On June 18, Wisconsin ironworker Randy Bryce announced his campaign to unseat Speaker Paul Ryan with a campaign ad that instantly went viral. In it, he talks about his own battle with cancer and his mother’s needs as a patient with multiple sclerosis. He attacks Ryan’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act. And he presents himself as an outsider, populist candidate who can re-energize the Democratic Party. “I decided to run for office because not everyone is seated at the table,” he says in a voiceover. “It’s time to make a bigger table.”
At Payday Report, Mike Elk reports that Bryce has already lined up endorsements from the Milwaukee Building Trades, state Senator Chris Larson, state Representative JoCasta Zamarripa, and former House candidate Rob Zerban.
Though this isn’t Bryce’s first run for office—he ran for state assembly and state senate and lost both times—he may be just the candidate his beleaguered party needs. Not only is he running as a blue-collar progressive and well-known union member in a state with a storied history of labor politics and agrarian populism, Bryce could also be something of a unity candidate for Democrats. “Although he was a Sanders surrogate during the primary, he campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the general election and would have been an elector for her had she won,” Elk writes.
Bryce has one Democratic primary challenger so far: David Yankovich, who announced his candidacy on May 30. In this interview, Bryce explains to the New Republic his reasons for running and how he plans to win a district the Democratic Party hasn’t held since 1995. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me why you decided to challenge Paul Ryan.
I’m a lifelong resident of Southeastern Wisconsin. I graduated from public schools, went into the Army after that. When I came back, I was diagnosed with cancer and I didn’t have insurance, and now it’s considered a preexisting condition. I worked sometimes two full-time jobs to make ends meet. Finally, I joined the union, the Ironworkers Union, which had an apprenticeship. I got my journeyman’s card and I’ve been doing that for 20 years now. As I drive through the district I can look and see, “I worked on that, I built that.” So literally I spent the last 20 years of my life building the district. Looking over at Paul Ryan, I’m wondering what he’s been doing.
Things have been taken away from us. Autoworkers used to have a lot of great-paying jobs building cars. Right now they’re tearing down the UAW plant—the General Motors plant—in Kenosha, there’s a huge abandoned facility in Janesville, and some of the best-paying jobs in Waukesha County are going up to Canada.
People are working harder these days and having less to show as a result for it. Paul Ryan hasn’t been in the district for a town hall in over 600 days and it’s time to make a change. If I can’t perform my job I get fired at work. And it’s time to get someone who can do the job Paul Ryan was hired to do.
How will your experience with the union influence your campaign?
I see this as an opportunity to create stewardship, to look out for the rest of the people in the community. Just like I’ve done as a member of the union’s executive board. It’s about taking care of people, and making sure that they’re heard, and that people are treated fairly. Nobody’s been heard, and that’s the biggest complaint right now.
Donald Trump won an area in Kenosha that had traditionally been Democratic, but people are waking up and they’re seeing that it was all talk. They have buyer’s remorse now. I’m a working person, I don’t play one in a video. That’s my life, and I’ve always stood with working people. That’s where I’m coming from. The majority of the people in this district are working people. They’re not corporate donors, and that’s who Paul Ryan’s been spending most of his time with.
Do you support the Fight for 15 campaign?
I do, and I’ve been at numerous actions on behalf of providing people a livable wage. I feel strongly that anyone who works a full-time job deserves the freedom to be able to stand on their own two feet.
Your first ad focused prominently on health care. Do you support single-payer health care?
I do. I am convinced we need to move towards single-payer. It works every place else. There are improvements that need to be done with Obamacare, but to completely remove it and the protections that are in place, I see that as the wrong way to go.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you decided that your first ad would be about health care and that you would feature your mother?
Well, it’s one of the issues that’s intergenerational. The Ironworkers are self-insured, so it’s based on hours worked. So especially during the winter months, when there’s not a lot of work, it makes me, as a dad, concerned I might lose health insurance, which would affect my son. Do I make him stay inside in his room and wear knee pads and a helmet to eat dinner? Or can I let him be a kid? Parents shouldn’t have to worry about that. It also affects me personally being a cancer survivor. Luckily I’ve been in remission, but what if it comes back? How is it going to affect me? And with medical bills being the leading cause of bankruptcy I don’t want to be in that position. I don’t want to have to choose between paying my rent or seeing my doctor.
And it affects my parents: My mom, who is in the video, has multiple sclerosis. Luckily she has insurance that can get her the medication she needs, but there are too many people that don’t. If one person can’t get the medication they need, that’s wrong. My father’s in assisted living because he has Alzheimer’s, so that affects my mom too. Thankfully, she is able to have her independence due to the medication she takes, so she can go see my dad. Health care is a universal issue that affects all ages and all races—everybody, regardless of economic status.
What’s your position on abortion rights?
I am firmly committed that it is a woman’s choice to make decisions about what happens to her body.
And you support LGBT rights as well?
For people who aren’t from your district: What do you want them to understand about it?
It’s a broad section of Wisconsin. There’s large urban areas, cities like Racine and Kenosha, which is now the third-largest city, and more to the west it’s all farmland. It’s a big cross-section of working people. You could pick up the first district in Wisconsin and put it pretty much any place on the map and it would blend in anywhere across the United States. It’s a lot of people, and it’s made up of different ethnicities, and it’s a melting pot of what America should be. We take care of our neighbors.
How are you going to address the urban-rural divide in your campaign?
It’s easier to hit the urban areas as far as reaching more people, but there’s going to be emphasis placed on going to the harder-to-reach places. We need to pay attention to everybody in the district. It’s easier for me, living where I do, to reach out to the urban people, but there are concerns too for farmers—like making sure that rural roads are taken care of, that they have access to things like broadband service.
I’ve always had such a healthy respect for farmers. I know the hours I put in are hard hours, but we have eight-hour days. Farmers work from sunup to sundown; they don’t get days off and they have to worry about their retirement. Maybe it’s getting them access to some kind of pension system, so that after donating the best years of their life to raising the farm they have some restful years to enjoy what they earned.
Paul Ryan often appeals to his roots. But you seem to have a very different vision about what it means to be from a state like Wisconsin.
It’s obvious who Paul Ryan is making his decisions for when he has time to go to 50 fundraisers throughout the country and not have one town hall in his own district. If I don’t show up for my job, I’ll get fired and they’ll get somebody else to take my spot. I can’t imagine asking somebody for $10,000 to have their picture taken with me. That’s unimaginable. It shows where his priorities are and they aren’t the people in this district. When he shows up there are breaking news alerts: Paul Ryan has been seen in the First Congressional District at such and such a place. It’s so wrong.
How do you plan to build on the success of your first ad?
Within one day of the video coming out we’ve managed to bring in over $100,000 in donations. The average donation has been about $30, so there’s been a lot of donations of smaller amounts and I appreciate that as a working person. I know how hard money is to make these days, and just having so many people interested and willing to part with their hard-earned money means a lot to me. People have been offering from throughout the area: “How can I volunteer? How can I help?” We’re going to build on the momentum that the video generated. People are going to see exactly what this is about: standing up for people exactly like them.