Meet the Organizers Pursuing a Progressive Takeover of the Republican Party

‘Brand New Congress’ is going after red states and Republican voters with left populism.

Theo Anderson

BNC supporters in St. Louis show their support for Cori Bush, who is running to represent Missouri's 1st district in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. (Brand New Congress Facebook Page)

Brand New Congress (BNC), which is the brainchild of four staffers from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, is recruiting candidates to run in House and Senate races in 2018. It distinguishes itself from similar efforts by recruiting both Democrats and Republicans. The unifying thread is that every candidate endorses its platform, which calls for a single-payer healthcare system, nearly $5 trillion in infrastructure investment, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college and trade school, and a major expansion of due process protections.

"What conservatives and Democrats and independents want is very similar. They want their lives to be better, and their kids’ lives to be better. How you get there, obviously, is where people start to differ."

BNC aims to put forward a unified slate of candidates who, by running on the same platform, create synergies and momentum that will transform Congress. It has to be run in a different way,” says Corbin Trent, BNC’s communications director. Not as a bunch of individual campaigns, but as a unit.” BNC aims to field at least 50 candidates in 2018 and many more in 2020.

Trent, a BNC co-founder, spoke with In These Times about BNC’s founding and future.

Theo Anderson: What are the origins of BNC? What motivated you to co-found it?

Corbin Trent: What made me decide to do this was growing up in Appalachia and watching my community crumble, watching the American dream turn into a fantasy, and factories close, wages stagnate, and people die for the lack of healthcare in the richest nation in the history of the world. That’s the core.

And then, my background. Being an entrepreneur — doing everything from metalworking to, most recently, operating a group of food trucks. And then I started working for the Sanders campaign. That was sort of my entry into politics. And I did that for the better part of a year. What we noticed as we were going around the country talking to volunteers and voters and supporters was that, first, there were a lot of independents, people who were agnostic politically, that were inspired by the Sanders campaign.

And the other thing that became clear was that, regardless of whether we had a Sanders presidency, the real issue was going to be Congress. That’s where a lot of these decisions are made. That’s where the money comes from. That’s where the ability to fix our economy is. It’s not just in the hands of the president. So, through that process, a few of us decided to embark on trying to fix Congress, and right before the California primary [in March 2016], we left the campaign and founded Brand New Congress.

Theo: So, it wasn’t a result of Trump’s election, obviously.

Corbin: No, this was our plan regardless of who got elected. It’s a systemic problem. It’s a lack of representation for the American people in Congress. There’s a real rot at the core of how people get to Congress. Right now, people start the path to Congress as early as middle school, and usually no later than high school or college. And the track usually goes through Ivy League universities. There’s sort of a path, right? There’s a really small group of people that is represented in our Congress right now.

Theo: How does BNC choose its candidates?

Corbin: There are a couple of different things that are consistent. One is that they’re 100 percent aligned with the platform and what we’re trying to accomplish. And, it’s part of their core beliefs, as opposed to someone who’s just willing to do it. Second, they’re not career politicians, in general. One of the thing we look for in their background is that they’re good at what they do. And that, in the best case, they’ve had opportunities to sell out financially, or at least do really well, but have made choices to do more good than make money. People who have been willing to sacrifice financial gain for the benefit of others — that’s something we look for. And then, they’re driven to serve. We’ve got a variety of ways to try to determine that. But that’s one of the most important characteristics. People who are willing to serve others, and who are excited about it.

Theo: You require candidates to sign on to a pretty progressive platform. How do you plan to get Republicans to run on it?

Corbin: Well, it’s not hard to get people to run, so much, as getting Republicans to vote for the people who are running on [our platform]. I think you do it by accentuating the connections that we have across the aisle. It’s going to be the desire to have high-wage jobs, a growing economy, access to affordable healthcare, access to good education. I think that what conservatives and Democrats and independents want is very similar. They want their lives to be better, and their kids’ lives to be better. How you get there, obviously, is where people start to differ.

Our economic plan calls for trillions of dollars of infrastructure spending and a deliberate rebuilding of the economic engine that drives America. Establishment, status quo politicians are ready to scrap out America and manage the decline. We’re saying no. America is not in decline. It’s got amazing people and resources that are worth investing in. And we think when we frame things that way, it’ll get people excited to vote.

Theo: What is your relationship to the Democratic Party?

Corbin: Myself, personally? I have no relationship whatsoever. The organization has very little. We intend to run within their structures, and in their primaries, and we’re thankful that they’ve set up an infrastructure that’s going to allow candidates to run in primaries. But we think that the party has — a long time ago — stopped representing the needs of the American people.

Theo: Part of what BNC does is help candidates navigate the red tape involved in becoming a candidate, right?

Corbin: Right. BNC is also an LLC that actually hires staff for the campaigns and contracts with candidates. So, we’re the communications, the press, the Human resources and the operations.

Theo: For BNC candidates who do win, there will be a pull toward being absorbed by the two parties. Is there a mechanism for helping them remain independence once they’re elected?

Corbin: There’s infrastructure designed to support legislative training, to support orientation to Washington, D.C. That’s one thing about lobbyists. When a freshman class of Congress comes to Washington, D.C., there are lobbyist groups to help them find housing, to help them find schools, to help their spouses find jobs. And that develops a relationship. That’s something we’re going to have replicate and not ignore. And we want to do the same thing as far as providing fundraising throughout their incumbency. So, there’s support as they go forward. We’re going to try to get the caucus together as a unit, and hopefully there will be strength in numbers.

Theo: You’re based in the red state of Tennessee. Is that for practical or political reasons?

Corbin: Part of the idea here is to not concede to Donald Trump and his ilk that they’re going to be the only ones talking to Appalachians or rustbelt people who have found themselves going from making $80,000 to $25,000 per year. Not to concede that he’s their only way out, or that racism and bigotry, blaming black and brown people, is the only way forward. We’re not going to cede that ground. And we want to make sure that we’re based in a place that turned out for Donald Trump.

Theo: BNC seems to be distinctive in that you’re focused on the corrupting influence of money in our politics, in a way that other, similar organizations aren’t.

Corbin: Our focus is absolutely on the corrupting influence of money in politics. For example, something as basic as energy production. There is no reason for us to be investing millions of dollars a year, and corrupting our values, attacking native tribes and building pipelines. That’s not the future of energy production. And people know that. The only reason we’re doing it is the influence of money in our political process. If the Koch brothers were invested in whaling ships, we’d be going after whales right now. It’s not because it makes sense. It’s because that’s where the money is telling them to go. And so, we think that what we need to do is to have freedom from that.

Theo: You’re also the communications director for Justice Democrats, an organization with a similar mission. They endorse BNC candidates, and you endorse their candidates. Why are they two separate organizations?

Corbin: There are a couple of reasons. One is that Justice Democrats has one criteria to become a candidate, and this is to refuse PAC money, refuse corporate bundled money. And be a Democrat. Those are their requirements. With Brand New Congress, there are much more rigid criteria. You’ve got to support Medicare-for-all, you’ve got to support free college tuition, untethering of our police forces and court systems from the fine and fee structures they have. And the second reason is that we’re intent on running Democrats, Republicans and independents. But there’s overlap in the staff with Justice Democrats, and some overlap in the mission.

Theo: A lot was made of the tech savviness of the Sanders campaign and its use of social media. Will the same be true of BNC candidates?

Corbin: It’s something that we’re focused on. I think a lot of what was attributed to technological success with Bernie was more about a medium to get Bernie’s message out. We still have that medium, and we still have that message. And I believe that our candidates are going to have the same basis of trust that Bernie was able to bring. 

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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