Amardeep Kaleka knows he’s the underdog.
A new face hasn’t been elected to represent Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district since Paul Ryan was elected in 1998, and the seat hasn’t been held by a Democrat since the early days of the Clinton administration.
But Kaleka is ready to see that change. The 35-year-old filmmaker filed paperwork Wednesday to form an exploratory congressional committee. He’ll decide over the course of the next 30 days whether he’ll officially declare his candidacy under the Democratic Party.
“It’s David and Goliath,” Kaleka said in an interview with MSNBC.com. “This is the epitome of what the national field should look like.”
Kaleka was four years old when he and his family immigrated to America from India, which Kaleka calls one of the “most humble places on the planet.”
His father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was one of the founders of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. He was killed last August when a man opened fire inside the temple. Kaleka’s father is credited with trying to take down the gunman and saving many lives before losing his own.
“My father lived the American dream,” Kaleka said. “We raised ourselves up to be a middle-class family. We see that all over this nation. People want a better life.”
The focus of his campaign will be economic reform, which he says Republican leaders in Washington have backwards these days. “While [Republicans] believe in trickle-down economics, [Democrats] abide by the idea of getting normal people good paying jobs and allowing the middle class, not corporations, to drive the economy.”
Kaleka, a former teacher, said he also hopes to bring several issues, from immigration reform to background checks for gun purchases to education, back into the national economic conversation. “All of these topics go hand in hand with the economy, and it’s important to note that social issues we’re fighting for as Democrats can economically benefit the nation, the people, the middle class. They might not benefit corporations, they might not benefit the military-industrial complex, but at this point in time, we need to make a choice,” he said.
These days, Kaleka splits his time between Milwaukee and southern California, where he owns Neverending Light, a media company that creates documentaries and commercials. In 2010, Kaleka won an Emmy for direction for his documentary short Jacob’s Turn, about a four-year-old boy with Down syndrome who joins a T-ball team.
If he does elect to run, he’ll face long-time Congressman Paul Ryan, who won reelection to his House seat in 2012 despite losing the presidential election as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
But while Ryan has remained popular in his district over the last decade, winning every election since 2000 with more than 60% of the vote, that star could be fading as Americans rapidly lose faith in Congress, which many say are being led off a cliff by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.
“The GOP wants to consistently dodge responsibility,” Kaleka said, “but when the House is run by the GOP and it’s those same Republicans who are doing the obstructing, it becomes very clear. Their job is to keep this nation running; instead, they’re using blackmail and calling it a negotiation.”
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed that 74% of Americans disapprove of the way the GOP in Congress has handled the current budget crisis–a number that grew by 11 points from an earlier poll taken just before the shutdown.
Ryan’s popularity among his own party is also on the decline. Once described as a “policy wonk” by Speaker John Boehner, Ryan became known for his Heritage Foundation-supported budget plans. But his latest budget proposals were ignored Wednesday by his colleagues in the Senate as the upper chamber drafted a bipartisan legislation to end the shutdown.
Despite his retreat into the background of the latest Republican-led obstructionism, Ryan still has strong financial support from Wisconsin corporations, insurance companies, financial firms, and wealthy individuals such as the Koch brothers–all of whom are likely donate to his 2014 campaign to maintain his House seat.
“I feel like it’s a service to be a part of politics, until someone becomes a career politician who bows to millions of dollars,” Kaleka said.
Kaleka doesn’t expect to amass a war chest like Ryan’s, but also doesn’t see it as a problem–especially not compared to the challenges he faces in a state known for gerrymandering and tough voting laws.
But Wisconsin, a traditionally blue state facing a statewide right-wing swing, has the potential during the next election to make headlines with bold choices (Gov. Scott Walker is also up for reelection), following in the footsteps of the state’s historic election of Tammy Baldwin to the Senate, making her the country’s first openly gay U.S. Senator. “Wisconsin is definitely on the cusp of realizing that Democrats are the ones who stick up for the right of the ‘Everyman’…Wisconsin is the Everyman.”
And if he succeeds? “If we can win a campaign like this in the Midwest,” Kaleka concluded, “the whole nation can change.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Wisconsin as a traditional red state.