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.
When I started Progressives Everywhere last year, it was with candidates like Miguel Levario in mind. In order to truly rebuild a better Democratic Party, we need to work to build it everywhere. Too many states had been instantly surrendered to Republicans, which, along with enabling corrupt politicians to govern millions of people, had the effect of making our political map smaller and smaller.
There were far too many districts that didn’t even field Democratic candidates for local and federal office in 2016 — including Levario’s northwest Texas district, TX-19, which includes cities like Abilene and Lubbock and major schools such as Texas Tech University.
Levario is a professor of history at Texas Tech and the first Democrat to seriously run to represent the district since 2004, when Texas’s extreme partisan gerrymander made it deep red. But between Texas’s seismic and ongoing demographic shifts, the district’s changing profile, and the wave of progressive energy sweeping a nation disgusted with GOP grifters, Levario figures he has a pretty decent shot at pulling off the upset. His opponent is against an unremarkable Republican, Rep. Jodey Arrington, who is running for re-election for the first time, improving his odds even further.
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.
Hamilton Nolan is a reporter for Splinter, the news site that is a spiritual successor to Gawker, the trailblazing New York media group that practically invented modern blogging in the early 2000s. Once it was shivved by the Hulk Hogan lawsuit, the company’s sites, minus the flagship Gawker.com, was sold to Univision, where it has been subject to endless management turmoil. Luckily, Nolan led a Gawker unionization campaign before the legal trouble began, ensuring their rights and paychecks throughout the last few years of corporate entropy.
In the years since, Nolan has continued to help organize New York new media outlets, working to bring some stability to what has become an industry defined by splashy entrances and catastrophic collapses. He’s also continued to write about politics and inequality in America, a very busy beat right now. We spoke about unionizing the media, how that might impact the way the industry covers unions and workers’ issues, and what the future of the movement looks like.
Gawker was the first digital outlet I heard of unionizing — how did it happen?
I was writing for Gawker and I wrote a lot about labor stuff and inequality. And every time I wrote about unions, you people in the comments would be like, “why don’t you guys unionize?” I always kind of blew it off because I didn’t think it was that important because we were white collar workers.
Over time I changed my thinking on that and came to the realization that basically everybody should organize, no matter who you are. So we ended up talking to the Writers Guild. The Writer’s Guild was interested in unionizing Vice, actually. And I was talking to one of the organizers there who was interested in organizing Vice and I was just like, why don’t you try organizing us? And it worked, is the short version.
Once people saw one place do it, I think the light bulb just went off everywhere and people were like, wow, that’s obviously a good idea for us. In quote-unquote old media, newspapers were unionized for decades and decades and decades, and that’s one reason why they were nice stable, middle-class jobs. And for new media, I think it’s part of the process of growing up as an industry, because people don’t want to be on that treadmill their whole lives, they just want to be able to have a career.
Another thing about being in the Writers Guild, it has TV writers and Hollywood writers. Working in Hollywood is a great job and the reason it’s a great job is because every last part of Hollywood has been unionized for many, many decades. It’s an industry that’s been forced to share the proceeds fairly among the people who work there because it’s a widely unionized industry and that’s hopefully where we can get to in our industry.
Gawker was still owned by Nick Denton at the time, right?
We actually signed our union contracts just before the Hulk Hogan verdict came down. So we signed a contract and then right after that we got hit with a big verdict that made us go bankrupt. So in that sense it was really good timing for us.
How was he about the union campaign? I imagine it was different than working somewhere like Univision, which owns Gizmodo now.
He was actually very blasé about it. We didn’t know what his reaction was gonna be, but then his reaction ended up being like, you guys do what you want to do. There was no anti-union campaign, he just said have a vote and if you vote for it, then you have a union. Like he was more concerned about getting some good blog posts out of it than running any kind of anti-union campaign. So to his credit, yes, he did not oppose us.
The law in America is that the workers get to decide if they have a union or not.The boss can try to scare you out of having a union, but they can’t tell you that you can’t have a union. Obviously the labor laws in America leave a lot to be desired, but fundamentally the workers have that on their side. So when you see a guy like Joe Ricketts, who’s a fucking ideological right-wing billionaire asshole, the only good thing about that is that most of the people who own the outlets in our industry are not Joe Ricketts. He was really the worst the worst-case scenario in terms of owner. Hopefully that won’t be replicated.
But even if they aren’t, they give people a tough time, as with Thrillist.
Our campaign was probably on the easier end of things. And some other places have been very easy, — TPM organized pretty recently. It really depends on how enlightened the boss is. The places that have enlightened bosses will say, “OK, you want to have a union, fine, let’s move ahead and let’s negotiate. “And then the less enlightened places will act like assholes. We’ve had pretty much the whole spectrum in our industry. We haven’t had any official strikes yet, although there’s a couple of places you can look at and say that the possibility on the horizon.
You mentioned Thrillist, they just had a walkout and Thrillist is a place that’s owned by the Lerer family, who are all multimillionaires. Ben Lerer is the son of a multimillionaire who is also a multimillionaire, whose dad gave him the outlet. One thing that unionization does as it moves across the industries is expose people that need to be exposed. At the end of it, the unions are going to win. It’s inevitable that the unions will win and everybody’s going to know exactly where everybody stands, who’s a hypocrite and who’s not.
I think unionization in the media can also change the way unions are seen nationwide, because it’ll change the way reporters and producers understand organized labor. In the debate between Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo, the moderator asked whether they supported public workers’ right to strike and maybe gum up the infrastructure, and I thought, shouldn’t the question be whether they’re willing to pay workers what they deserve?
I think that over the past several years that more places in the media had been unionizing, I think that a) you see more labor coverage in general. And b), I think that as a sort of side effect of all these media outlets unionizing is that you have all these reporters who are going through this process firsthand and it kind of builds up class consciousness among reporters basically. So it’s not that it’s giving a bias to reporters, but it’s sort of opening the eyes of a lot of people who work in the media and that’s something that will inevitably make their coverage better. Not just of unions specifically, but also all the history that is tied to labor and inequality, economics and all that stuff.
Ben Smith from BuzzFeed [full disclosure: I used to work at BuzzFeed] wrote a story this week about how he thinks it’s time for the end of horse race journalism. How do you think journalists have handled class issues?
It’s definitely been a problem for a long time and all due respect to Ben Smith, he didn’t invent horse race journalism. Horse race coverage of politics has been a problem in the media for a long time and it’s tied to the fact that big-time journalism is not a very diverse field, it’s not racially diverse. It’s not economically diverse. It’s not diverse. Those newsrooms tend to not look like America, right? And that’s a big problem and it affects the coverage. When you have newsrooms that are full of people who are Ivy Leaguers, it’s much easier to cover politics in that horse race style because there’s no personal stake. There’s not a personal stake in politics, so politics doesn’t get covered as something that’s very serious and affects people’s lives in a serious way.
I do think that that having some personal experience with issues like labor organizing is going to help reporters and also think that with every single place in our industry that has organized, you know, if you sit in those meetings and listen to them talk about what the issues are, diversity is an issue at every single place. The staffs want more diversity, all types of diversity. I think in the long-term unions are going to be one of the strongest factors that’s going to drive diversity in the media.
As our industry turns more toward freelance, it also becomes easier to empathize with the economic struggle.
The whole structure of getting a job in journalism is ridiculous. The expectation that people are going to have internships and all that, that stuff forces poor people out of the industry. Paying incredibly low salaries, so that they can’t pay the rent in New York, forces poor people out of journalism because they cannot afford to in the industry. One thing we got in our union contract is a minimum wage for our company. You cannot be paid less than $50k if you work for us. Living wages for these jobs is, is absolutely tied to diversity because people aren’t independently wealthy need to be paid enough to work in this industry.