Solomon Rajput ’14 takes on Michigan incumbent for seat in Congress

by Jacob Strier | 8/3/20 2:00am

solomon-headshot-high-quality
Source: Courtesy of Solomon Rajput

Medical student turned progressive politician Solomon Rajput ’14 is taking on an 87-year-old political dynasty in his campaign for Michigan’s 12th Congressional district, using TikTok and other platforms to amass supporters and volunteers. The primary election will take place on August 4.

Rajput is attempting to unseat incumbent Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), whose family has held office since 1933. As a medical student at the University of Michigan, Rajput opted to take a leave of absence to dedicate all his energy to his campaign. He said a political science degree is not necessary to run, but rather the “right values” and a willingness to learn and listen. For Rajput, those values are progressive, including action on climate change and efforts to eliminate student debt. In medical school, Rajput said he has accrued some $100,000 in debt. 

“By now it is clear to everyone that we can’t put band-aids on our broken systems,” Rajput said.

University of Michigan student and communications director Kathryn Todd said the campaign has avoided smear campaigns against Dingell, instead focusing on the establishment which the incumbent congresswoman represents.

“The establishment politics that runs amok in the United States is what led to Rep. Dingell being our representative now after her husband and her father,” Todd said. “There has been a Dingell in power for years in Michigan’s 12th district.”

Rajput said a future in career politics is not his goal. Instead, he said he aims to “go out” and make change that he sees as long overdue. 

“If we are able to get all of this stuff done — a Green New Deal, eliminate student debt, get money out of our political system — I would not want to be a congressperson anymore,” he said, noting that he also loves medicine.  

While at Dartmouth, Rajput said he majored in biological sciences, and aside from one public policy class, did not take courses in political science. Rajput said his choice to major in biology came from a disillusionment with American politics. 

“I didn’t want to get involved in a world at the bidding of the corporate elite,” he said.  

Rajput said his strategy to win involves amassing an “army” of young people, enlisting volunteers to knock on doors and, due to the spread of COVID-19, phone and text banking. 

“Congresswoman Dingell has all this money, but what is it going to get her?” Rajput asked, “We are focused on building people power.” 

The campaign’s political director and Michigan undergraduate student Rachel Fagan said she has been with the campaign since its second week, helping Rajput write and research policy briefs. She has seen the campaign swell but said the “community” aspect remains the same. Part of the sudden growth has been due to robust social media outreach, according to Fagan.

“At first I was skeptical of TikTok, because we want people to take us seriously,” she said. “We reached a lot of young people sitting in quarantine and wondering what they can do to help this burning world around us.” 

One August 1 TikTok by Rajput has registered nearly 500,000 views. The video shows what he  plans to fight for if elected, including removing “big money” from politics and “free college.” In other TikTok videos, Rajput has utilized popular dance trends on the app, like the widely-known dance routine to “Lottery” by K-Camp, to inform viewers of his platform or remind them to vote.

Keshav Ramesh, a rising high school senior in South Windsor, CT, said he discovered Rajput on TikTok. Ramesh said the candidate’s values resonated with him as a South Asian and a student. 

“I am Indian and he is Pakistani,” Ramesh said. “He is from my region of the world and he is championing progressive values in Michigan.” 

Ramesh has since been hired as an intern for Rajput’s campaign and calls potential voters four to five times per week, making some 25 calls per hour. He has also found a community of like-minded young people online in the group of Rajput volunteers, with whom he frequently has discussions or watches debates.

“Solomon is a very different candidate,” Ramesh said. “There is no chain of command to contact him — he talks with everybody and knows people by their first name.” 

Todd said the campaign has had 300 volunteers, spread throughout the United States and Canada, working on Rajput’s behalf. She said the campaign has grown beyond the borders of the 12th district. 

“My job was really difficult: nobody cared about this August election or this kid going up against an [87-year-old] dynasty,” Todd said. “All of a sudden I wake up to three new [press] emails.” 

According to Todd, the campaign has made over $100,000, while the Dingell campaign has earned “well over $1.4 million.” 

Regarding finances, Rajput said his Dartmouth experience taught him innovation and entrepreneurship, and his campaign works to “think critically” about why campaigns have so much money. He added that his campaign has worked to execute strategies “extremely cheaply.” 

Fagan noted that Rajput’s campaign emphasizes the contributions of young people, noting she did not expect to be a political director on a congressional campaign as an undergraduate student.

“He is a young progressive, and he knows people my age have been doing activism for years,” she said, noting that on other campaigns, years of previous experiences are a prerequisite for upper-level roles. 

Fagan, a rising junior, said the campaign includes many younger than herself. 

“It is a cool place for young activists looking to dip their foot in electoral politics,” she said. 

Fagan said she has learned about the political sphere while devising campaign strategy. She explained that Michigan is a swing state, diverse in both perspective and political ideology.

Fagan added that her hometown in the state’s 11th district, 40 minutes away, is “solidly red.”

In the 12th district, Fagan said groups ranging from student activists in Ann Arbor to large communities of Arab Americans in nearby Dearborn, MI, converge ideologically on progressive issues like union activism and U.S. military intervention. The district also includes a minority of conservative voters. 

To Rajput, bipartisanship in Congress is appealing but “elusive.” He compared working across the aisle to a “feel-good myth,” which he has not seen materialize in his lifetime. Instead, Rajput said he seeks to challenge the narrative that policies face greater success if they are diluted to meet needs across the aisle. 

According to Fagan, Rajput believes progressive policies represent the best policies for everybody. 

“He will be elected on the platform he is preaching,” she said. 

Correction appended (August 3, 2020): An earlier version of this article included a statement from Todd that said the Rajput campaign has had between 300 and 400 interns. The article has been updated to reflect that the campaign has had 300 volunteers.