In early 2017, Marc Friedenberg and his neighbors in State College were concerned about what was happening in Washington. Donald Trump had only been in office for a month, and already things were going catastrophically awry — it’s hard to keep track of the scandals, so as a refresher, this was around the time of the Muslim Ban and the subsequent airport protests. After consulting the Indivisible Handbook, the Penn State professor set up a town hall event on campus and invited the Congressional representative for Pennsylvania’s fifth district to address his constituents.
When Congressman Glenn Thompson refused to show up, Friedenberg brought out a cardboard cutout of the Republican to stand in front of the over 400 people in attendance. The way Friedenberg sees it, the real Thompson wouldn’t have been much more responsive or reassuring anyway, which is why the 33-year-old activist and Penn State professor is challenging Thompson for his seat in Congress.
“He is a Republican Party man through and through and has a Trump score of almost 100%,” Friedenberg told Progressives Everywhere in a recent interview. “He’s not a leader in any sense of the word. He is inherited from the prior Republican congressman, he’s sort of the anointed successor. He has the highest staff cost from the Pennsylvania delegation. I think he’s just there to collect a check and then get his pension. And that’s just clearly not working for the people of this district.”
As it stands, the district is the biggest in the nation, a largely rural swath of central and western Pennsylvania that has Penn State as its semi-urban focal point. The borders of the district figure to change in a few months, now that Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has thrown out the state’s ridiculously gerrymandered congressional map, but Friedenberg isn’t slowing his campaign while the lines are redrawn.
Friedenberg began fighting GOP policies in the district long before he announced his candidacy. As the founder of PA5 Truth and Action, he led protests against the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare, and supported other local movements and candidates. Now, he’s on a listening tour across the vast district, and regardless of how its borders might shift, he’s built up a connection with the community and understanding of its needs.
It’s helped that he’s lived there most of his adult life, having graduated from Penn State undergrad in 2006. He then went to Columbia Law, and upon graduation, began working for a firm that sued big banks on behalf of burned investors following the financial crisis of 2008. They sued Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, among many others, which gave him an inside look at the corruption at the heart of the financial industry.
“I think it pushed me pretty far in the progressive direction because I got to see all of their emails through the discovery process,” Friedenberg says. “And the really callous disregard that these guys had — they were mostly young guys following orders from the top, and were just so uninterested in the real world impacts of what they were doing with these financial instruments, which are incomprehensible to normal people. They just left everyone else holding the bag.”
Now Friedenberg teaches cyberlaw, and has broadened his focus to include tech monopolies. Once considered a niche issue, the vast power of companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Verizon has become a serious public concern, and Friedenberg is well-equipped to lead that fight. He’s learned from the best — including taking classes taught by Tim Wu, the man who coined the term “net neutrality” — and has also discovered firsthand how the economy is warped by these companies.
“I’m concerned about both the information monopoly and then also Amazon on the retail side, and the effect that it’s having on small retailers and even big box retailers, and the downward pressure it creates on wages,” he says. Friedenberg has come out in favor of the $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All, but knows those will be more difficult to enact with just a few monopolies running the economy.
Noting that Pennsylvania has both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the running to literally give Amazon billions for its headquarters, Friedenberg admits that he hopes neither city wins that tax break bonanza. “It’s just not going to work out. It’s going to work out for Amazon, but we’re going to be left holding the bag,” he adds. “It’s going to require federal involvement because there’s a race to the bottom. Either for political reasons or just out of sheer desperation, towns are going to continue to push for these giveaways.”
In that way, these big national issues become local concerns, which is where Friedenberg’s expertise can be crucial. Rural broadband penetration and internet speeds in America continue to lag far behind other countries, which increasingly leaves behind local small businesses trying to compete in the new economy. That comes down to both competition and infrastructure, and will require major investments that Thompson has been unable to secure.
The congressman has also been mostly in favor of fracking, another issue that worries the locals with whom Friedenberg has met. Thompson being out of touch with his constituents is a running theme, neatly embodied by the fact that his two offices are almost inaccessible, located far from any population centers in the rural fifth district. Friedenberg has already had geographers calculate potential office locations that would be no more than 90 minutes from any constituent’s home in the vast district. The borders may change a little bit, but Friedenberg plans on being an accessible champion for whoever winds up in his district.