In December 2017, days after the GOP passed their tax bill through Congress, Democratic House candidate Randy Bryce released a new ad in his campaign to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District. Over a montage showing waitresses and manufacturing workers on the job, Bryce — himself an ironworker — recites the words: “Survival, commitment, faith.”
His narration in that ad tells the story of an American Dream gone awry. It intersperses clips of workers and of mothers kissing their kids before school with images of Ryan, for whom the $1.5 trillion tax bill was a Malthusian pet project, and who stands to benefit financially from its passage.
At the end of the ad, Bryce is shown speaking to an intimate crowd of varied ages. “This is why we’re going to win. This is what separates us from the other side,” he says. “We care about everybody. And they don’t.”
The ad is the second polished and openly populist one from the Bryce campaign, which burst onto the scene in the summer of 2017 with a common-sense message: Randy Bryce cares about and understands working people in Wisconsin, because he’s one of them. Paul Ryan doesn’t, because he isn’t.
As the tax bill neared passage in December, rumors swirled in the press that Ryan — speaker of the House and the bill’s most stalwart champion — may be nearing the end of his time in Congress. Bryce, a mustachioed 53-year old cancer survivor and Army veteran, has been the biggest name associated with the homegrown resistance to Ryan. He has attracted endorsements from progressive groups, celebrities and members of Congress, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Talk of Ryan’s retirement brought new eyes to the upstart campaign.
But the “Iron Stache,” as Bryce is known, hasn’t risen to popularity in a vacuum. Progressives in Wisconsin are working to bring the Badger State back to its progressive roots, from municipal politics up through Congress.
Bryce taking over Ryan’s House seat would be an important victory in the broader fight to beat back the GOP both nationally and in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker ® has unleashed fresh hell on Wisconsin’s public sector and created a testing ground for harsh neoliberal policies.
Whether national excitement about the campaign to unseat Ryan can translate into electoral success for progressives remains to be seen. But so far there have been some positive signs.
This fall, Racine — a reliably Democratic city — elected a new progressive mayor, Cory Mason. Having previously served as a state legislator since 2006, Mason was among the fiercest critics in Madison of Walker’s agenda. He ran for mayor on pledges to raise the minimum wage and fight voter suppression.
During the 2011 “Wisconsin Uprising” against Walker, when Mason was a State Assembly member, he had his desk carried out of the Madison state capitol so he could meet with constituents after police locked the public out of the building for protesting Walker’s sweeping anti-labor law, known as Act 10.
“A lot of citizens came from all over the state to be heard today, and we wanted to make sure they had an opportunity to talk with legislators,” Mason said at the time.
The 66th District State Assembly seat Mason will vacate as he assumes his new role as mayor was filled in December 2017 by another progressive, 26-year-old former climate organizer Greta Neubauer, who ran — in part — on a call for a Green New Deal for infrastructure investment and job creation. (Full disclosure: Neubauer is a friend and former co-worker, and I knocked doors for her campaign while reporting this story.)
Bryce’s campaign is fueled by grassroots energy. Our Revolution, the official outgrowth of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, has 24 chapters throughout the state, which extend well beyond progressive strongholds like Madison, and is recruiting candidates for state and local office alike.
Wisconsin is also home to a long-running and vibrant immigrant rights movement. Voces De La Fronteras, which first approached Bryce about running for Ryan’s seat during the 2016 May Day march.
Since the 2016 election, local progressive groups such as Forward Racine and Forward Kenosha have sprung up. Beginning two weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, Forward Racine has hosted regular protests outside of Ryan’s local office, with each rally focusing on a different issue.
On the morning of Monday, December 18, around 20 people — a smaller crowd than usual — gathered outside Ryan’s storefront office in downtown Racine, to call for the passage of “clean” DREAM Act to protect undocumented youth. Diane Lange, who works with the social justice group Racine Interfaith Coalition (RIC), told the crowd about how she’d added herself a few years ago to Ryan’s Christmas Card list, sent out to constituents each year by his staff.
“I want you to know his family is thriving,” Lange joked, having just described the picture on the front of the card she’d received. “What Paul doesn’t understand is that we love our family as much as he loves his.”
Among the speakers’ main concerns was the fact that Ryan hadn’t visited the district for some time. As Jessica Diaz, a legal aide who has also worked with RIC on immigration issues, said of Ryan, “The short answer is he’s absent.” She noted the importance of electing progressives locally, which can stem the harm done at the national level. She adds, “If we had gotten a bad mayor, things could have gotten much worse for us here.”
Decades ago, electing progressives had been something of a Wisconsin tradition. As Madison-based writer John Nichols details in his book The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism, the state’s populist roots run deep.
In the early 20th century, Milwaukee, just outside Ryan’s 1st District, was governed for nearly 50 years by socialist mayors and city council members and served as a testing ground for what came to be known as “Sewer Socialism” — so-called for its adherents’ commitment to the type of unsexy reforms that form the backbone of municipal governance.
When Emil Seidel was elected mayor in 1910, Nichols notes, he declared that “socialists have been given a chance to show their merits.” That year Wisconsin also sent the first-ever socialist to Congress, Victor Berger, and in 1912 Seidel himself ran for Vice President alongside Eugene V. Debs on the Socialist Party ticket.
Behind the stache
So who is Randy Bryce, the man trying to unseat Ryan after the GOP leader’s nearly two decades representing the 1st District?
For one, he’s no political novice. For nine years, Bryce served as the political coordinator for the Ironworkers Local 8. In the lead-up to Scott Walker’s election to the governor’s mansion, Bryce campaigned vigorously against him.
In 2010, as Walker moved to gut the state’s public sector unions with Act 10 — a “right to work” bill — Bryce led one of the first protests against the legislation, and became deeply involved in the historic occupation of the state capitol in Madison that followed.
Bryce has run for office and lost three times — for the state assembly, state senate and a county board of elections seat — but never with the level of national attention he is receiving in this campaign. Growing anger toward Ryan and the GOP, combined with Bryce’s down-home appeal, has made him something of an internet sensation. He’s garnered support from national progressive groups including the Working Families Party and Democracy for America, backing from several sitting members of Congress such as Sanders and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and high-profile interviews with comedian Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler.
Bryce’s newfound celebrity and at times irreverent social media presence belie a more understated persona. When I meet him at his office in downtown Racine, he’s wearing a denim shirt under a leather jacket — less a style statement than a testament to the bare bones storefront’s lack of insulation. He speaks plainly and deliberately in a heavy Wisconsin accent, and more than a few times doubles back as he remembers things that really “tick [him] off.”
“It’s a state that is hard to recognize sometimes now,” Bryce says of his native Wisconsin.
With memories of the Act 10 fight still smarting like an open wound, he sees his state being treated as a laboratory for the kind of right-wing governance being rolled out nationally. This has been made possible in no small part thanks to the generous donations of people like Charles and David Koch, whose extended donor network has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting Walker and other conservative politicians across Wisconsin.
Since taking office, Walker has attacked everything from public education to the environment to workers’ rights, often with bills pushed through at breakneck speed. Bryce calls it “ambush legislation.”
“They give the bare minimum amount of notice — by law, it’s 24 hours — and it’s hard getting our expert witnesses from around the country to show up,” Bryce says. “But theirs always seem to make it in time and they have plenty of them.” It’s similar, he says, to the way Paul Ryan and his fellow Republicans have attempted to ram healthcare and tax reform through Congress, with debates stretching into the early hours of the morning and with legislation scribbled in margin notes by hand.
Wisconsin has served not just as a model for GOP policymaking, but as a literal training ground for incoming officials in the Trump administration. Cathy Stepp was appointed by Walker early on in his tenure to serve as head of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). She’ll now lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 in the Midwest, with jurisdiction over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. As a developer, Stepp worked to roll back the state’s environmental regulations. And like EPA chief Scott Pruitt, Stepp entered office as a harsh critic of the agency, having denounced the DNR as being staffed by anti-development forces. “Every wetland to her looks like a future development,” a Wisconsin resident quipped to me.
Also in line with Pruitt’s EPA, the DNR under Stepp removed references to climate change from its official website late last year, including a guide for educators on how to teach students about global warming and the report of a 2008 DNR task force outlining strategies for how Wisconsin could reign in its carbon emissions. During her tenure at the DNR, Stepp made deep cuts to the agency’s science bureau, ramped up fees on state parks and campgrounds and worked to roll back a range of environmental protections.
Time for a change?
While Ryan pushes his legislative priorities on the national level, many in his district feel abandoned by a man they once saw as a principled and energetic hometown hero. A survey from Marquette Law School conducted this summer found that Ryan is currently facing a 44 percent unfavorability rating — the highest he’s seen in many years . And an internal poll conducted by the Bryce campaign found that the progressive challenger is lagging behind Ryan by just 6 points, a margin that’s far from insurmountable.
You don’t have to search very far in Racine to get people to talk to about their sitting congressman. Jeffrey Siuta, a longtime Democrat and Racinian, described to me how he grew disillusioned with Ryan.
When Ryan was first elected, Siuta says, “I did feel that, though a conservative, he was a principled conservative: He was somebody who lived his principals, believed in his principals. I disagreed with him about just about all of his stances on that sort of stuff, but I thought at least the intellectual underpinning of that made sense in the 1st District. That said, in the last two years I really feel he sold out his own principles and drank the Trump Kool-Aid.”
Siuta told me that his daughter used to work at the cafe where we were speaking. During that time she met Paul Ryan when he came in to buy coffee for his entire staff. But, she noted, he didn’t leave a tip.
“There haven’t been a lot of really good Democratic candidates to oppose him in the 18 years that he’s been in office,” Siuta told me. “But I think if he’s perceived as being vulnerable or if it’s an open election, I think people will bubble up … Randy Bryce is the person who I think has the best chance. He’s a bit of a character, which doesn’t hurt — especially nowadays. You have to be a bit of a character to get yourself elected.”
“Washington, D.C. has completely changed who he is,” Bryce says of Ryan. “I don’t see him in the district anymore. It has been over two years since he’s had a public town hall. He said he wasn’t planning on having anymore public town halls. It’s almost like this job as Speaker has blown his head up so big that he can’t fit in a border crossing into Wisconsin again.”
With fundraising emails titled after Springsteen songs (“Born to Run”), Bryce and his small staff aren’t shying away from the candidate’s mediagenic image — in no small part because of what a stark contrast it poses to Ryan.
When Obama was president, Bryce told me, “I would watch the State of the Union address, but I would take my ‘Proud to be a Union Thug’ t-shirt and throw it over the corner [of the screen] where Paul was to cover him up. But now it’s like, you’d have to just leave the TV screen blank.”
Bryce was motivated to run in large part by the increasing attacks on working people at both the state and national level, which have only continued to grow under Trump and Ryan’s leadership. These attacks have also given rise to the blossoming progressive organizing efforts across Wisconsin and the country at large.
On a personal level, Bryce tells me, he sees his congressional bid as a kind of necessary evil.
“I feel like I’m playing hooky from work when I’m not on the job site,” he says. “Nothing against lawyers, but we have enough lawyers in Congress already as far as I’m concerned … most of the population are not lawyers.”
Without a change in the makeup of Congress, however, Bryce says that “nobody is going to know what it’s like to struggle from week to week, especially up here in the Wisconsin winter, what it’s like to work outside and provide for yourself and a family. We understand those things. We understand how hard it is being a couple paychecks away from living in the streets. And that’s too often forgotten by people who haven’t struggled.”
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.