Joel Pollak has two degrees from Harvard, worked as both a freelance journalist and a political speechwriter in his native South Africa, had a brief career as an actor in European movies and TV advertisements, and published two books while still at Harvard Law. This immigrant and Orthodox Jew became a U.S. citizen in 1987.
It's an impressive resume for a 33 year old. And now Pollak is running for Congress in his home district in Illinois.
Pollak has certainly impressed Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who endorsed his fellow Republican at an event Wednesday in Chicago. "He's a very talented and capable young man," Ryan told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "We need more people like Joel Pollak."
But for Pollak to win Illinois's Ninth Congressional District in November, he'll have to surmount the opposition from one of the House's most entrenched liberals. His Democratic opponent, Jan Schakowsky, was first elected to Congress in 1998 and has never received less than 70 percent of the vote. Located in northern Chicago and its suburbs, the district voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry and Barack Obama. This very diverse part of Chicagoland has a large Jewish population, from the Orthodox communities in lakefront Chicago to Skokie, Pollak's own hometown that has a sizable Jewish community.
Illinois Republicans may have better chances of success against endangered Democrats like Debbie Halvorson, Bill Foster, and Phil Hare, but in an election year like 2010, there’s an outside chance that Republicans could pick up Jan Schakowsky's seat. Pollak told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that Schakowsky is vulnerable—there has just never been any stiff Republican challenge to her seat.
"There are a lot of conservative voters in the western part of the district," he says. More important, Pollak says, will be to court the independent and "Clinton Democrats" in the district who are tired of Schakowsky and the national Democratic agenda on two major issues: Israel and jobs.
Pollak says the Ninth District is fiercely pro-Israel, even among the non-Jews. Voters, he says, are "incensed with her alliance with J Street," the often-criticized left-leaning advocacy group which Pollak says is in "perfect political alignment with her views" on Israel. This and Schakowsky's other alliances with politicians perceived as anti-Israel (like President Obama) hurt her with many in the district, he says.
On the economy and jobs, Pollak says the district is really suffering. "This is the worst-hit area in Chicagoland in terms of foreclosures," he says. The Chicago metropolitan area has experienced some of the highest job loss rates in the country. Pollak says Schachowsky's trumpeting of the jobs created by the stimulus bill is not well received even among the district's New Deal Democrats. "Most people know in their bones that the stimulus didn't work," Pollak says.
Is a bad economy and a perception of being soft on Israel enough to topple the entrenched Schakowsky? Not necessarily, so Pollak says he's bringing “out the ground game” to increase his name recognition. “I've visited every single train stop in the district,” he says. And for an incumbent who has had little serious opposition in the past, Schakowsky seems to be taking her Republican opponent this year a bit more seriously, even sending her campaign manager to multiple Pollak events. Here's Pollak's response to that at Wednesday's event with Paul Ryan: