A campaign ad went viral last week — something that, despite political consultants’ best efforts, doesn’t often happen. It begins with an elderly woman sitting in her living room in Wisconsin. As her middle-aged son listens, she describes her concern that she someday may not be able to pay for the drugs she needs to treat her multiple sclerosis.
Her son, it turns out, is Randy Bryce, a first-time candidate for federal office. Bryce’s opponent in 2018 will be one of the Republican health care plans’ most prominent advocates, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. As the ad circulated through social media last week, Bryce — or @IronStache, as he’s known on Twitter — quickly became internet famous as an advocate for expanding, not taking away, health care.
Segments of the political left are hungry for a candidate who will not just attack Republicans, but who will do so while articulating a positive political agenda. This hunger only grew following the Georgia special election, during which donors threw $23 million behind Jon Ossoff, a candidate who, by the end of the race, didn’t seem to stand for much at all. In an interview with The New Republic’s Sarah Jones last week, Bryce reaffirmed his progressive politics, including his support for single-payer health care, the Fight for $15 movement, abortion access and LGBT rights.
Bryce has been active in Wisconsin politics for years as a union leader, and has twice run for office — once for State Assembly and once for State Senate. He lost both times, but shrugs off those losses. He ran, he says, “in order to make someone fight for the seat.”
This time he’s more serious. Labor journalist Mike Elk reports for Payday Report that he’s attracted endorsements from state politicians and unions, and enlisted the help of Bill Hyers, who managed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2013 campaign and who has worked with former Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). Bryce has two challengers in his district’s Democratic primary, but his bid for the nomination has attracted far and away the most attention.
We spoke with Bryce about his path to politics, the causes he would champion in office and political reporters’ assertions that a mustachioed ironworker fighting for the working man is, basically, “Bruce Springsteen’s discography” in human form. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
John Light: What prompted your decision to run?
Randy Bryce: Well, people had been asking me up until the announcement — it started off before May. People in the district were like, “We really don’t have anyone running yet. You would unite people. Why don’t you think about it?” And at that point I had been saying, “I’m flattered that you’re asking. It’s a big commitment. I don’t know.”
Then, just the week before May, there were some people from the Working Families Party that approached me and said, “You’re a working guy. We’re looking for that kind of a candidate.” And that had me starting to seriously think about it.
Then, during the May Day march in Milwaukee, which I participated in, one of the state senators walked up to me and he said, “I know some people who are looking for someone to get behind. Can I forward your information?” So, that’s kind of where I got sucked in. That’s where I told them yes.
JL: How did you first become interested in politics?
RB: I was the political coordinator for Ironworkers Local 8, headquartered in Milwaukee. I recently resigned before I announced that I was running. So I would attend city council meetings because I had been aware of how local politics helps our members get jobs. But I became extremely involved when I was trying to keep Scott Walker from being elected governor. That race was when I dove into the deep end.
JL: And what was it about Scott Walker that prompted you to get so involved?
— Randy Bryce
RB: Well, I saw the way he treated the county workers, and I didn’t want that expanded to the state level.
JL: Tell me some of the ways in which your view of your district and your district’s needs differs from Paul Ryan’s view.
RB: Well, to start, I’ve always been committed to standing with working people to get us as much as I can — to get better wages, to get safe working conditions, to have access to health care. I’ve been an ironworker for 20 years and Paul Ryan has been in Congress about the same amount of time. I look at what’s happening with him in office, and I see all the good paying auto jobs leaving. General Electric, an entire factory-worth of some of the best-paying jobs in Waukesha County, is going up to Canada. And now, especially with this health care thing, he’s trying to make rich people richer, and strip us of our health care. It’s a very cruel thing that he’s doing to us.
JL: How do you think Democrats have been doing fending off the Republicans’ latest assault on Obamacare?
RB: I think we’re doing as good as possible considering that we’re definitely in the minority. People have been standing up, and that’s good to see. I like the fact that Democrats are saying that we want people to have health care and pointing out how this is being done behind closed doors. Even though Paul Ryan has been absent from the 1st District for the last 600 days, I give credit to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) for coming into the area. And I know it’s happening in other places too: Nearby Democratic congressmen are going into Republican areas and informing the people.
JL: Why do you think your first video prompted such a large response?
RB:: Everybody saw themselves in it, and people want to be heard. That’s going on throughout the country. We want to be healthy, and we can’t be ourselves — we can’t work, our kids can’t grow — if we have to spend all of our time trying to get money for our elders to go see a doctor. It’s an intergenerational issue that effects everybody, regardless of where they live and where they’re from.
JL: I read that the video brought in quite a lot of donations. How much have you brought in since this video started being passed around online?
RB: It’s been great. We surpassed 10,000 people that donated, and the average contribution has been around $28. For me, that’s perfect. I appreciate the small-dollar amounts because I know how hard it is to make money in today’s economy. So that’s great. I’ll get a message from somebody that works across the country saying “Hey, I support you, I sent you an hour’s worth of work as a donation.” And that really hits me. I’m very appreciative of that.
JL: Speaking of money — the recent special election in Georgia’s 6th District was the most expensive ever. And a lot of that spending was done by super PACs and dark money groups funded by out-of-state, sometimes anonymous donors. These groups often work closely with Paul Ryan, so if you threaten his congressional seat, they’ll likely start spending heavily in your district. How will you contend with that?
— Randy Bryce
RB: Well, it’s not like my message deals with discovering electricity. It’s a basic message. And all I’m trying to do is raise enough money to get my message to people in the first district so they know that there’s somebody like them as an alternative to Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan is speaker of the House, but he hasn’t been speaking on behalf of working people’s houses.
JL: The president and both parties were watching the four special elections this spring very closely. What was your takeaway from them? Or do you feel that it’s dangerous to read too much into them?
RB: If you’re going to look at anything from them, you need to look at the history of the areas. Just how close [the elections] were says a lot. The over performing [by Democrats]. People are not happy with this extreme message that the Republicans are pushing upon us.
JL: Let’s just say, hypothetically, that the Democrats retake Congress in 2018, and you’re one of the new members of Congress. What are three things you’d want to see your party do right away?
RB: The first thing is to make sure that everybody is covered by health care. I would be in favor of the Conyers bill [for “Medicare for All”].
The thing is, right now, I think we need to be careful. I’ve said “if somebody’s freezing, and they just have a bedsheet to cover them, you don’t strip the bedsheet away from them until they have a blanket.” We need to be able to provide access as much as we can until we get to that place [single-payer health care].
We need to get rid of this closed door that we have in the government — the way that they’re passing laws is in secrecy, behind closed doors. We need transparency so that working people have trust in the government again.
And we need to make sure that every working person has a job. I spent time after the Army working two full-time jobs just to make ends meet. And you can’t raise a family like that or even have any time for yourself. So we need to make sure that all workers are paid a livable wage and don’t have to worry about flipping a coin to decide “should we pay rent or should we take our child to see a doctor?”
JL: You’ve mentioned that you’ve participated in events with the Fight for 15 campaign. You would push the $15 minimum in Congress?
RB: Absolutely. No person who works a full-time job should have to depend on any kind of government assistance. That’s corporate welfare and I’m completely against that.
— Randy Bryce
JL: How does the fact that you’re a veteran inform your politics?
RB: It has me putting people over party. When I was in the Army, Ronald Reagan was president. And it was country first. You take care of this country and politics doesn’t play. It’s about defending the country.
Then, getting out, you have an appreciation for others that also served. If we’re having an event, if there’s a rally or something, and there’s people from the opposing viewpoint, I’ll seek out other veterans that have a Vietnam veteran hat or something like that. I’ll go over to them and I’ll thank them for their service and I’ll point out, “Even though we’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum, it’s because of our service that we can stand on opposite sides and shake hands right here.” That’s always a great ice breaker and everybody involved, on both sides, sees that and it defuses a lot of tensions. Right away you don’t feel as antagonistic.
JL: Wisconsin was in the headlines earlier this month because, as I’m sure you’re very aware, the state is heavily gerrymandered, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge related to Wisconsin’s gerrymandering. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that Republicans had captured as many as 22 seats in Congress just by changing the way districts are drawn. How should the Democrats be pushing back against this?
RB: It’s definitely an issue. In Wisconsin, on the state level, there were thousands more votes for Democrats, yet Republicans gained more seats. There’s a fine line between demanding that justice be served and coming across as — I don’t know if “whining” is the right word? Looking for an excuse? But overall, it’s wrong. It’s wrong that the representatives are able to choose who their voters are. The voters should be the ones choosing who their representatives are.
JL: When you announced your candidacy, Republicans pointed out that you’ve run for office before and lost. What’s your response to that?
RB: Well, we just talked about gerrymandering. The two times I ran were for State Assembly and State Senate — and especially for the Senate, it was one of the most heavily gerrymandered districts in the state.
Both times I had been asked by elected representatives. The first time, it was the state minority leader in the Assembly who asked me to run. The local county party also had someone they wanted to run and there was a lack of communication. So I was running against someone that I really respected and liked. She was an Emerge graduate and she worked hard. She had a lot of support and deserved the victory. She went on to lose because it was a gerrymandered area.
And then, for the State Senate, I was asked to run because of the John Doe investigation of Scott Walker. It was a possibility that that was going to blow up that summer, and they wanted a good candidate in place if it did. Plus, it helped me get the message out to try and help Mary Burke, who was running for governor against Scott Walker. So, I knew what the probable outcome was going to be, but there were reasons I got in anyway — in order to make someone fight for the seat.
JL: Paul Ryan won past elections by a healthy margin. Do you expect to attract some of his voters, or to turn out people who don’t tend to vote? Is there a certain type of voter you’re going after?
RB: I’ve already had people, like in the grocery store, who are Republican-leaning voters who know I’ll talk to them — we have stuff in common — come up and say, “Hey, I hear you’re running against Paul Ryan; I think that’s great.” We even had some union members who voted for Trump. They thought he was going to be really great for working people. But people are fed up. And all I have to say is, “Are you healthy? Look at Paul Ryan’s kids. They’re all healthy. They have great health care. He’s trying to take away your ability to see a doctor.” And he’s not here. He’s not here. So I’m reaching a lot of people.
We’re definitely counting on turning up the vote. Just the way that our launch took off shows that there is excitement everywhere — not just in this district, but across the country — for people willing to stand up to see one of their own elected.
JL: A lot of people in the national media and political scientists are still trying to figure out the November election and Trump voters. What’s your view of Trump voters and the decision they made last election?
RB: He had a decent working person’s message. Somebody told him what to say to appeal to working people. Now I just tell the people that voted for him, “Nothing says ‘sticking it to the man’ like voting for a billionaire. How’s he helped you out?”
And they’re like, “Well,” and they kind of hang their heads. He’s not doing anything. So there’s a lot of buyers’ remorse.
RB: It’s funny and flattering at the same time.
JL: You’re a Springsteen fan?
RB: Oh yeah.
JL: Thanks for taking the time.