In late June, an ironworker from southeastern Wisconsin made waves when he released a video announcing his campaign to oust Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, one of the country’s most powerful and influential conservatives, from his seat in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District in the 2018 election.
In the video, Wisconsin Democrat and longtime union activist Randy Bryce squarely criticized the American Health Care Act, which Ryan co-authored and steered to passage in the House. Bryce talked about his mother’s struggles with multiple sclerosis and his own battle with cancer. He pledged to be a voice for working people like him, and challenged Ryan to trade places with him and come work the iron while Bryce goes to Washington.
The internet blew up. Bryce’s campaign video quickly went viral, with many commentators calling it one of the most effective political messages in years. People flocked to his Twitter account, fawning over his handle (@IronStache) and his humble life story. One Twitter user described him as “genetically engineered from Bruce Springsteen songs.”
His campaign launch has been wildly successful, generating heaps of media coverage and leading thousands of small donors from around the country to contribute to his campaign.
The Prospect spoke with Bryce last week over the phone about his labor activism, how he hopes to beat Ryan, the 2016 presidential election, and the need for working people’s voices in Congress.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Justin Miller: How and when did you first get involved in Wisconsin politics?
Randy Bryce: I was at a union meeting and the International was telling the locals that they were looking for people for volunteer positions as political coordinator. And everybody knew I was getting as involved as I could with our union, so I was asked if I’d be interested. I volunteered for that. Then I really started getting very active when Scott Walker was running for governor the initial time. He had been the Milwaukee County executive and he had been treating the county workers just like garbage. I was very active making sure he didn’t get elected—but he did. Then ten times more so once he got into office, and especially after he announced that he was going to put forward Act 10 [legislation that stripped public-sector workers of their collective-bargaining rights]. I was all in at that point—and it’s been that ever since.
Are you concerned that Wisconsin is now seen as a national model for Republicans in terms of how to attack labor?
Absolutely. And with it being the birthplace of so many amazing things on behalf of the labor movement—like public-sector unions, worker’s compensation—that makes me even more determined to keep it from getting to the national level. I’ve done what I can on the state level, but they’re doing whatever they can to jam things through. They don’t care at this point. So now I’m going after what I can at the federal level.
Can you describe Wisconsin’s First Congressional District?
It’s pretty much a smaller section of the rest of the country. We have our diverse urban areas and then it’s also a lot of rural areas. So as far as the composition of where people live, it’s a mixed bag. You hear what working people from all walks of life need.
Based on the people you know and conversations you’ve had with folks in the district, how do people feel about Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” plan [which boils down to cutting taxes for those at the top, gutting health-care programs, limiting social services, and rolling back labor protections]?
Well for one, we didn’t know how it would affect us because he hasn’t been here for almost two years to hold a public town hall. We had to find out from neighboring [Democratic Representative] Mark Pocan, who came in to hold two town halls, and they were packed.
So people are very concerned with what’s going on. People are scared. It’s a combination of being scared and being upset. The majority of us that live in the district are not the big donors that Paul Ryan’s been visiting. That’s the issue, too—he’s not talking to us but he’s traveling the country and charging $10,000 to have your picture taken with him. It’s not that he doesn’t have the time. It’s either he doesn’t care about us, or he’s afraid to face us.
And I assume there are not many people in the district actively calling on him to cut taxes on the rich, gut Medicaid, and so on?
I haven’t seen one person. I know some people that are well off, but even those people are saying they don’t mind paying their fair share. I don’t know of anybody who would be able to, or would want to, pay $10,000 to have their picture taken with him. There’s not one person here that’s looking forward to tax cuts for these richest people who already have everything.
Why do you think Ryan has been re-elected pretty easily each time since taking office in 1998?
You know, the last time I saw him was probably five or six years ago. He comes across—he almost sounds like a Democrat when he’s in the district. He says a lot of things. I mean, there were commercials running that were just blatant falsehoods, like, “Call Paul Ryan and thank him for saving pre-existing conditions.” He’s been in office for so long and people are starting to come around [to the reality] that he doesn’t care about us.
In early May, there was a Public Policy poll that showed more people would vote to replace him than keep him in office. After 20 years, he’s totally changed. He’s gone full-blown Washington at this point.
You’ve run twice before in state legislative races and lost. Why do you think you can beat one of the most powerful politicians in the country?
The two races I ran—there’s the gerrymandering case that’s going before the Supreme Court—those areas I ran in were heavily gerrymandered. I’m counting on all the experience. I learned a lot in those two races. And before [launching the campaign], people had initially reached out that were like, “Randy, you should think about running.”
Some organizations and local electeds had been urging me to get on board. This time, when I finally got to the point where I felt confident we had a winning team, it was like, “OK, let’s pull the trigger: let’s do this.” I think by looking at how our launch went, I don’t know of any other campaigns that have launched as successfully as ours. I like to think of myself as a good learner.
So tell me about the initial response to your campaign.
It’s been nothing short of amazing. I hit the P.O. box on my way home and I open up the letters in between talking to people and making phone calls. Just the stories ... people saying, “I’m a cancer survivor, I’m on limited income, but I wanted to give you something—here’s $5.” I mean, that just hits me like nothing else. Or “My mother had MS also, or my husband had Alzheimer’s.” Just hearing personal stories from around the country.
More than 10,000 people have contributed. The average contribution level is right around $28, which is perfect. People are saying, “I’m sending you an hour’s worth of work pay.”
It’s an energy that really helps me. Sleep has kind of been in short supply but it gives me a lot of energy. It feels like I’m part of something special going on and it’s not just a campaign—it’s a movement getting working people involved.
What’s the vision and message that you want to run on and what’s your strategy for winning the race?
Well it’s all about people power. It’s getting more people involved. It’s not just about me running, it’s about getting more people like us to run around the country to be able to help working people. We’re working harder and we’re having less to show for it. As far as how we’ll win, it’s going to involve making people feel that they have the power, showing them that when we stand together there’s nothing that we can’t do.
Most members of Congress generally come out of the white-collar world—many of them are lawyers, many of them graduated from elite universities. A majority of members are millionaires. The average member’s wealth is equal to that of 18 average Americans’ households. I don’t think a single one is a tradesman or woman , let alone a union member.
Do you think Congress has any real grasp on the everyday struggles of working Americans? And why do you think it’s so important to have actual working people’s voices in Washington?
Obviously I do think that Congress is not in touch with working people overall. You can just look at the decisions that are being made with health care. Right now, in the Senate, they’re doing it behind closed doors. They’re trying to keep it as secretive as possible.
If I didn’t think we needed more working people to run—and don’t get me wrong, this is going to be extremely difficult for me, a guy who gets paid by the hour, I’m not salaried—but I think it’s really important. I don’t need a law degree. I don’t need a doctorate. I have ears to listen. For the last ten years, I’ve been standing up and demanding that people be heard. It’s a combination of listening to my neighbors, listening to people in my district, and continuing to stand up and demand that our issues are heard wherever decisions are made.
Do you think Democrats can recapture working-class districts in the Rust Belt that have voted for Trump and Republicans?
I absolutely do, and again, like I said, just the success based on our message that I’m one of us running for office. We need to get more of us to run.
You were a Bernie supporter in the Wisconsin Democratic primary and you were set to be an elector for Hillary in the general election. Are you concerned that those two camps are heading in different directions? How do you think the party can reconcile and come together?
I think I’m in a really good position to be able to unite both camps into one. I understand the support for Bernie. I appreciated him going on picket lines as well as his stances. At the same time, I understand voting for Hillary. I did whatever possible to keep out Donald Trump, who ran on a populist message that some working people fell for. He made a lot of promises that he hasn’t kept. He hasn’t done one thing on behalf of working people that he said he would do.
I’m getting a lot of support from both camps. It seems to be a bigger issue on social media around the country than it does in the First Congressional District.
I’m sure you know plenty of people who voted for Trump from the district. Do you think the fact that he’s broken all these promises and gone the other way on so many policies is breaking through to the people who voted for him?
Absolutely, and I tell them—I know by face and name, because I work with them on the job site, former Trump supporters. I kind of joke with them, “Well, nothing says let’s stick it to the man like voting for a billionaire, eh? How’s this working out for you? What has he done?”
He promised to use U.S. steel on the pipeline—do some research, see where it’s coming from. I hate being lied to. So do the people I work with who voted for him. We work hard, we earn every penny we make. And to be lied to, there’s a heck of a lot of buyer’s remorse going on.
Why do you think Clinton lost in Wisconsin?
I really don’t know. Trump, when he was here, had a message that sounded good. He said what people wanted to hear. And I think once you scratch the surface off, you get to what he’s really about. He has a history of stiffing workers, of not looking after people that he doesn’t feel are worthy of being looked after.
You say in your opening campaign ad that you and Paul Ryan should trade places. Do you think Ryan could hack it one day working the iron?
No. No, absolutely not. I think Paul Ryan’s idea of working the iron are those posing shots where he’s flexing with dumbbells.