From Donald Trump to Elizabeth Warren to Joe Biden, figures with strong Penn connections are well represented in American politics. Now, 1992 Wharton graduate and liberal activist Cenk Uygur may be the latest Penn-related individual in politics.
On Nov. 14, Uygur officially announced his candidacy for Katie Hill’s vacant congressional seat in California’s 25th district, which encompasses parts of northern Los Angeles County. A special election has been scheduled to fill the seat Hill recently resigned from amid allegations of inappropriate relations with a staffer.
While Bernie Sanders supporters at Penn said they would enthusiastically support Uygur's candidacy, more moderate Democrats expressed doubts because of Uygur's history of controversial statements.
Uygur, who has never before ran for elected office, is the founder of The Young Turks, a progressive online outlet with over 4.5 million subscribers on YouTube. Uygur is widely popular with Sanders supporters, and in mid-November, Uygur endorsed Sanders' presidential bid.
Yet Uygur's announcement has drawn attention to controversial statements he made before becoming a political liberal.
As a columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian in the 1990s, Uygur penned divisive articles on subjects such as his disdain for “radical feminism” and his belief that the Armenian genocide never occurred.
Uygur also authored misogynistic blog posts in the early 2000s. One excerpt reads, “Obviously, the genes of women are flawed. They are poorly designed creatures who do not want to have sex nearly as often as needed for the human race to get along peaceably and fruitfully.”
In 2017, Uygur apologized for these comments and said his past posts were “really insensitive and ignorant" in an interview with TheWrap. Despite the apology, many in the Democratic community have not forgiven his actions.
Penn Democrats Treasurer and College sophomore Michael Nevett said Uygur’s past controversies are concerning.
“It’s really important to me that our elected officials are the types of people who will be good role models for other citizens, for other politicians,” Nevett said. “This type of behavior does motivate what they end up doing in their office.”
Progressives on Penn's campus, however, said they are willing to get behind Uygur’s campaign. College sophomore Jack Cahill, the director of Penn for Bernie, expressed his support for Uygur.
“I think that he’s proven himself to be a worthy candidate," Cahill said. "He’s spent so many years trying to fight for getting money out of politics, fighting for Medicare for All, Green New Deal. I do trust him."
Cahill argued that Uygur’s ideological transition from undergraduate conservative to progressive leader is legitimate.
“I think that if he wasn’t being authentic about that, he would have never endorsed Bernie in 2016 and he would not have endorsed him a few weeks ago, if it was in his own special interest,” Cahill said. “In his own special interest, he’s probably a multi-millionaire. He would be better off with Elizabeth Warren or a different candidate other than Bernie Sanders.”
Penn for Bernie Co-director and College sophomore Amira Chowdhury said her work on Sanders' 2016 campaign was inspired by The Young Turks. She agreed with Cahill that Uygur's past comments did not dissuade her from supporting him.
"It’s easy to doubt folks if they have been flip-flopping throughout their political history, and who don’t have a strong rootedness of their current position, but he does," Chowdhury said. "He has made progressive ideas almost mainstream with TYT in an unparalleled fashion, and that speaks to that.”
Chowdhury, a resident of California’s 28th District, said the wealth of the 25th district has been a significant contributor to the district’s swing status in the midst of such a politically blue state.
“It is a diverse group but it is not a working class community,” Chowdhury said, referencing the prosperity of towns like Santa Clarita.
Currently, there are nine primary candidates vying for the same congressional seat as Uygur. Uygur’s main Democratic competition will likely come from Christy Smith, a current member of California’s State Assembly, who has been endorsed by Hill.
The special election will take place on March 3, the same day as the district’s presidential primary.
Correction: A previous version of the article misspelled Christy Smith's first name as Christine. The DP regrets this error.
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