It didn’t take long for the overuse of #Resistance to become a painful cliché, a punchline on Twitter used to gently mock the overly earnest and poke holes in the cynical and misinformed. But last week, we were reminded over and over that we really are in the middle of a struggle of civilizational struggle against really hateful, malevolent people and the people they exploit. The pipe bombs, the massacre at the synagogue, the endless harassment of women and minorities — it will all continue unless we do something about it.
After years of establishment Democrats running rote, indistinguishable TV ads and peddling cautious, focus-group-tested messaging, a wave of fresh, progressive candidates have decided to communicate like actual humans. Fresh faces such as Randy Bryce and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have produced a series of especially moving digital ads that have gone viral, and this week, even amidst the Kavanaugh calamity, a new progressive star was born.
Julie Oliver, who is running to represent Texas’s 25th district in Congress, narrates her own life story in the ad; she grew up in near-poverty and ran away from home as a teenager, squatting in abandoned buildings until she got pregnant at 17. Shunned by her boyfriend’s family, she returned home, where her mother agreed to help her — on the condition that she get back to school.
The rest is the sort of up-from-your-bootstraps American Dream success story that seems to only happen in movies or very hypothetical conservative scenarios: Oliver worked and raised her family while attending college and law school, and now at 45-years-old, she’s an accomplished lawyer and community leader running for Congress. Her experience makes her uniquely empathetic to the needs of working people, a quality in short supply in Washington today.
Sixteen months ago, Cyndi Ralston was retiring after 30 years on the job as an elementary school teacher. Now, she finds herself working two full-time jobs, back in the classroom and running for the Oklahoma State House. The campaign meant that she had no summer break, having instead spent her time “off” knocking on doors, holding events, and rallying her neighbors to take the final steps toward toppling the far-right regime that had thrown the entire state’s education system and infrastructure into disrepair.
“It’s kind of crazy the way it’s all falling into place — this was never in my life plans,” Ralston, who is running to represent District 12, told me last week. “My poor husband is already like, well, I guess I’ll see you on the weekends, dear. I mean, he’s already gotten used to it. I’m never home. But someone had to do it.”
When I spoke with Ralston last April, she was driving home from Oklahoma City, where she had spent yet another day helping lead a teacher walkout over the tattered conditions of the state’s beleaguered, underfunded public schools. Her retirement had been short-lived; she jumped back in the classroom just months after announcing her departure, mostly because no one else would do it. By the spring, she was leading a brave teacher walkout in an effort to save public education.
Over the prior decade, Oklahoma gave billions of dollars in tax cuts to millionaires and fracking and oil companies despite severe budget shortfalls, robbing public education budgets to do it. Between 2008 and 2015, public education was slashed over 23%; photos of shredded textbooks went viral last spring as the nation finally took notice of the damage. In tense budget negotiations, a majority of Republican lawmakers agreed to increase taxes on gas production slightly (though still far below pre-2008 rates) to give teachers a $6000 pay increase.
Not all Republican lawmakers supported even that small pittance, and an increased education budget was dead on arrival, leading the teachers to walk out.
The strike led to a slight education budget increase, but nothing close to adequate. So teachers, generally apolitical in Oklahoma, decided to take matters into their own hands, running for office to unseat the Republicans that voted against raises and education funding. Oklahomans, while generally conservative, supported the strike by a wide margin. And they proved it in primary elections this summer, as a dozen of the GOP legislators that voted against teacher raises were ousted by more moderate Republicans who publicly supported them and were not as beholden to extremist special interests.
“Oklahoma’s waking up and not as strongly red as we were,” Ralston, a longtime Democrat, says. “And as fast as they put us on that map for President Trump, we’ve got people that didn’t vote but have said no, we have to vote — it didn’t turn out well when we just stayed out of it.”
Ralston’s opponent, Kevin McDugle, was famously outspoken against teachers, and when he published a Facebook note ripping them for taking action, Ralston officially announced her campaign. McDugle won his primary by three votes, a squeaker that Ralston says he would have last had McDugle’s opponent not literally withdrawn from the race. There are ten anti-raise legislators left; eight have teachers running against them. Ralston is working to finish the job of ousting McDugle, and at times, she finds herself having to battle a bad conservative-fueled narrative about why teachers go on strike.
“I’ll have people that will say, ‘I don’t think teachers should have walked out and gotten a raise,’ so it’s been good to talk to people one-on-one. I’ll tell them that the teachers did not ask for the raise. The school superintendents were the ones that were asking for the raise because they can’t find new teachers to hire,” Ralston says. “I say the teachers were going for resources in our classroom so that we could get textbooks and technology to teach children. Teachers walked because they didn’t give that to us.’ They say, OK, I didn’t know that, and I can accept that.”
And it’s evident to everyone, even those not all that keen on the strike, that the crisis is far from over. Oklahoma issued more emergency teacher certifications this year — over 2100 — than any time in the state’s history. And very, very modest increases in education funding cannot patch over giant craters left by years of bombs dropped by Republicans owned by rich oil interests.
“I actually got math textbooks. I still don’t have enough. It’s lovely to have an actual set of books and have actual manipulatives to use in class — oh my gosh, it felt like Christmas, we got something we haven’t gotten in ten years,” Ralston says, laughing with only a hint of irony. “But it’s not enough. We’ve got a class set and we’ve got three classes. I have had to make copies and the kids have to copy things down. They were talking about replacing English books, but I don’t know where they ended up. I think they were going to look and see which were are the oldest, to try to get a set of those books replaced. So it didn’t end up very much at all.”
Still, it’s a start, and Ralston has seen the power that teachers have in the state.Between education, looming Medicaid work requirements — Ralston is vehemently opposed — and redistricting at play, teachers and parents are motivated as never before. Her message is simple if a bit sarcastic — typical for a whip-smart, funny teacher who has spent over 30 years around second graders: “Why don’t you stop giving oil and gas companies tax breaks and let people hold on to what little you’re giving them?”
With an open gubernatorial election that could flip to Democrats due to the collective hatred for outgoing Gov. Mary Fallin, progressive Democrats have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn Oklahoma blue (or at least very purple) once again.
Democrat Kriss Marion is a farmer, small business owner, and mother of four who lives in rural Wisconsin. Her campaign manager is an award-winning cheesemaker. They could not be more Wisconsin, and together, they’re running what is one of the most crucial local elections in the country.
Wisconsin was the birthplace of the modern American progressive movement, where great leaders and determined activists put forth the idea that the government should work on behalf of the average citizen instead of the corporate monopolies and moneyed elite.
But for the last eight years, Republican Governor Scott Walker has worked to tear down that legacy by assaulting unions, cutting education, throttling voting rights (throwing Wisconsin to Donald Trump in 2016), enabling pollution, and letting infrastructure crumble as he gave billions away to major corporations.
Now, his reign of terror is coming back to haunt him. Walker, who is seeking his third term in office, is trailing Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers, the state’s Supervisor of Public Instruction, in the polls. Not only that, but thanks to some big wins earlier this year in special elections, Democrats have a very real chance of taking back the gerrymandered State Senate.
Marion’s race, for Wisconsin’s 17th State Senate district, is one several the elections that will determine the balance of power in Madison. She currently serves on the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, where she helped pass laws that allowed small farmers and bakers to sell food locally, competing with the chains that were dominating the area. Now she’s seeking to take the fight on behalf of working families to the state level. I hopped on the phone with her late last week to talk about her campaign, her priorities, and the issues facing Wisconsin.
You’re on the County Board right now — what inspired you to get into politics in the first place, and why run for State Senate?
I’m a small farmer and I own a bed and breakfast here and for some time I’ve been a grassroots organizer with the Farmers Union, which is a group that stands up for family farms and rural communities. Along those lines is water protection. I’ve been fighting for reasonable water protections in our area and in Wisconsin for a long time and I’m trying to educate the public about what goes on with groundwater. We have groundwater here versus collecting surface water, so we’re real vulnerable to different pollutants; they go right into our drinking water.
That was the thing that got me going. And then I got on the County Board, to try and start a conversation about water and also about rural redevelopment. We are very agricultural out here and we need more options. So I wanted to work on economic development and obviously you bump into state issues, so I ended up going to the capital a lot to talk to my representative. I realized that they were not going to make the changes that we needed here for our rural community. So I thought it was time to do something about it myself.
And Scott Walker and the GOP have been less than friendly to the environment.
There have been debilitating cuts to the Department of Natural Resources. They took references to climate change off the DNR website. We’re in a real intense shortage of environmental workers and watchdog. And in addition, Wisconsin has had a big drive to remove wetland protections so that we can fast-track building for developers and large manufacturers.
Right now we are in the middle of catastrophic flooding that is destroying lots of property and infrastructure in southwest Wisconsin. And it’s not the complete answer, but protecting wetlands is a huge way that we can mitigate the impact of high precipitation.
And that ties into the economic policy of shredding regulations in addition to giving companies, like Foxconn, which got $4 billion from the state, enormous and controversial tax breaks to move there.
Foxconn is nowhere near our district but we’re paying handsomely for it as taxpayers over here in southwest Wisconsin. Foxconn not only got a huge pass when it comes to wetlands, but they’ve opened the door for everyone else to ask for the same. They got record-breaking tax incentives, eight times the average national incentive per job. The Foxconn development, where it’s under construction, is flooding horrifically because it’s on a wetland as well.
My heart is with rural communities. I live in a town of 825 people. I’m sitting here in my campaign office, in an old building on Main Street where we can watch tractors go by in between pickups and ATVs and commuters. And my biggest concern is that we are able to survive and thrive. And so things like Foxconn take money off the top of the budget, and that’s money that we’re not putting towards schools or healthcare or roads. Every service the state provides, budgets have been cut and slashed while giving companies record-breaking tax incentives.
Don’t get me wrong, Wisconsin is a fantastic place to live, especially rural Wisconsin. I would recommend it to anybody. We want to be here and we want to have this lifestyle, but we need to have the basic tools to build on the beautiful things we have and to protect them and to grow them.
And so that’s infrastructure, right? It’s schools, it’s roads, and broadband. We don’t have basic broadband out here. You have hours on end where you’re traveling and you can’t reach anybody on the phone. There are kids who go home and can’t do homework because they don’t have broadband at home. So we said no to federal money for that. We also struggle with healthcare. People are just trying to make do with so little, but we’re not a third world country. We should be investing in our future.
We found $4 billion to give Foxconn. If we had divided that among all of our regional planning commissions or any other sort of regional economic development setup, you could have kickstarted the economies in any number of counties. They could be making loans or grants to Main Street, to small business owners. We’re incentivizing the wrong things right now in Wisconsin. We have been dead last in the nation for small business startup and entrepreneurial activity for three years running.
Reading about your campaign, I came across a story about how you had gotten sick and moved to Wisconsin in the early 2000s, and how moving to the state literally helped heal you.
I grew up in Bethlehem, PA and lived in downtown Chicago for 20 years, after school. I was raising my kids there and then got really sick. I had the great fortune to be able to go to multiple doctors to get different opinions on what was wrong with me. I finally found one who diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis and got me on a great twice-a-week injection regimen that basically gave me the ability to move out of the city, to go explore a country life like I had growing up.
I was so incapacitated prior to that diagnosis. If didn’t have an affordable way to keep seeing doctors, I don’t know where I would be. And my medication was a thousand dollars a month, just a crazy amount of money. Having an insurance safety net really saved my life. So I got better really fast, we came out here, and I got off my drugs after couple of years. Being surrounded by green spaces is what ultimately healed me.
My whole life out here has been about building something productive on my farm and bringing people out to share it. And I’m really, really committed to preserving the clean air, clean water, beautiful agricultural lifestyle for the future and for other people to come and either enjoy it or move here permanently.
I’ve had my life saved from health insurance several times, but still find myself in medical debt, so I know what you mean.
I have a daughter who works for Deloitte, so she doesn’t hurt for health insurance, but I have four kids. I have others who do day labor in factories and another that is always trying to move up and is often between jobs. The healthcare issues for those kids that don’t have stable work are really terrifying. My daughter Emma, who’s 22, has friends who don’t have stable corporate jobs. They tend to work for a church or they work at a bar or at a restaurant and they literally decide from day to day, do I take my medication or do I eat?
Out here, we have a lot of people who are on plans that their copay is so high that they wait and wait to go to the doctor. Several people I’ve met have lost family members who didn’t go in for checkups because they didn’t want to pay the copay and then died of breast cancer that was fast-moving.
The choices that people are making to get by in a low wage economy — our wages are very suppressed in Wisconsin, thanks to the loss of unions, a stagnant startup economy, lots of reasons — we have people who are literally having to make hard choices about their health on a daily basis. It’s trade-offs involving food versus medication versus school, paying off the debt or getting more into that. Maybe it’s time remake the whole thing.
Rural campaigning is very different than urban campaigning — what’s been your strategy?
I’ve been direct-marketing my farm for over a decade on Facebook. The bed and breakfast is almost all word of mouth and AirBnb. We’ll also have been in 50 parades the end of this by November 6th. We’re in an all-rural district with seven counties and just a handful of cities. Everything else is villages. Every village and township, almost every community has their own parade and it might not be worth going door to door rurally, but when you go to a parade, you get not just that community of 200, you get all the communities around them.
I have a farm truck, which is our old fire department truck from the Blanchardville Fire Department, and we had an artist paint billboards on the side of it. We always have a good crowd, people bring their dogs or their sheep or goats or whatever they got. We’re just trying to make democracy fun again. The whole game is to re-engage people because people are depressed, they feel angry about the money in politics. They feel filthy about what’s going on in Washington DC, regardless of what side of the aisle they’re on, you just feel like politics are dirty.
So everywhere we go, we try and be colorful and smiley and optimistic. We’re just trying to remind people that democracy is our privilege and our right, it should be our joy.
What’s the largest medical bill you’ve ever received? OK, I don’t want to make you sick thinking back on it, so I’ll tell you mine: Back in 2012, I was slapped with a hospital bill for half a million dollars, which is more than most Americans pay for their house. This wasn’t some elective procedure, either — open-heart surgery very rarely is.
It’s important to note that this happened after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare was a nice upgrade to a fundamentally flawed system. More people got health insurance, but it’s often still uber-expensive (and getting worse) and still fully unavailable to tens of millions of Americans. Medicaid is being throttled, Republicans are sabotaging protections, and big pharma is colluding with middlemen to rip-off patients and states. Even people with “good” insurance get screwed — personally, I just got a $500 bill for a ten-minute checkup.
Democrats are finally beginning to realize that continually trying to patch up a ship built to sink is futile. And after years of it being considered a far-left radical idea, single-payer healthcare — or Medicare for All — is becoming the mainstream position of national Democratic leaders.
To take a closer look at the momentum behind the single-payer campaign, I spoke with Dr. Carol Paris, the president of Physicians for a National Health Program. For years, PNHP has been at the forefront of advocating for universal healthcare; during the Trump administration, it has worked to both save Obamacare and educate Democrats and lobby nationally for a more complete overhaul of our still-broken healthcare system. She spoke some hard truths about the state of our politics and party, but they’re important ones for us to understand and accept as we push forward for truly comprehensive universal healthcare.
Note: Because it’s a 501(c)(3), PNHP cannot endorse any political candidates. So, I’ve separately made this list of candidates who support Medicare-for-All — CLICK HERE to donate to them!
Medicare for All has more support amongst Democrats than ever. Why do you think that’s happened?
It really began growing as the reality of the failure of the Affordable Care Act to control costs and insure everyone became clearer… I don’t think that moved the legislators, I think it moved their constituents to put pressure on them to endorse single-payer.
The Affordable Care Act did extend care for a lot of people, but costs still go up. Were you expecting that?
I was not optimistic. The best thing about the Affordable Care Act was the Medicaid expansion. We could have done that with so much less effort and expenditure of resources and just forgotten about the rest. The best part of it and what helped the most people was the Medicaid expansion. With the marketplace and the subsidies, there’s so many problems, because the private for-profit insurance industry is baked into it. That’s a big part of it.
The industry says it can do things more efficiently, but that hasn’t been borne out. What kind of tricks is it still able to pull, despite new regulations?
The individual mandate created a whole market for new customers. Then there was the requirement that insurers can no longer deny coverage to people who are either too sick to be profitable or too old and therefore more risky. Eliminating those but adding the mandate put the insurance industry in a precarious situation of having to figure out how to work around the guaranteed issue and community rating while still drawing in the mandated younger members.
So what they do is they make narrow coverage networks. So you can get a plan with a subsidy or plan on the marketplace that will bring down the cost of your premium, but they do it by requiring you to go on a plan that has a very narrow network. There was a study and it found that in New York, none of the marketplace plans included the number one cancer hospital in the city, Memorial Sloan Kettering.
As far as pharmaceuticals, they’ll just put the expensive pharmaceuticals into a higher tier so that they’re just shifting more and more of the cost of care to the consumer.
So how do you envision a full Medicare-for-All system working?
The only way to actually implement it in a way that will be cost-effective over time is specifically to do it as a single-payer strategy. All single-payer means is instead of multiple insurance companies providing insurance as well as Medicare and Medicaid and Tricare and all the others, everyone is in a single risk pool.
It really is only going to be feasible if it’s done on a national level. when you’ve got 325 million people and everyone working is contributing to the tax base that is paying for our healthcare. You’ve got a big enough tax base then to actually cover everyone’s needs for all medically necessary care — including dental, vision, and long-term care.
The problem people get hung up on is, “Oh my God, my taxes are gonna go up?” This is a situation where your taxes go up modestly and your net income goes up as well, and the reason is because when your taxes go up, it’s for covering the things that you’re now not paying for out of your after tax dollars, premiums, copays, deductibles, out of network costs. All of that goes away.
One thing I can never answer is what happens to all the jobs in the insurance industry?
Written into the House’s Medicare-for-All bill, HR 676, is funding to provide unemployment for a year and retraining for anyone who makes $100,000 a year or less in the insurance industry. And remember that we’re going to need some of those people to administer the Medicare for All plan. So the number of [of workers] isn’t going to go to zero.
I was actually just having dinner last night with a surgeon from Nashville who told me a great story. She’s a 67-year-old general surgeon and she was just saying she was so fed up with trying to get the care for her patients that they need. She does a lot of breast surgery and there’s a particular kind of breast cancer called BCRA 1 and 2, where if you have those genetic markers, it is a reasonable option for a woman to have prophylactic bilateral mastectomy, without having breast cancer.
Blue Cross Blue Shield denied the patient’s claim, her preauthorization to get this done. And what the doctor told me was that she finally remembered that a colleague of hers had quit the practice of medicine and was now working at Blue Cross Blue Shield doing preauthorization. So she called him up and he finally agreed that this was reasonable and authorized it. I’m telling you the story to say there are a number of doctors and nurses who are licensed clinicians in this country who have stopped practicing clinical medicine because they burned out and are now working for the insurance industry. These are people that could go right back into the delivery side of healthcare.
So if Democrats take back Congress and then the White House, how do you make the push for this, after the Affordable Care Act was what they mustered last time?
You’re talking to a person who is not easily persuaded that the Democratic Party is our friend. Remember that in 2009 we had a majority in the House and the Senate and we had a Democratic president and we couldn’t even get single-payer included in the discussion of health care reform. I’m actually of the persuasion that we need to have our grassroots organizing working on Republican members of the House and Senate, too. You get them to co-sponsor single-payer legislation. I don’t think that’s impossible. I think if the grassroots makes it toxic for any member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, for them not to get on board, then they’ll get on board because they want to hold onto their seat.
I think it’s great if people want to put their time and energy into Democratic candidates who say that they will support. But corporate Dems are still in control and I am not convinced that just getting more Democrats elected to office is going to turn the tide. I think what’s going to turn the tide is what we saw last week, with a new Reuters poll that showed 84.5% of Democrats and 51.9 percent of Republicans now support Medicare for All, and 70% overall.
That’s how we’re going to get Medicare, in my opinion, by also having moderate Republicans who are absolutely being screwed by the rising cost of healthcare. I think they’re going to get on board with this and say, “I’ve got to do this for myself and my family and stop listening to Fox News and astroturf groups like the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future.”
So let’s say we do get Medicare-for-All. What happens when a president or Congress who hate it take office, as we’re seeing right now with the GOP sabotaging the Affordable Care Act?
I actually don’t want to pass Medicare-for-All legislation if it’s done the way the Affordable Care Act was passed, through reconciliation and no bipartisan support. If we do it that way, then they’re just turning it into a hot potato, just like the ACA is, and it’s just going to get beaten back and forth between parties and never have the opportunity to become the beloved program that Medicare became. What I really would hope is that we passed this legislation because there is such a groundswell of support among the American people that members of Congress simply get on because they don’t have any alternative.
We’re seeing more buy-in from the business community, especially small businesses that are beginning to realize that the Chamber of Commerce is not their friend and that it’s in their best interest to support Medicare-for-All, that it would be so much better for their bottom line. And look at the teacher strike in West Virginia, there was actually a picture of a teacher holding up a sign that said, “We’ll work for health insurance.” So I think we need to be just continuing to grow the movement among our own citizens who are day in and day out being beaten and beleaguered by the profiteering healthcare system.