Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 50th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Randy Bryce, who is currently running to take Paul Ryan’s seat in the First Congressional District in Wisconsin. Bryce has been an ironworker for the past 20 years and is a US Army veteran, a dad and a cancer survivor.
Sarah Jaffe: Your first ad, announcing your candidacy, got a lot of attention across the Internet, specifically talking about health care. Tell us about what kind of health care policy you want to see and your personal experiences that shaped that.
Randy Bryce: I am very opposed to pharmaceutical companies making huge money off of us. Everybody is corralled into paying high prices for not just drugs, but medical care overall. This stems from my own personal experience. Shortly after I got out of the army, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The doctor told me I probably wouldn’t be able to have children as a result of the surgery. People had asked, “Didn’t you get anything through the VA?” The thing is, the culture that we live in today — I should speak for myself, but it is also the guys I work with — it is only when it gets really bad that we take time off work to go to the doctor.
So, I went and then they did some tests and I had the initial meeting with the doctor. He just tossed me a pamphlet on how to deal with testicular cancer. He said, “We would like to operate within a couple of weeks.” I was like, “OK….” Then we started talking about the process. When it came time for insurance coverage, I was working two jobs full-time and had no health care coverage. I had to tell him, “Well, I don’t have any insurance. What can we do? Can I make arrangements to pay or something?” He was good. He said, “Well, I would be willing to work with my fee so we can get it done. We will work something out. Don’t worry about that, but I can’t guarantee anything for the anaesthesiologist and everybody else that was going to be in the room.” He was like, “I know a doctor that works for the Medical College of Wisconsin at a nearby hospital, Froedtert.” I ended up driving there that same evening. After I met with the doctor at the other place, he looked at the results and said, “We have got to do this right away. When is the last time you ate?” I said, “Well, I stopped and had something on the way here.” He said, “OK, we can’t do it right now” which is what he wanted to do. [Laughs]
He said, “We will do it tomorrow.” I got admitted to the hospital right then and there. In a way it was good, because I didn’t have time to freak out. It didn’t have time to register; it happened so quickly. But, at that same time, too, that is why I couldn’t go to the VA to ask, “How do I get covered? I am a veteran.”
That is something that, if it happened to me, I am sure there are other people in similar situations. Veterans do have issues that come up that happen so quick, they are emergency-level issues that they can’t get health care for. If everybody was covered, that wouldn’t be an issue.
Then again, after being told that I wasn’t going to be able to have a son, I ended up having a son who is my little miracle guy. As a parent, I am concerned for him. As an ironworker, we are self-insured and we have decent insurance. Obamacare could be improved. Because the ironworkers provide good health care, we get penalized with the Cadillac tax. So, I know it is not perfect, but there are some protections in there that I think we need to keep in place, like for pre-existing conditions.
Kids should be able to be kids. If they do break a bone — which is not uncommon — it shouldn’t bankrupt the parent as a result.
Going back to my son, we are self-insured, so it is based on hours worked. During the winter months when there is not a lot of work, our coverage starts going down every day we don’t work. It gets closer and closer to being taken to a lower tier or just not having it. If I know I am getting close to that, I look at my son. He says, “Dad, I want to go out and play.” I don’t think a parent should have to worry about a kid going out to play and being a kid because they are not covered by health insurance. There have been a couple of times when I know I am really close to not having insurance. And if you are unemployed, you can’t pay for the COBRA costs. That is like $800 a month, which you can’t afford. Kids should be able to be kids. They should be able to go out and play on a jungle gym and if they do break a bone — which is something that is not uncommon — it shouldn’t bankrupt the parent as a result.
Looking at the video, too, it has my mom in it. My mom has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That happened in the mid-80s when I was in the army. But also, my father has Alzheimer’s and he is in assisted living…. Luckily, [my mom] has insurance because my dad is a retired police officer. But if she didn’t have insurance to get her medication, it is unbelievable how much hers would cost. She wouldn’t be able to afford it. [The medication] gives her her independence. She can go visit my dad every day…. [Health care] is intergenerational. It affects everybody regardless of your ethnic background. The most wealthy people are the only ones that don’t have to worry about it. It is an important issue.
Paul Ryan is leading the charge to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Was that the thing that made you decide to run against him?
There are a lot of things. That is the biggest issue as far as policy-wise. But, I think an even bigger issue is, as an ironworker, first of all, I have to show up at the job site to do the job and if I don’t do my job, then I am going to get replaced with somebody who can. Paul Ryan should be representing people. He hasn’t had any public town halls in the district for over 600 days. But, he has had over 50 big-dollar fundraisers where you pay $10,000 to get your picture taken with him. He is not doing his job. That is the bigger issue. And based on him doing things like taking away health care, he has reason not to want to face the people in this district. I don’t blame him being afraid to show his face, because a lot of people are upset and angry. But that is the number one thing. How can you represent people you don’t want to see?
What has it been like in your district since last election? I know people have put up billboards and things criticizing Ryan on health care. Has there been a lot of protest activity in your district?
There has been. There are groups like Forward Racine, Forward Kenosha, groups that have sprung up since this past election that are getting involved. Every Sunday, there is a group that meets outside Ryan’s Kenosha office. I participated in an event where we just read the Constitution. The Working Families Party has been getting very involved in the district as far as calling him out and trying to make him accountable. There were a couple of events, again, put forth by a Forward Kenosha group, that invited neighboring Representative Mark Pocan from the Second Congressional District. So, if we want to find out what is going on in Washington, DC, like with this — it is not even really a health care bill, it is a tax cut — [about] how it is going to affect us, we have to ask a neighboring congressman to come talk to us.
Tell us a little bit more about the district. Paul Ryan was pretty easily re-elected last time, but you already have some endorsements and support lined up. Tell us why this time is different.
It took a lot of people that were starting to ask me to consider getting into it. I said, “Thanks, I am flattered that you are asking.” Then, some other groups and local electeds had said, “Randy, you should really think about this. You are exactly the kind of guy that we need. You are everything that he is not. What you do for a living, you are a vet”…. Pretty much everything that he is doing and everything that he is taking away affects me somehow, is some part of my life he is trying to snatch away.
I know just talking to neighbors that they are being affected, too. This whole divide-and-conquer thing really has people upset; talking about making America great again, that doesn’t happen by dividing us. It has never helped make us great. What makes us great is bringing up the “united” part of the United States. People are having a lot of buyer’s remorse. Donald Trump had a message that resonated with some working people, but I said, “Just wait and see. He is not going to do any of it. It sounds good, but he is not going to do any of it because he is not one of us.”
Paul Ryan is totally complicit. He is choosing the party over the people. He thanked the entire Wisconsin Republicans at their convention, thanked everybody for electing Donald Trump. He owns Donald Trump. There was a chance at one time, when he was hesitant to back him, but they are handcuffed together right now. They are in the same boat and that boat has a leak.
There has been a lot of talk about the working class and specifically the white working class after Trump’s election, but neither party runs very many union workers for office. Tell us about the importance of actually electing working people to office.
Who better to speak up for working people than other working people? Representation shouldn’t be an auction. I think we need to get all this big money out of politics so that people really do have a say. It is an election, not an auction.
When I vote for somebody, I look at similarities like “How is that person like me? What do we have in common? Where does that person stay? What have they done for a living?” You have somebody like Paul Ryan; he has made his living as a congressman. He sees his job as taking things away from people. He is the one who had the speech about makers and takers, which at this date, is completely ironic that he is still in office when he is taking everything away and we are working twice as hard and getting so much less. That is just not right.
What are some of the other issues that you want to focus on in this campaign?
Good-paying jobs. There were great paying autoworker jobs in Kenosha, in Janesville. And right now in the state of Wisconsin, Racine and Janesville, which are both within the First Congressional District, they compete every year for who has the highest unemployment rate. They are number one and number two every year. Now, too, some of the best-paying jobs in Waukesha, the whole factory is moving up to Canada. Congress could have done something to keep those jobs here. Donald Trump was bragging about how he is going to keep all these great paying jobs in the United States. It is all talk and people are tired of hearing talk. Promises don’t feed families.
There is a big debate going on right now about what the Democratic Party should do in order to not just challenge Trumpism but really turn around the state that it has been in for a while. What would you like to see the party doing?
I want to see more people like me, more working people run for office. Bernie Sanders showed that he can get a lot of people with small contributions, which is exactly what is happening with our campaign. We raised over $100,000 in the first day. Looking back at the contributions, under $30 is the average contribution.
We raised over $100,000 in the first day. Looking back at the contributions, under $30 is the average contribution.
And [the party should be] working toward getting all this big money out. Working against Citizens United. People that don’t have a backbone, it could be tempting. I can’t imagine ever selling out my brothers and sisters, people I worked with on a job that look out for me on a daily basis. I can’t possibly imagine selling them out. But money is a big issue in politics…. Working people need a voice and we need to be listened to. If you are not going to elect us, make sure there is somebody that knows what our issues are.
We often get told that in parts of the country you have to be “socially conservative” to win. You are a supporter of gay rights, abortion rights. Do you think that will be a challenge?
I don’t think that is a challenge. I know being a working person myself, what my values are and my values include looking out for each other, helping each other, and holding the ladder for people to get up to the top and not kicking it off once you get to the top yourself. I am not concerned about my values being out of whack. The people I work with every day, we take care of each other. That is what this country is about. That is why I enlisted and that is not what is going on in Washington, DC, right now. We are being ignored and I see us as being attacked. Working people’s values are being attacked.
Speaking of working people’s values, a bunch of people that I know, when your ad went up said, “Oh, I know him from the protest in 2011!” We can’t talk about Wisconsin without talking about the protests and Scott Walker’s attacks on labor. You are in the state that has been ground zero for attacks on union workers. Tell us a little bit about that.
Wisconsin has literally been turned into a banana republic. When I was in the army, I spent time in Central America. I have been in an authentic, genuine banana republic. That is what Wisconsin has become.
Talking about the occupation, where people were staying overnight in order to testify because that was holding the bill up from getting passed. As long as people were willing to line up — it was a 24-hour-a-day thing — they couldn’t pass the bill. People were willing to wait all night to testify.
The Wisconsin Republicans have since turned to a method known as ambush legislation, which is where they will announce something at the last minute. By law, they have to give 24-hour notice to the public to be able to speak, but they have the system down now. They announce a bill. They have everything planned out to ram it through as quickly as possible. They set limits on the time allowed for the public to be able to testify. That just goes back to the message now of people wanting to be heard. They don’t want to hear us. They know what they are going to do anyways.
Take the right-to-work legislation, for instance. Ninety percent of the people, of the constituents that contacted their legislators, were opposed to right-to-work, yet the legislators still voted to pass it. It has gotten to the point where they don’t care about us anymore and it is all about passing this anti-worker extremist agenda. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House and Paul Ryan as speaker, what has happened in Wisconsin has been exported to the national level.
It absolutely sounds very familiar since the Republicans just put out their health care bill. Having taken part in those protests and the actions that are going on in your district now, what do you think the role is for social movements, protests in connection to electoral politics?
The people that first got involved with Act 10 have stayed engaged the whole time, and as more and more is taken away, I am seeing more and more people become active — out-in-the-streets-in-front-of-buildings active. With all these Indivisible groups, there is a Forward Kenosha, Forward Racine group, the Working Families Party. They are like, “We have had enough.” Everybody that has been involved since Act 10 understood this is not going to end until everybody is squashed. So get up now while you still have a voice. People are starting to understand that if we don’t turn things around quickly, we are not going to have much left.
The things that we have done that have been successful: putting pressure on legislators, on companies. We were able to keep Donald Trump from visiting Harley Davidson as a result of coordinated action, which in the scheme of world issues, doesn’t make a big difference, but it is a huge victory if we can keep a president from visiting a local company due to pressure that we put on them. That was a huge victory.
It is just seeing what we can do together. It is basically, people are understanding that you line up all the pawns on one side of a chessboard and you have a queen on the other side and there is only one result, but you need all the pawns to stay together. People are waking up and it is great to see.
Last thing, people really love your Twitter handle. I have been asked to ask you the story behind the Twitter handle. Then, other than following you on Twitter, how else can people keep in touch with you?
I do have a Facebook page, Randy Bryce. There is a public one. My personal one has been filled up, but I keep a lot of things posted publically. I try to stay in touch. My Twitter feed is mostly made up by me, too. If it is campaign staff, they will put their initials after it.
The [Twitter handle] name came about [when] I was at a National Building Trades convention and the guy that does the social media for them, he said, “You really need to get involved in Twitter.” Facebook had been our way of communicating during the Act 10 times. I said, “OK. What the heck? I will try it.” I was just thinking up a name and people have always made some comments about my mustache, jokingly. It just kind of popped into my head. “How about IronStache?” He was like, “That is brilliant! Use it! Go with it! That will work.”
I kept it. There was talk about “Should we get a campaign Twitter feed going?” and everybody pretty much decided “Randy, just be you. What we need is you. We don’t need anything other than you,” which is what you get. [Laughs] It is really entertaining to see the results. It is like, “How can this guy lose with that Twitter handle?” It is funny.
What is the official campaign website?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.