As students across the country participated in walkouts and marches to protest America’s epidemic of gun violence on Thursday, their inspirational mass movement was met with impotent mockery by smug conservative politicians and internet pundits. It was largely the same cynical, fringe talking points that Republicans always trot out in response to anyone that might challenge the NRA’s reign of terror, but this time, perhaps inspired by the pained pleas of children begging for their own lives, some on the right wing rose to the occasion to offer more vile insults and truly unhinged policy proposals.
Niraj Antani, a state legislator from Ohio, became one of the most notable of these next-level lunatics when he suggested that not only should teachers be allowed to have guns, but students should also be permitted to carry firearms in school.
“Students deserve a chance to stand their ground and defend themselves,” Antani, who represents Ohio’s 42nd house district, wrote on Twitter. He later doubled down on the dystopian suggestion, tweeting (incorrectly) that gun-free zones don’t work and telling the Dayton Daily News that 18-year-olds, who are permitted to have long guns in Ohio, should be allowed to bring them into the classroom.
One of his prospective Democratic opponents in the race, Zach Dickerson, seized on the comments during a tense Twitter exchange that gained local notice. Antani tried to clarify that he wasn’t proposing legislation to arm school children, but in a conversation with Progressives Everywhere, Dickerson used Antani’s comments and record on guns to tie the Republican to several terrifying gun proposals that are currently making their way through the Ohio legislature.
“There are a couple of other really dangerous pieces of legislation that I want to make sure get stopped,” Dickerson said. “One says that anybody can have a concealed weapon. Right now under current law, you’ve got to have an eight-hour safety training and a background check from the sheriff. It is informative and easy. I know because I took the class, I have a concealed carry permit. They want to do away with that. And then the other says that if you’ve got a concealed carry permit, you can take your gun anywhere you want. So you put those together, anybody can have a concealed weapon and they can take it anywhere they want — that’s crazy. It’s scary. It’s a dangerous policy and so I want to make sure that those things don’t get pushed through and get to the governor’s desk.”
Dickerson, a first-time candidate who works as a researcher for LexisNexis, is originally from Texas, where he learned to hunt with his father, who is a Republican. So he thinks “there’s a place for guns in America,” but also believes in common sense gun reform. He’s been moved by the students from Parkland who have led the protests and echoes their calls for raising the age on gun purchases, the banning of bump stocks, red flag laws and extreme risk protection orders, and looking at larger laws around weapons of war.
“It gets a little trickier when you start talking about banning assault weapons, but I personally don’t think that an AR-15 and similar rifles need to be marketed for purchase by civilians,” he said. “It’s gonna be hard to define what an assault weapon is in that sense, but I think that’s something we need to look at.
Gun control has taken center stage in his campaign, but was not the initial inspiration for his run. Dickerson is part of a mass wave of local and state-level Democrats who have gotten personally involved in politics in response to the GOP’s lurch to the far right.
“I’ve always been engaged in politics, but there has been a slow creep of this really just corrosive, toxic partisanship,” he said. I like a lot of Democrats sat home on election night in 2016 and watched Donald Trump get elected, and I was like, OK, I gotta get off the bench. I come from a Republican family, so I’m a pretty moderate Democrat, and more importantly, I know how to disagree with people without demonizing them. I really think I could do a better job than the guy that’s in there. And I think I will bring a much more collaborative, cooperative atmosphere to the Ohio House of Representatives.”
Cooperation is always on Dickerson’s mind. One of his first focuses, both on his campaign site’s issues page and when prompted in conversation, is ending the partisan gerrymander in Ohio, which has one of the most brazenly anti-democratic maps in the country. In May, voters will have the opportunity to approve a bipartisan proposal that would give the minority party more influence in drawing new districts after the next census.
As Daily Kos has noted, the bill is not at all a perfect solution, and a new Cleveland.com analysis shows it may not solve the problem, but voters turning out at the ballot box to state that they do not want their democracy manipulated is a strong step and one that Dickerson fully embraced. Given the 42nd district’s population, which includes a “pivot county” that switched from backing Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, fair representation is crucial.
“I think you’ll get a more moderate reasonable people because if you have to appeal to people in both parties and you cannot gerrymander yourself into a safe seat where you can take extreme positions, then you’re going to get better policy and things are going to get done,” Dickerson said. “And I don’t think somebody like Niraj Antani would be able to maintain the really extreme irresponsible gun positions he has if we had a more fairly drawn district.”
Antani is also virulently anti-abortion, which gets Dickerson more audibly outraged than even the gun proposals. “I think it’s a false choice to say is people are pro-life or pro-choice. I don’t agree with the framing of that argument. Everybody’s pro-life. There is nobody that is pro-abortion. Maybe that’s the small government conservative coming out in this Democrat, but I don’t want the government telling coming between a woman and her doctor telling her what she can and cannot do.”
Other major issues of concern in the district include the opioid crisis that continues to ravage the state — he’s in favor of more addiction treatment centers and helping former addicts with job training, “to help people build a life they want to run toward instead of, away from, because the majority of the people that are arrested for these kinds of drug issues are in poverty. If you want to get to the root of solving the opioid problem in Ohio, addressing poverty is a big part of it.”
In the same way, he preaches compassion in healthcare and social services, and would vote against job requirements for Medicaid, a pernicious policy that the Trump administration has granted waivers to states to begin imposing. “The people that are on Medicaid are in poverty and you’re kicking somebody when they’re down. It doesn’t encourage somebody to be employed to say ‘I’m gonna take away your healthcare.’”
Dickerson’s campaign is focused on local issues, but the national attention is beginning to build. He took off from work on Friday to handle the surge in phone calls and emails, and as always, hit the pavement in the evening.
“Money is obviously important in politics, but I know that the most powerful and persuasive thing I can do to convince people to vote for me is to knock on their door and introduced myself,” Dickerson said. “I go out after work and I may only get to 10 or 15 houses, but you know, 10 or 15 a day, five days a week, it adds up.”
The Democratic primary election is on May 8th. Dickerson faces off against Autumn Kerns, who has no obvious campaign infrastructure or website.