The people of Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District have a historic choice to make as they vote on who will replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan: One candidate, Ryan’s handpicked successor, lawyer Bryan Steil, represents a Republican Party that is weighted heavily in favor of corporations and the elite and against working people, trafficks in hatred and conspiracy theories, and is perpetuating the fascist behavior of an unchecked president. The other candidate, Randy Bryce, is a former ironworker, and an unabashed progressive who wants to hold the government accountable to the people, expand the social safety net, and bring a working person’s voice to Congress.
Authentic. This was the word that immediately came to mind when I first sat down with Bryce in September 2017 at a restaurant in Bay View, Wisconsin, and the one that has been stuck in my head ever since. The man I met for coffee that day was obviously a candidate vying for office, but, to me at least, not really a “politician” in the sense we have unfortunately come to define the term. He was not scripted. His answers weren’t polished or rehearsed. He mulled over several questions I posed to him before answering them, not because he had not thought about the issues—he clearly had—but because he wasn’t offering canned answers. He wasn’t guarded in the way people sometimes are when speaking to a reporter.
But it was early in the election cycle. He first had a primary to win, and I wondered whether and how he might change as he vied to “repeal and replace” Ryan, his most likely opponent until Ryan announced his retirement last spring.
Over the last 12 months, I got my answer: Not much. The Randy Bryce I interviewed at length for a second time in May of this year, at the kitchen table of his campaign manager’s modest home in Milwaukee, and who I’ve since seen speak publicly, is the same person I met a year ago. Still authentic and passionate. Still genuinely emotional when we talked about his own and his family’s health care struggles and the struggles faced by real people in Wisconsin as too many workers become expendable in a rapidly changing economy. He was the same Bryce, only clearly more confident, comfortable, and commanding, when he took the stage in Kenosha last week at a packed rally with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders co-hosted by United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 72 and the Wisconsin Working Families Party. And he was the same guy when debating Steil the next night at Carthage College in Kenosha.
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Bryce is a progressive rooted in the working class (and although he did not say this, clearly in the historical tradition of Wisconsin progressives). As an ironworker, he comes from an industry that has lost jobs to automation and outsourcing overseas, so he knows what it’s like to live working class and lose a job in the working class. He also knows how critical unions are to working people and to democracy itself. As a returned veteran, he knows how hard it can be to come home and find yourself without a job. Upon returning from the army, Bryce initially took a job serving homeless veterans, “It still floors me now. Those are two words we should never hear together, homeless veterans,” Bryce says, but he continues, “if it wasn’t for that job, I wonder if I’d be sleeping under the bridge with some of these people.”
“I believe we need a working person standing up for working people,” he said at the UAW rally. He supports Medicare for All, investments in “green” infrastructure and in public education, tuition-free public colleges, criminal justice reform, good wages, worker’s rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and accountability of the government to the people it serves.
Steil, from Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, is deeply connected to the state and national Republican Party. He was Ryan’s personal driver from 2003 to 2004. In 2016, he was appointed by Scott Walker to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, which Walker has politicized in an effort to undermine public education in the state. That same year, the regents voted to approve a policy to weaken tenure for professors and strip away due process rights for faculty and academic staff. The next year, the regents approved a controversial policy to “punish” students who “disrupt campus speakers with opposing views.”
Apart from the fact that at a quick glance you could easily mistake Steil for Ryan, he is a Ryan clone in every other way. Steil’s campaign is bolstered by millions from a Ryan-affiliated super PAC that is attacking Bryce. Right out of the gate, he benefits from the gerrymandering that put Ryan in the top 10 House members most helped by GOP-led redistricting nationwide. And yet despite starting on third base, so to speak, Steil’s has not articulated any real policies. At the Carthage College debate, for example, he responded to questions about gender pay inequities and about criminal justice reform with essentially the same answer: “create more jobs”—never addressing the numerous structural, racial, and legal issues that would have to be tackled to promote either pay equity or reduce recidivism.
On his campaign website under “Debt & Deficit,” Steil says: “We need to restore fiscal discipline to the budget process while also continuing pro-growth policies to unleash the full strength of the American economy.” The GOP has said the same thing since at least the 1980s, and I have yet to see them govern in a way that even remotely resembles “fiscal discipline.” Tax cuts enacted under George W. Bush shifted income to the wealthy, and, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “did not improve economic growth or pay for themselves, but instead ballooned deficits and debt and contributed to a rise in income inequality.” Nonetheless, in late 2017, the GOP passed another huge tax cut for the wealthy that has led to ballooning deficits that will likely add $1.9 trillion to the federal debt, according to the Congressional Budget Office. So much for fiscal discipline.
Having given that money away to billionaires and corporations for short-term gains, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently made clear that the first priority of a GOP-controlled Congress will be to make deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, a goal Steil supports as did Ryan before him, and one that is diametrically opposed to Bryce’s agenda. A House of Representatives controlled by Republicans like Steil would therefore lead to more of the same: increasing inequality, more expensive health care, fewer protections for those with pre-existing conditions, fewer consumer or worker protections, and a middle class under increased pressure, never mind the plight of the working poor or those who rely on social services to stay alive.
Bryce is competing in a district purposefully drawn by Republicans to be fairly conservative. Yet instead of pandering, he talks openly and almost audaciously about a different future no matter his audience. He is bold and honest in a way few others are, which is what makes him so authentic. This is especially notable at a time when many Democrats seem to forget they are not Republicans.
When asked what he sees as the greatest challenges across the district, he pointed to the economy and health care as critical priorities. “Good paying jobs are lacking,” Bryce told me. “You’ll hear the government talk about how the unemployment rate is going down, and that may be true based on what report you’re looking at, but anybody could take 50 jobs, you know, fire 50 people, cut the salary in half and hire 100 people. That’s not helping anybody. It’s about getting good paying jobs here.”
He points to the “anti-worker legislation that’s been pushed by the Republicans in the state,” another challenge in his district. “They’ve taken away things like prevailing wage. They’ve taken away things like project labor agreements [a negotiation between the state and unions that sets the terms for a job], which put things in place like making sure there’s a certain percentage of minority hires, certain percentage of local workers, and who has access to the job.” Bryce suggested that these actions were just ways “to undermine the unions.” Under Walker and the Republican Party, “It’s just blatant political attacks on working people,” he said.
The undermining of workers’ rights bled into the Foxconn deal, a Taiwanese-owned LCD plant being built in the district, originally supported by Steil, Ryan, Walker, and Trump, and nearly $5 billion in state taxpayer funding. Apart from serious environmental concerns—it relies on the diversion of 5.8 million gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan and will be processing heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, zinc, and copper without adequate regulations—and skepticism about the return on investment, the state legislature and the Walker administration refused to include clauses to ensure that a certain percentage of veterans were hired, Bryce says. “I say,” he continues, “let’s make sure that these jobs are going to benefit people because there’s so much tax money that’s being used. Let’s make sure that taxpayers know that they’re getting their money’s worth.”
Instead of deals like this, Bryce says, we need to focus on “green infrastructure,” and he notes, infrastructure is one of the things labor does best.
At a time when the Republican Party not only rejects science and facts, but also is actively working to undo environmental protections at every level of government, Bryce’s proposal includes funding a “Green New Deal,” modeled on the Climate Change Adapt America Fund Act of 2017, and creating a fund administered by the Department of Commerce to adapt existing infrastructure for climate change. “That bill would also provide Americans who want to take on climate change the opportunity to buy up to $200 million in ‘Climate Change Bonds,'” according to his campaign site. Bryce sees labor unions leading the way on solar technology and other renewable energy sources. He also advocates putting the country on a path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, a goal supported by at least 250 mayors from around the country.
“The climate crisis demands urgent action,” he says on his website. “[L]ow-income communities and communities of color, including Native American communities, are the hardest hit by environmental injustice. That is why, in Congress, Randy would back the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act , which puts environmental and economic justice at the heart of an ambitious roadmap to a fossil-free economy.”
“Climate change is already an emergency for people around our country, and it’s time to fight for a clean energy economy that works for everybody,” Bryce’s campaign website says.
After returning from the Army, Bryce was diagnosed with cancer. He was uninsured. When the grant ran out on his work with homeless vets, he worked two jobs but could not afford health insurance. “It’s a place I would not want anybody to ever, ever be,” he told the crowd at the UAW rally. “I really had no way to cover the costs.” He beat the cancer and later entered an ironworker apprenticeship. “Working irons, it’s a tough job. But it helped me get my son insurance, pay my debts, and keep a roof over our head.”
His history with cancer, his mother’s multiple sclerosis, and concern for his son make health care a deeply personal issue for him and a core campaign issue. “Health care, having access to health care is a huge issue,” he told me. “If you’re not healthy, you can’t go to work.” Health insurance coverage has been a challenge in the state due to Republican control of the legislature and the governor’s office. The rate of uninsured people in Wisconsin dropped between 2008 to 2015 from about 9.1 percent of the state’s population to 5.7 percent, as a result of full implementation of the Affordable Care Act. But Walker’s, decision not to fully expand Medicaid under the ACA meant that far fewer people overall were covered. In fact, because Ryan led the charge to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, and to take insurance coverage from more than 23 million people, Bryce’s original campaign slogan became “Repealing and Replacing Paul Ryan.”
Bryce’s detailed policy agenda for health care shows clearly how he would fight for, among other things, Medicare for All, opposing the GOP’s cuts to health care, lifting restrictions on Medicare negotiating drug prices, tackling the opioid crisis, and supporting minimum safe-staffing levels for nurses. Steil’s health policy page merely says: “Today, we have a system that is failing patients, families, doctors, and providers. Families are struggling to pay their medical bills and health care costs are too high …. I will work to find solutions.” It’s a GOP talking point, not a plan.
Bryce is equally clear about his positions on immigration. In May, for example, he walked in and spoke at a march for immigrants’ rights in the small and relatively “red” city of Waukesha, just west of Milwaukee. I attended the march and spoke to a number of residents looking on from their houses along the route, the majority of whom were clearly quite conservative at least in the sense of their positions on immigration, and also quite clearly misinformed about the facts of our immigration system and what was happening at the time. When I interviewed Bryce the next day, I asked him how he approaches conservative voters in his district. He drew his example from his work with union members:
Right. It’s having conversations. We have our union members that voted for Trump that at first were like, “Build the Wall!” and on board with that. I was like, “What are you talking about?” They’re like, “Well, we don’t need people coming over here and taking our jobs.” I was like, “You need to look at the big picture. The big picture is that the problem isn’t that there are people willing to risk their lives to come here in order to achieve the American dream.”
The problem, Bryce says, is income inequality and corporate power, not immigrants, and he has dedicated part of his life the past ten years to bringing people together over these and other issues.
“Standing with others” is a common theme for Bryce, when it comes to immigrants, and against racism, discrimination, and inequality. His immigration platform includes support for a clean Dream Act; granting employment visas and permanent protections from deportation to the parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents; and opposing the travel ban, cuts to legal immigration, and citizenship questions on the Census. He also supports eliminating private prisons.
“I definitely take [these issues] on as far as people that are trying to be made into scapegoats,” he tells me. “That’s how Donald Trump got elected is by picking out scapegoats. That’s where we need to, as a community, when people feel like they’re under attack, that’s when we need to go stand next to them and show that we’re standing with this group. That they’re not part of the problem.”
People of color and immigrants in Wisconsin are “terrified, and nobody should be terrified. That’s not why I enlisted in the Army, to come back and have people separated by how we look, or how much money we make, or what we believe in,” Bryce said. “It’s extremely important to make sure that everybody feels that they’re listened to. That’s another reason too, as far as putting a working person in Washington, D.C., that understands the struggles because it doesn’t matter what your background is. Chances are, if you’re in the first district, you’re struggling.”
It’s for those who are struggling, first and foremost, that Bryce is running. And to “call people to their better selves.”
Given his vision and his commitment, it’s clear that if he wins this race, he will be one among several candidates seeking to repeal and replace today’s GOP with a bold vision focused on all people, not just the few.