Lifelong Wisconsin resident and ironworkers' union organizer Randy Bryce rocketed immediately into the mainstream political consciousness last week with the release of an intimate two-and-a-half-minute elegy for Obamacare. In the process, he caught the rapt attention of liberals embroiled in a frenetic, rabid battle with conservative lawmakers to oppose passage of the American Health Care Act.
The video shows Bryce in conversation with his mother, who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and relies on 20 different medications to manage her symptoms. With spare, cutting force, it underscores little bits of life that voters will recognize: There's suburbia. There's figuring out how to manage suffocating emotional crises without a whole lot of resources. There's the adrenaline, the fatigue, of fighting on behalf of someone who can’t.
The clip, launching Bryce's bid for Congress in Wisconsin's First District, went viral. In a mere week, it's been watched almost half a million times and prompted figures as disparate as Chelsea Handler and Deray McKesson to throw their weight behind him on Twitter, where he posts @IronStache (and has amassed nearly 90,000 followers since the campaign launch). He's gotten airtime on MSNBC and NPR and write-ups in the New Republic, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Google Paul Ryan's name, and you'll find more of the top stories are about Bryce than they are about the speaker of the house.
Bryce is, in other words, America's newest political celebrity.
But assuming he makes it past the Democratic primary, he faces an uphill battle in a general election match-up with Ryan—though Ryan's national approval rating has sagged in recent months, it's a bit higher back home. Bryce also acknowledges that it's a foregone conclusion Ryan would outspend him in a general election—he doesn't "harbor any illusions" about that, he says—but more troubling for him is the state's notoriously gerrymandered district lines, which the Supreme Court will take up in a case this fall. (The Hill once listed Ryan as one of the national public officials who has most benefited from redistricting.)
In a wide-ranging conversation, Bryce lamented Wisconsin's polarized local political scene to Pacific Standard and championed the role of strong labor unions in augmenting workers' rights.
Your campaign rollout ad made a huge splash—a lot of people, I think, didn't realize it was a campaign ad until the end, and the timing was pretty impeccable. When did you decide to kick off your campaign with that particular story?
Well, we decided on health care because it's an issue that affects everybody, regardless of your background or your age. You know, it's something I worry about with my son—just the ability that I was able to have a son after having cancer, and the doctor told me, "You're probably not going to be able to have kids after we do this surgery"—it really hits home. And from my own ability to get health care, and how [cancer] is considered a pre-existing condition, you know, that they're going to penalize me for something that happened way back when, I don't think that's the right thing to do. And my mom, you know, she's the start of that video—who's not in the video is my dad, who has Alzheimer's; he's in assisted living because my mom has MS. She tried taking care of him for as long as she could, but there's some days that she just can't get out of bed because of her MS. If my dad has Alzheimer's and gets up and starts wandering around, and my mom can't get out of bed—it's a life [or death] matter for him—to be someplace where he can be taken care of.
[Health care] is an important thing, it affects every generation of my family, and all I'm doing is pointing out obvious things that affect working people. I'm not doing it in any brilliant manner. It's just stuff from the heart, and it's concerns that I hear from other people in the neighborhood.
Did you know going into the race that you wanted to focus on messages or topics that lend themselves to a certain universality?
I'm not even looking at health care as a partisan issue. Right now people are dying to be heard. We just want [politicians] to know what problems we're facing. Things are getting worse, they're not getting better. And promises were made that are not being kept. And that's why you see me, and I'm hoping a lot more people like me around the country step up. Who better to talk about our issues than one of us?
I imagine it's pretty ubiquitous, coming from a state like Wisconsin, to hear people talk about an "urban-rural divide" in politics. From your perspective, does that dynamic exist in a meaningful way?
Well, there are definitely issues and concerns that are unique to rural or urban citizens. I drive through farmland between where the city ends and more rural parts [of the state]. And I know they have concerns, you know, the amount of hours that a farmer works are impressive for me. I can't imagine a job like that, working from sunup to sundown, and you don't get a day off for the Fourth of July, and it's a lot of hard work.
I would love to see something, so these folks have the ability to tap into a state pension fund, where they don't have to work until they die, or if they don't have kids. People should be able to, no matter where they live, should be able to have something to show for [all the work], and have some kind of rest in their later years after having given up the best years of their life working, you know, for everything that they can. And I know that those issues, like Broadband, are an issue too for farmers. There are just different concerns—depending on where you live, there are different issues you face on a daily level. And I think to say that one urban voter is more important [to focus campaign attention on] I think isn't fair. It's easier to hit a larger number of urban voters than it is rural voters just based on location. It takes extra effort to reach those people, but I think it's something that needs to be taken care of.
When did you start to seriously consider running against Ryan?
People have been calling me from around the district, because there wasn't really anybody that, you know, was going to get in. They were asking former candidates, will you do it this time? And they were like no, no, I'm not too interested. [One person reached out] and said, you know, your name came up and I was wondering if you'd be interested in running against Paul Ryan. I was like, let me think about it; it was a big step to take. It's not like I had a dream, saying, "This is what I want to do when I grow up." I almost really didn't have a choice as far as getting into it. So it was seriously being considered after the May Day march in Milwaukee.
You've been a union leader for many years and have been involved in state politics just as long. How have you seen your state change in the last five to 10 years, politically and otherwise?
Wisconsin, it's turned into a banana republic. It started off when Act 10 was enacted, we had a lot of people testifying. And at that time you could keep testimony going until everybody was heard. That's the old Wisconsin. That even though you disagree with what people are saying, you're going to listen to 'em say it, and you're going to be polite about it. Because those are Wisconsin values. Since then, they've changed it around. They've put time limits on how long they'll listen to people; it's not a matter of what voters want, it's, 'how quickly can we pass this?' We've adopted a term for what these extremist Republicans have been doing. We call it "ambush legislation." And that's where they have a limited time frame to allow the public to talk. It's 24 hours. So they have everything all set, I mean down to the second, where they're going to pass it [regardless of the testimony].
There's no concern for what the majority of people want in Wisconsin. They run up the lines so that it's impossible [for Democrats] to gain more seats. In the last election, you had more people—by the thousands—voting for Democratic candidates, yet more Republican candidates got seats. I mean, that's all you need to know.
What is the dynamic like between municipal and state leaders of different parties?
Well, you had the Republicans that would get elected by saying that they're in favor of local politics, of smaller government. But recently, just in Racine, we've seen Republicans who didn't like what was going on with the school board, so the state decided to step in and completely change how the school board was elected. Instead of at-large seats, they set it up into districts, you know, and hoping to use their gerrymandering expertise to cut it up into different areas so that there's a conservative-leaning majority. Well that totally blew up in their face, and [Democrats] ended up taking eight out of nine seats. But still, there are all kinds of issues, and so now that Republicans are in power across the state, they're determining what goes on in local communities.
I'm sure you were very glad to hear that the Supreme Court will consider Wisconsin's gerrymandering case this fall.
Absolutely. There's nothing more wrong than having representatives pick who's going to vote for them—it should be the other way around. The voters should pick who represents them,. They shouldn't be making up [district] lines to stay in office. That just tells me you have really horrible ideas, if you're afraid of letting people decide who's going to represent them.
Traditionally, the word "union" has evoked a sort of boogeyman for Republican voters. You've been very unapologetic of—and in fact have leaned heavily on—your background as a union leader. Are you worried about how to reach people who might not want to look past that label?
Unions stand for working people, and I've always stood for working people when I was an on-staff organizer for Iron Workers' Local Aid. It's all about local people, buying locally, hiring locally, putting our neighbors back to work. Unions provide worker protections for [us]. I mean, the Ironworkers Union was formed over 115 years ago when a group of guys got together—and even today it's one of the most dangerous jobs to work, annually—in order to pool their money, so that when somebody died on the job, they could afford to bury him. That was the beginning of the ironworkers union. And since then, they've found out that, well, if we stick together, we don't have to die like we are. We can tell them, well, if you don't make our work sites safe so that we have a better chance of getting home to our families, we're not going to work. So the demand for safe work sites is huge. And just look at what's happening to workers' issues around the country if we didn't have any organizations standing up for them. It's all about lifting up working people that live in our communities.
And you're right, the word "union" does conjure up a boogeyman for conservative-leaning voters. But when I explain what our union is all about, I'm basically describing democracy itself. Everything we do is voted on, every dime we spend is voted on. Everything we do is democratic. Our leaders are elected. The business manager makes what a general foreman would make on the job site. So it's not like, you know, where you get to a job and you're making $100,000 doing nothing. He has to run for office every three years, and if he's not doing his job, he's going to be replaced.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.