Less than two weeks ago, Bryce's challenge to Paul Ryan went viral. What comes next?
KENOSHA, WISCONSIN—The hall belonging to the United Autoworkers, Local 72, is a bell jar of days gone by, and candidates long past. There are photos of the young Walter Reuther, his skull bleeding from a policeman's nightstick, and buttons and posters, fading now from the indirect light, of candidates who came here when labor support could make or break their campaigns. Randy Bryce is kicking off his campaign in the hall on a bright Saturday afternoon. The crowd is an intriguing mixture of elderly people, obvious Wisconsin liberals and, here and there, a smattering of the kind of people for whom Randy Bryce seems more like someone you'd run into on a Friday night around the keg at a fish fry. This is the kind of crowd that all of the smart folks are saying the Democratic party needs to bring itself back from the brink.
This is how it works these days: You're a politically active union steelworker from, say, Caledonia, Wisconsin, even though you were brought up on the south side of Milwaukee in the days when that part of town was the home of thousands of people who worked at places like International Harvester, Allen-Bradley, Allis-Chalmers, Briggs and Stratton, Harley-Davidson, or one of the several dozen breweries that helped make the city famous, as one of those breweries once famously boasted, and as Jerry Lee Lewis once sadly lamented. You have this lost history in your bones, which is why you became politically active in the first place. So, in a moment of clarity, after a couple of losing campaigns for local office, you decide to shoot the moon and run for Congress against the sitting Speaker of the House of Representatives, a man named Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin.
So one of the first things you do is you hire some folks to make a video to announce your candidacy and to introduce yourself to your potential constituents. They do a good job. The music is evocative. There are sweeping landscapes of southern Wisconsin. There are lots of shots of people embracing each other. The folks get to meet your mom, who has multiple sclerosis. There are shots of you in your hardhat, working the steel, and wearing a shirt with an actual blue collar. And there is a tagline that people remember.
I think it's time. Let's trade places. Paul Ryan, you can come work the iron and I'll go to D.C.
It rings up 450,000 views on YouTube, and you end up on MSNBC twice in a week. Whoopi Goldberg gives you a shout-out on The View. Your phone starts ringing off the hook and the 2018 midterm congressional elections begin right there on your doorstep. Your mustache, and the Twitter handle it spawned—@ironstache—are both judged to be cool by the mysterious unwritten standards of the Intertoobz. Suddenly, the country knows you're an Army veteran who served in Central America during the Reagan years, and that you've already beaten testicular cancer. That's how it works these days if you're Randy Bryce and people say that you're "blowing up" a year and a half before anyone votes for anybody.
If you were casting a character to run for office to address all the Democratic concerns about the white working-class—whom, as we know, are the only voters that matter—you would pick someone who's been an ironworker for 20 years on projects all over southeastern Wisconsin, who can look at the Milwaukee skyline and tell you how it got that way.
"We were downtown at NPR today, at that new Northwestern Mutual tower—I was on that last winter," Bryce told me on Saturday. "We were in a swing stage, hanging off the side, 500 feet up, in wintertime, and we had like a blow-dryer to warm your hands so you could feel your fingers. And Miller Park, there's a wall there with the names of all the workers. My name's on there. And then the Hoan Bridge, there's a spot in the middle that goes over the river where you can actually walk in, so I not only worked on the bridge, but I worked in the bridge.
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"I hear Donald Trump talk about being 'a builder,' and I laugh. No, I laugh because I'd love to take him on a job with me. Here, put a hard hat on and follow me, and we'll see what you can really build. Driving around the district, I can point out things. For the last 20 years, I've been building things, changing the way it works for the better, while Paul Ryan is taking things away from us."
"I hear Donald Trump talk about being 'a builder,' and I laugh. I'd love to take him on a job with me."
Truth be told, despite its spectacularly fast start, it's a long haul up a dirt road for Bryce's campaign. First of all, a sitting Speaker has lost for re-election only three times in the country's history, most recently in 1994, when Democratic Speaker Tom Foley lost to Republican George Nethercutt. (The other two, Galusha Grow and William Pennington, got beat during the turmoil immediately preceding the Civil War.) Second, Bryce is facing a three-way primary and one of the other candidates, David Yankovich, moved from Ohio to Kenosha specifically to run against Ryan.
Already, there's been some intra-party turmoil. Some Yankovich people complained on the electric Twitter machine about being denied entry to an event hosted by the Wisconsin branch of Our Revolution, touching off one of those delightful mini-reenactments of the 2016 Democratic primaries that we all love so very much. (For the record, Bryce supported Sanders in the primary and worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the general election.) And last, of course, is the fact that Paul Ryan is the coddled child of America's plutocrats and will likely have so much money to spend on his re-election that god will ask him to float a loan.
Bryce's ready answer is that all that money is an anchor, not an engine. Ryan, he points out, hasn't been seen in the district for a while and that he's more interested in entertaining the country's oligarchs than he is in tending to business back in the Wisconsin 1st.
"He's not even here to listen to what people need," Bryce said. "It's been over 600 days, and somebody will send me something. Hey, guess what, he's going to be in Chattanooga, getting a picture taken, you know, $10,000. Now they have this new thing where they won't even tell you the location because they don't want to see you. You have to RSVP, which means you have to pay the $2,500 to put your name on a list, then they'll you where it is.
"We've had two local town halls and we had to ask Mark Pocan [the Democratic congressman from the Wisconsin 2nd] to come in, when they were first talking about the repeal of Obamacare in Congress. Nobody knows how it's going to affect us, so we had to have Mark Pocan come and we filled UAW 72. People are concerned. This is their lives we're taking about."
Randy Bryce for Congress
The central political event in Wisconsin in recent years, of course, has been the use of the state as a lab rat for conservative policies; the ascension of Scott Walker, the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage this particular Midwest subsidiary, and his pet Republican state legislature has had the most profound effect on the state's politics since Robert LaFollette and the Progressives changed everything for the better at the beginning of the 20th century. The Walker years are a photographic negative of everything that Wisconsin had been about for nearly a century, and it all began in 2011 with Act 10, Walker's successful push to destroy the public-employee unions in the state. This touched off mass demonstrations in Madison, and an unsuccessful attempt to recall Walker. It tore a great gap in the state's political fabric between what had come before, and what came afterwards. Bryce was one of the first labor voices to stand with the demonstrators outside the Capitol because he knew that Walker and the legislature had no plans to stop merely with the public unions.
"Politically, 'labor' always has been a means to attack us," Bryce said. "Pensions, healthcare. Personally, it's always been taking care of other people, because what I do for a living is pretty dangerous. I'm used to, if I'm welding over here, and my hood's down, and a crane swings something over my head, there's another worker there to say, 'Randy, watch out. Look out over your head.' Ironworkers had one of the first protests, in Horicon. We had 250 people that met at the Machinists lodge, even though we were a private sector union and weren't going to be affected at all by Act 10, we knew we needed people to come together."
Bryce was right. During his re-election campaign, Walker dodged the question of whether or not he would sign a bill making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, saying that he didn't expect such a law to land on his desk. Almost as soon as he began his second term, a right-to-work bill indeed did hit his desk and Walker signed it. (The law is still being litigated but remains in effect.) Bryce had watched Walker operate since the governor took office, and he'd known what was coming ever since those cold days on the lawn of the state capitol.
"As soon as he said that in the campaign," Bryce said, "I knew it was a done deal."
Ryan, of course, is the apotheosis of this new, conservative Wisconsin. In fact, he got there far ahead of the rest of the state, banging the drum for radical conservative politics while Scott Walker was still a Milwaukee County executive with an office full of two-bit grifters. He is a National Figure. If he's going to get beaten, or even if someone is going to give him a serious run, it helps if that person has become a kind of National Figure almost overnight.
"The way it blew up," Bryce said. "It said a lot for me. I knew it was going to be good, because I've seen those guys' work before. I could tell right away. I knew it was going to be positive. It was just telling a story but what's opened my eyes is that how that's been everywhere, and everybody wants to ask about it.
"In the last election, there was this thirst for this Donald Trump-sounding, working class populism. It was there. Guys were, like, 'He's going to help us.' I mean, come on. A billionaire is going to help you—a guy who has a history of screwing his workers. And there are some guys who worked on jobs of his. We had a crew when I was working on Northwestern Mutual, we had a crew from Local 63 from Chicago who had worked on Trump Tower in Vegas, and just hearing stories about stiffing the workers. I mean, come on. Really?"
"One thing you will never say," Rob Zerban, who ran against Ryan in 2012 and 2014, tells the crowd in the UAW hall, "is that Randy Bryce is an errand boy for Donald Trump."
"Randy has a much better chance of winning in 2018 than I ever stood," Zerban said. "Randy was able to capitalize on his exposure as a community organizer and as a labor activist, he had a built-in infrastructure that helped his campaign get off the ground. You've seen him on a national level already. So many people here know him—they know he's fighting for the right cause and they know what Paul Ryan is. He can't get anything passed. People are desperate for change, in this district. I saw it in 2012 when I was running, and it's gotten worse."
At the end of the speeches, with the requisite John Cougar Mellencamp tune bouncing off the walls, Randy Bryce walks through the crowd with his mother, who is leaning on a cane because of her MS. Like in his now-famous video, there are a lot of people embracing each other, and something is very warm here that goes far beyond the YouTube hotness of a single video. It is the start of something, the heat of first things, fueled by possibilities nobody yet understands.