Thursday, November 02, 2017

Southeast Wisconsin Is No Longer Ryan Country-- Get Ready For Congressman IronStache


If you know Randy Bryce, you know what I'm about to relate is something that would never/could never come from him. But a DC observer told me recently that he found himself at an event with Bryce. He noticed that lots of men in suits and ties were angling to get selfies of themselves with Randy. My friend thought it looked weird because Randy was wearing jeans and work boots and all the other were dressed to the nines, although none of them were taking photos with any of the others. They were all Democrats running for Congress. Many of them-- though not all-- find Bryce's Middle West populism antithetical to their own (suit-and-tie) beliefs. But they recognize the power of his brand. Even Blue Dogs and New Dems from the Republican wing of the Democratic Party wanted their photo with Bryce. I had noticed the same phenomena when I saw Randy at the Politicon convention in Pasadena a few months go. There were presidential candidates and U.S. Senators that no one was paying much attention to-- and a line around the corner of people who wanted get a photo-- or share some words-- with Randy.

This week, writing for Mother Jones, Tim Murphy asked his readers to consider whether or not Randy can really "take down" Paul Ryan. The polling has been good. The district is 30% Democratic, 30% Republican and 40% independent. Ryan is so toxic among independent voters that I laugh when people call Randy's campaign a long shot. He raised more money-- average contribution $22-- than any other challenger running for Congress, anywhere. "Plenty of people," wrote Murphy, "have heard of him now. After seven years as a union activist, Bryce exploded onto the national political scene in June with a viral announcement video one congressman called the greatest campaign launch he’d ever seen. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s recruitment team gathered its members together to watch it: Bryce, in a hard hat, tells Paul Ryan, 'Let’s trade places…You can come work the iron, and I’ll go to DC.' After the video ended, no one said a word. On a visit to the Capitol, a supporter tried to introduce Bryce to Rep. Joe Kennedy III, but Kennedy already knew who he was: 'I had your video on loop for 10 minutes,' he said. The hosts of The View even talked about him.

Goal ThermometerRyan has $10,427,982 cash on hand and has access to whatever special interests money he needs. Bryce doesn't have to match that-- nor will he even come close-- all he needs to do is to continue collecting enough contributions to get his own message out and to organize the most awesome field operation in the history of Wisconsin politics. He's well on the way. If you want to help, that Act Blue Stop Paul Ryan thermometer on the right is where you can. The one thing that Bryce's task is not is "impossible."
Bryce’s task seems impossible. He is running in a district Democrats haven’t seriously contested in decades, against one of the most powerful men in America. Ryan has a bottomless bank account and a well-cultivated reputation as a genial kid from Janesville that has made him more popular than every other Republican on the ticket. You could make a good case that the Trump presidency was forged in southeast Wisconsin. In 2016, the 1st District-- a mix of old manufacturing cities, suburbs, and farmland from south of Milwaukee west along the Illinois border-- captured the state’s shift in miniature. Trump carried Ryan’s seat by double digits by flipping historically Democratic working-class strongholds and narrowing the margins in places like Janesville.

[Maybe places like Janesville, but not Janesville, Ryan's home town. Janesville--which was Bernie territory during the primary-- stuck with Hillary, as did all of Rock County. Bernie beat Hillary in Rock County 60.5% to 11,248%. In fact, on primary day, Bernie beat Trump as well-- by a lot. 17,337 voters went for Bernie, just 10,264 went for Señor Trumpanzee. Bernie and Hillary together beat Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Carson, Jeb, Rand Paul, Huckabee, Christie, Santorum and Fiorina combined.]

But Bryce’s candidacy has spoken to Democrats in deeper ways, because he is running at a moment when they are asking aloud who and what the party stands for. In Bryce, a lot of people who don’t know the difference between Chinese and American steel, who have never stepped foot in Racine, whose own mustaches are ironic, have found an avatar of a new direction-- by the working man, for the working man. If their problem is that people who look like Randy Bryce stopped voting like him, then this, they believe, is the way to win the state that got away.

...Bryce’s political life began in 2010, when Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin. It was a time of transition. Wisconsin had been a Democratic stronghold dating back to the 1980s, when unions such as the United Auto Workers kept the state reliably blue, and it had been a proving ground for progressive policies long before that. Milwaukee elected three socialist mayors in the early 20th century, and unions backed Robert La Follette, the crusading anti-corporate senator and governor, for president. Policies like collective bargaining, mandatory workers’ compensation, and unemployment benefits existed in Wisconsin before they existed almost anywhere else. If Walker was going to break the back of that progressive tradition, he would have to go through labor to do it.

Six weeks into Walker’s term, Bryce, who was then the political director of his local, was finishing up a job at the Nestlé plant in Burlington when he got a call about Act 10. The bill, Walker’s first major legislative effort, would slash benefits and limit collective bargaining for most of the state’s public employees. Bryce threw himself into the work of organizing, showing up to serve meals during the weeks of sit-ins at the state Capitol and later launching a political action committee, Recall Walker, as part of an effort to drive the Republican from office. “Walker’s attacks are killing our children’s shots at being anything other than either indentured servants or slaves,” he said at one rally. Wisconsin, he proclaimed, would be the place that “killed the tea party.”

It wasn’t. Walker fended off the recall-- exit polls showed that many voters who didn’t like Walker opposed the vote on principle—and then won again two years later. People like Bryce had counted on the state’s progressive, union electorate to eject Walker from office once he showed his colors. But Wisconsin, it turned out, was not what Democrats thought it was.

Walker was able to transform the state by capitalizing on its instability. The recession had accelerated an exodus of tens of thousands of union jobs from southeast Wisconsin that hadn’t come back. Workers who once made $28 an hour at a union auto manufacturer now made $15 an hour at a nonunion distribution center-- if they had a job. On top of that, the law functioned as Walker intended it to-- after Act 10 and the subsequent passage of right-to-work legislation, membership in public employee unions plummeted. If a county lost 10,000 union members, that wasn’t just an economic disaster; it also meant 10,000 fewer people paid union dues and 10,000 fewer households received union campaign literature. The recession exposed cracks in the Democratic base, and Walker stuffed them with dynamite.

The end result was what one University of Wisconsin researcher dubbed “the politics of resentment”-- a distorted kind of populism that pitted different working-class constituencies against each other. Rural against urban, private-sector unions against public-sector unions, labor against environmentalists: Walker called it “divide and conquer.”

Even Bryce had to make compromises in the face of Walker’s maneuvering. When his union backed a controversial open-pit ore mine in northern Wisconsin that had been opposed by tribal groups, he conceded that the pressures of the moment trumped solidarity. “They’re trying to divide us,” he told the New York Times, “but my members need work.”

...The WFP, like a lot of left-leaning organizations, viewed the 2016 election as an opportunity wrapped in a disaster. Of all the Democratic setbacks, Clinton’s loss in Wisconsin seemed to lay bare the disconnect between what Democratic candidates said they were and what voters saw them as. She had declined to visit the state after winning the nomination because a loss there was considered unthinkable, and turnout dropped in the once rock-solid union cities that dot the 1st District. Dimitrijevic saw the Ryan race as an opportunity to start over with a more robust Sanders-style leftism in a place Democrats had abandoned, led by a candidate whose lived experiences more closely matched the people the WFP aims to help.

Congress is “not reflective of society,” [Wisconsin director of the Working Families Party, Martina] Dimitrijevic told me. “If we could send more teachers, firefighters, ironworkers, policemen, nurses to Congress, perhaps we wouldn’t have this completely transparent Wall Street agenda that Paul Ryan has been [pushing].” Bryce found the idea of leading a new slate of worker-candidates appealing. On May Day, he made up his mind and enlisted the advisers who’d helped de Blasio-- the WFP’s greatest success story-- get elected mayor of New York.

...What [Bryce] does have, which is unusual in a field occupied largely by millionaires, is an uncanny ability to articulate the impact of his opponent’s policies on his own life. Bryce’s announcement video focused on Ryan’s push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would devastate programs like Medicaid and leave as many as 23 million Americans without insurance. The star of the spot was his 70-year-old mom, Nancy, whose speech is impaired by her multiple sclerosis. “I’m on 20 drugs,” she says to her son softly, her feet up on her living-room sofa, “and if I don’t take the one that costs thousands of dollars, I don’t know what would happen.” Bryce has his hands over his face as she explains it; when she’s done, he walks over to give her a hug. At this point in a typical campaign ad, the candidate would appear, with sleeves rolled up, perhaps, to explain why he’s fighting for people like Randy and Nancy. The essential appeal of Bryce, to his boosters, was that the regular guy in someone else’s ad was now the candidate. The campaign raised $430,000 in less than two weeks and Bryce became a national figure overnight—speaking at Netroots Nation one week and then headlining a fundraiser in Manhattan’s East Village alongside the actress Cynthia Nixon.

Embedded in Bryce’s instant popularity was an inescapable cultural anxiety among commentators and political types still reeling from the Trum­pocalypse. One writer observed that “Bruce Springsteen’s discography has taken on human form.” Chris Matthews, interviewing Bryce on MSNBC, told him, “You strike me, Mr. Bryce, as the kind of guy or woman who voted for Trump.”

The timing was also fortuitous. If Jon Ossoff, the fresh, yuppie, technocratic Georgia congressional candidate, captured the capital-R resistance at its most desperate hour-- when everyone seemed to be toting a pussy hat or a fundraising app-- the popularity of Bryce in some circles captured the next wave. Ossoff had barely touched health care during a campaign that spanned the length of the Ryan repeal effort. Bryce was living the fight. It was as if lefty activists were collectively saying, “No, this is what a Democrat should be.”

“Populism is what people want,” Bryce told me over lunch at a fish house on Lake Michigan. “I think that’s why it blew up as big as it did. There’s just such a hunger for that. People want somebody like them to make decisions for them.”

The outpouring of money and support suggests Bryce and the WFP may be on to something. But much of that money and support also came from people who aren’t very much like Randy Bryce. And that’s the irony-- and central challenge-- of his candidacy. He may be a Brooklynite’s idea of what a Midwestern populist ought to be. But is he Wisconsin’s too?

...To win, Bryce will have to do what Feingold couldn’t. That means making union politics work in a place where the jobs aren’t union anymore, and getting working-class rural residents who have embraced Walker’s politics of resentment to buy into the idea that populism can work for them too.

In Medicare-for-all, he thinks he’s found a policy that can cut across those divides. It would certainly make his life easier. Although he has taken time off for the campaign launch, Bryce plans to start working again during the race-- he has to, or he’ll risk losing the insurance the union provides him and his son.

His work informs his politics in other ways. Bryce is passionate about subsidizing steel, in part from trying to weld Chinese metals on the job. “You’re going at a good rate and you have your temperature, the heat right—all of a sudden, it just blows out,” Bryce says. He extends his hands to form a circle. “I mean, just like a big hole.” (Industry groups have long complained about the quality of Chinese steel, although those complaints are mostly, like Bryce’s, anecdotal.) He supports new stipulations on buying American products for government vehicles (something Ryan has opposed), and he’s pushing a $15 minimum wage, which would be double what some of the district’s service workers make.

Meanwhile, Walker and Ryan’s makeover of the area is continuing at ludicrous speed. In August the Legislature agreed to Walker’s coup de grâce, a $3 billion package of incentives and tax breaks to lure the tech manufacturer Foxconn to the 1st District. Ryan, who lobbied for the move, calls the company’s arrival a “game changer” that has the potential to create up to 13,000 jobs—nonunion, of course.

Bryce cites his own experience in condemning the project. He explains that after Walker cut nearly $1 billion in education funding, his son’s summer school program shut down. Not long after that, the school closed. Then his son was transferred to a new school, where he no longer qualified for extra help because the average test scores were lower. Then the school cut the tutoring program. “When I hear $3 billion, I’m like, that’s a heck of a lot of money,” Bryce says.

And it is. But it means that Bryce will be running against a massive injection of capital into an area where the American Motors plant has been reduced to nearly 20 square blocks of rubble across the street from the headquarters of another company, Jockey, that no longer makes anything in Kenosha either. And he could clash with party leadership when he does it; Walker persuaded Kenosha’s Democratic legislator Peter Barca, the minority leader in the state Assembly, who resigned in September, to back the measure too. Divide, conquer, repeat.

[It probably would have been helpful to mention that Barca, a conservative Democrat, won a special election, by 675 votes, to finish Democrat Les Aspin's term after Clinton appointed Aspen Secretary of Defense. Barca was a worthless shitbag in Congress and was immediately defeated the following year, an election which marked a long GOP run in the district. Other than Ryan I doubt there's anyone in the WI-01 more eager to see that no Democrat ever wins in the district.]

...Monte Griffin is bald with a white mustache, and he wore a purple T-shirt bearing the logo of an annual biker rally in the north woods. If Bryce is where Democrats want Wisconsin to be, Griffin is where the state is currently at. He nursed a can of MGD, and then another. For nearly an hour, the two strangers chatted about work and life.

Politicians tend to respond to the complaints of their constituents by offering solutions, or by changing the subject; Bryce responds by rattling off his own problems. When Griffin talked about working in a foundry, Bryce talked about the strain he’s putting on his body when he goes out to a site. When Griffin talked about the frustration of losing his job but still being above the cutoff to receive assistance from the local United Way, Bryce told him about giving his son a can of food to donate to the local pantry and wondering if he’d end up needing to go to the pantry himself. They talked about apprenticeship programs and job retraining and what it’s like to look for work when you can’t afford to hit the road, and about the ways in which the people who run the state squeeze people like them. Bryce told Griffin about his cancer, and Griffin told Bryce about his cancer-- ”It’s bad enough that you have it, but it’s worse that you get everything taken away from you.” Griffin explained why he voted for Trump.

Over the course of the conversation, Bryce’s ability to listen and relate won him Griffin’s vote. But there was one thing Griffin took issue with.

“The whole thing is,” Bryce had said to him, “who’s more like most of the people in the district, Paul Ryan or me?”

It was meant to be rhetorical, but Griffin put down his Miller Genuine Draft and answered anyway. “Well, that’s the big thing, too, okay?” he said. “There isn’t that many factory workers and stuff like there used to be.”

Bryce returned to his backstory and his roots, but Griffin was insistent.

“What I’m saying is, the young college people look down on working people. They look up to the people in the offices and stuff, you know? And sometimes it’s hard for them to relate to that because they never knew what that was about.” Wisconsin just isn’t what it used to be.

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At 6:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curb your enthusiasm. If you know what's good for you.

Bryce may be the messiah. But it's still fucking WI-01. Ryan has been a known quantity for decades and they still elect him every cycle.

Don't misunderestimate the stupidity and evil among any electorate, especially ones that keep electing these assholes.

At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't this the district with the most voters disenfranchised by the picture ID requirements? What is to stop the alleged legislature from making these requirements even more difficult to meet just to save Ryan's job?


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