisively to the incumbent, Republican Tom Marino. But Marino resigned his seat a month after the election to take a job in the private sector. Now, Friedenberg is betting that second time’s the charm as he prepares for the special election on May 21.
Friedenberg, 35, is a Philadelphia native, a Council Rock High School graduate whose parents still run a dentistry practice on Frankford Avenue. After graduating from Penn State with a B.S. and M.S. in information science in 2006, he went to Columbia Law School, earning his J.D. in 2009 before moving on to practice intellectual property and securities litigation in New York. His firms represented plaintiffs in securities litigation and fraud cases brought against Wall Street banks for their role in the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and he got an up-close and personal look at their reckless practices, he said. It gave him a strong sense of the importance of oversight.
“Capitalism is great; capitalism and the market are incredibly powerful forces, but we need to make sure there are rules and that they’re enforced,” he said.
A few years later, it was back to Penn State, where he lives now with his wife, Becky, and daughters, aged 5 and 3. Then came the 2016 election.
Neither he nor his wife had ever been particularly involved in politics, but both were shocked by the election of Donald Trump and what Friedenberg characterizes as his demonization of minorities. Becky Friedenberg went to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and Friedenberg begin his aforementioned project with Indivisible.
The summer of 2017 was when he began to more seriously consider running for Congress. Finally, on Sept. 11, 2017, with support from his wife, he announced his candidacy for PA-5.
“This is something you need to do,” she told him.
Then it got interesting.
On Feb. 19, 2018, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court released a new district map for the state; PA-5 was now part of PA-12. Instead of going from State College west to Erie, it was State College going east to Susquehanna County. Friedenberg was now running to represent an entirely different constituency.
“It was a whirlwind,” he said.
But the bet he made then is similar to the one he’s making now. Focusing on local issues — Medicare for all, increased government attention to expanding broadband access in rural areas, working to negate the effects of climate change manifested in disastrous floods — he secured the Democratic nomination.
Marino beat him soundly.
“The fundamental problem about who the Democratic candidate is,” said Terry Madonna, the veteran political pollster, “is that this is an overwhelmingly safe Republican district.” As an area of largely Trump loyalists outside of State College, he added, “it’s very hard to topple.”
Still, Friedenberg found the experience rewarding.
“It was an honor to be able to run, and to be able to talk about issues that I really care about and that I am 100 percent confident that I am on the right side of,” he said.
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