Duane Jackson said his brush with terrorism and celebrity taught him that it made sense to get involved.
"It was kind of an epiphany for me," he said. "I had a call from President (Barack) Obama. I had people from all over the world come and thank me for, you know, seeing something and saying something. I can tell people, especially young people and people in the minority communities, it's OK to get involved in the running of this country."
The 59-year-old Jackson is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Nan Hayworth in his home district north of New York City.
A Navy veteran, Jackson said he has 15 years of experience in city planning and housing, including posts with New York City's education and housing departments.
His last position "wasn't a good fit," he said, and his involvement in veterans' affairs led him into vending.
Jackson said he learned about a law entitling disabled veterans to vend on any street, so he was able to quickly get his vending license. He suffered a non-combat back injury while aboard a ship in the Pacific during Vietnam.
He sees his years as a vendor as "small-business experience." He said he'll keep working in Times Square two days a week.
On May 1, 2010, Jackson was hawking handbags when he and another vendor spotted an SUV, idling and abandoned, in a no-parking zone near the Broadway theater showing "The Lion King." They notified police as the vehicle started to smoke, and inside was a potentially powerful propane-and-gasoline bomb that authorities said might have begun to detonate but did not explode.
Obama called Jackson to thank him.
Self-proclaimed terrorist Faisal Shahzad admitted plotting to set off the bomb and was sent to prison for life.
Jackson's campaign for Congress was first reported in The Journal News.
Jackson, married with two children, lives in Buchanan, home of the Indian Point nuclear plants. He said he favors new 20-year licenses for the plants so that the region will have time to transition to new power sources.
He said Republicans, and Hayworth in particular, "are out of touch with the voters in the Hudson Valley."
A call to Hayworth's office was not immediately returned.
Jackson said he will probably make a formal announcement of his candidacy this week in Buchanan. His campaign has a website and a phone number for donors to call. At least three other Democrats are in the race.
"I'm not going to have $200,000 for the primary," Jackson said. "But I'm an ordinary guy, and I think I can get out the Democratic base."
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