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Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig stands as an icon in political academia. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump may be the most famous Quaker seeking the White House, but another Penn graduate is now competing with him for the job. Two weeks after entering the presidential race, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig is the fourth political outsider in the 2016 election cycle.

The distinguished academic graduated from Penn in 1983 with undergraduate degrees in both the College of Arts and Sciences for economics and the Wharton School for management. Lessig declared his candidacy as a Democrat on Sept. 6 after quickly raising $1 million in less than a month.

In the past, Lessig has caused controversy by urging a Second Constitutional Convention of the United States aimed at overhauling the U.S. Constitution in its existing state. His views on campaign finance — which feature prominently in his campaign — include support for fighting special-interest corruption in elected offices and restricting contributions campaigns can receive from corporations.

Lessig has also promised that if he is elected, he will step down once he achieves his campaign finance reform goals.

In 2007, Wharton Alumni Magazine named him one of that year’s 125 Influential People and Ideas — coincidentally, Trump also made the list. Lessig, then 46, made the alumni list alongside the likes of Walter Annenberg, Jon Huntsman and Ronald Perelman.

“Lessig has gained a following and even inspired a student movement based on the belief that overly restrictive copyright laws hinder creativity in society,” the magazine wrote, citing Lessig’s groundbreaking work on cyberlaw and its intersection with American political culture.

Several of Lessig’s writings have also been integrated into Penn’s curriculum. In 2006, one of his books, “Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity,” was selected for that year’s Penn Reading Project.

Another Lessig book, “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It,” inspired a writing seminar taught by Critical Writing Program Senior Writing Fellow Christopher Phillips. Phillips, who runs the Democracy Café public discourse initiative (on whose advisory board Lessig sits), invited Lessig to Philadelphia to give a public talk about the book in spring 2013. The talk, which was co-sponsored by Penn, was integrated into Phillips’ course that semester.

But Lessig’s academic fame has not carried over into politics. Of the non-politicians in the race, Lessig has by far the smallest campaign. His campaign’s Twitter page has just under 355,000 followers. By comparison, Hillary Clinton has almost 4.3 million followers, and Bernie Sanders a total of 1.3 million. Few, if any, national polls include him in their rankings. His name recognition levels, compared to almost any other candidate, are virtually non-existent.

“It’s going to be very tricky,” Penn Democrats Political Director and College junior Sam Iacobellis said on Lessig’s likelihood of winning the Democratic nomination.

With the statistical odds against him, Lessig’s contribution to the race may rest with his unique background in academia and activism. As a candidate with little to lose, he has the luxury of asking straightforward political questions that Clinton or Sanders cannot afford to.

“There is a discontent in the American electorate that we’re seeing,” Iacobellis said. “[People] are really dissatisfied with the way our country is financed and the way elections are financed in this country.”

Iacobellis added that he is open to the idea of bringing Lessig to Penn as a guest speaker. Many students, he believes, would be interested in his extensive political activism, legal scholarship and political opinions.

And unlike Trump, Lessig has already returned to campus.

But as polar opposite as they may seem, Donald Trump and Lawrence Lessig do have something in common besides their Wharton degrees. They are both outsiders who have never served in an elected office. They may have differing stances on campaign finance, but they agree that the political establishment’s methods leave much to be desired. Like his brash, billionaire Manhattan counterpart, Lessig refuses to play by the status quo.

And as the Donald polling numbers are showing, that might not be a bad thing.

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