How the Working Families Party Intends to Shake Up the 2018 Elections

Today we bring you a conversation with Joe Dinkin, the campaigns and communications director at the Working Families Party (WFP). Dinkin discusses how Paul Ryan’s exit is indicative of the trouble the Republican Party is in and how WFP plans to organize people around the 2018 midterms.

Sarah Jaffe: I want to start out with some of the good news. Tell us about what your reaction was to hearing that Paul Ryan was no longer going to run for his seat?

Joe Dinkin: There had been rumors swirling for a while that Paul Ryan might get out of the race as Randy Bryce’s campaign picked up steam…. It turned out that the rumors were true and Paul Ryan quit before he could be fired, because Randy Bryce, the union ironworker and Working Families Party activist … was going to give Paul Ryan the run of his life; it turned out we were right.

Randy Bryce, from the beginning said he wanted to “repeal and replace” Paul Ryan. We’ve gotten the first half of that done. We’ve repealed Paul Ryan; he’ll be out of Congress. It’s pretty satisfying to say that. This is a guy who has talked about dreaming of slashing Medicaid and the social safety back … dreaming about making poor people suffer is just so infuriating that I couldn’t be happier to see him exit public life.

Unfortunately, he’ll probably end up with a lucrative lobbying contract of some kind, but he won’t be in the same capacity — able to inflict the kind of direct harm on people that he was able to do by ushering through the passage of the monstrous Republican tax plan.

This is the person who was the author of many tax reform plans; this one is the one that actually succeeded. Is this a sign that this particular wing of the Republican Party — not just the Trumpist fake-populist racist wing, but the “We want to drown the government in the bathtub” wing — is also in deep trouble?

I think they’re in huge trouble. I think that what Paul Ryan realized is that what he did is politically indefensible. There’s no way to take that record back to voters in any part of [the US] and justify what he did as anything other than theft in the name of governance, on behalf of some of the richest people who’ve ever lived — something that will cause immense suffering to millions of Americans of modest means. It’s morally indefensible and politically indefensible, and I think he saw the writing on the wall that he couldn’t run on that record and win.

In that way, I think Paul Ryan is the tip of the spear, and I think a lot of other Republicans are going to realize that that vote was a deeply toxic one — not just a stain on their conscience, but also damaging to their political standing. There was just a special congressional election in [Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district] where a Democrat won this … sort of archetypal working-class white district, where the Republicans were running ads trying to kind of buck up the Republican tax plan. The ads weren’t moving the needle and they abandoned that ad a couple of weeks before Election Day because it wasn’t working and there’s no way they can hide from that.

Paul Ryan kind of represented an archetypal working-class district, and so you found an archetypal working-class dude who in many ways is not just that. The thing that I find interesting about Randy Bryce, watching him for several months, is that he’s not just running on being the “manly-man” ironworker. This is a guy who ran on caring for his sick mother; this is a guy who’s gotten arrested with DREAMers; this is a guy who’s not only calling for marijuana legalization but marijuana amnesty. He seems to be smart on a lot of things that are not the sort of white, working-class bread-and-butter issues that we hear a lot that “the Democrats have to return to or else they’ll lose to Trump forever.”

I think people like Randy Bryce — which is to say working-class people — have been used as an icon and a symbol in politics for a long time, but it’s really pretty rare that somebody from a union household — a union worker with family troubles and health problems — is himself seen as a real political actor and not just an icon or a symbol. And I think what you’re seeing with Randy is that people are actually a lot more complicated than the single stereotype. Randy is not just running on what might most immediately appeal to a pollster stereotype of the hard-hat, white working class. He’s running on health care for all and the care agenda and he’s been unbelievably vocal about defending the rights of immigrants and the DREAM Act and criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization and, as you pointed out, marijuana amnesty for people that have been convicted of something that really should never have been a crime.

He’s running on a bold and progressive agenda that is a populist agenda that speaks to people’s economic needs and also understands that there are special kinds of difficulties and oppressions that fall on people who are more marginalized.

Certain parts of the working class, we might say.

That’s right. And I think the wisdom of the DC-based consultant class has been that the only way to win a swing district or even a Republican-leaning district like this one has been to run as a moderate, and it turns out that exactly the opposite is true. The only way that we’re able to make that race competitive is to have somebody run on his life story, on the things that’s impacted him and people he cares about and on what he believes in, which is to say, to run on this bold, multiracial populism.

Tell us about Randy Bryce’s history with the Working Families Party.

Randy is somebody who was involved in the founding of the Wisconsin Working Families Party; he’s been a member since the very beginning. In the moment of resistance to Trump, we started planning a series of protests all over the country, as Paul Ryan traveled the country avoiding his constituents….

At the same time, he was traveling around and doing high-dollar fundraisers … because he was refusing to hold town hall meetings where his constituents could give him a piece of their mind about, at the time, the Republican health care plan and some of the nomination fights. We ran a series of protests … in the places where he was going to go visit wealthy donors instead of his constituents. We would organize protests and they would use their cell phones to make video calls out to ordinary people back in Wisconsin who didn’t get the chance to ask Paul Ryan a question. They would FaceTime, basically, into these protests all around the country, and one of the activists participating in those protests from back home was Randy Bryce.

So a couple of months later, when it came time to start looking at a candidate to really take the fight directly to Paul Ryan electorally, Marina Dimitrijevic, director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, along with the Wisconsin WFP political director, sat down with Randy in a coffee shop and asked him point blank, “We need people in Congress who can represent working families, and who better than a real working-class person with a working family to be the standard-bearer for that movement and tell the truth about Paul Ryan’s record?”

It took a little convincing, but Randy ultimately agreed to do it and we’ve been unbelievably proud of his success….

Do we know who the Republicans are that are going to step up now that Paul Ryan is not running for re-election?

It’s not entirely clear. There’s one sort of far-right-wing, “alt-right” white nationalist candidate in the race already; my guess is they’ll recruit another sort of more polite Republican into the race as well. The filing deadline is a couple of more weeks out, so we’ll have to see how it shakes out. In some ways, the Republicans are realizing their vulnerability with Ryan’s record — they get to back somebody who’s never been in Congress, who would have voted exactly the same way but doesn’t have it on their record and they think that will excuse them….

In other big news this week, the never-ending question for the Working Families Party has always been Andrew Cuomo and the governor’s race in New York…. Andrew Cuomo has largely gotten what he wanted in those eight years, including a couple of Working Families Party nominations. What changed this time?

Four years ago, the majority of the Working Families Party state committee voted for Andrew Cuomo after he promised to pass a raft of progressive legislation and work hard to win a Democratic majority in the state senate and end the Independent Democratic Conference as a separate conference and create a Democratic majority that, in a blue state like New York, ought to actually be able to pass a lot of items on the progressive agenda — from economic justice to reforming our democracy to … a real plan on climate change, to criminal justice reform.

He promised a broad suite of progressive issues and he promised to elect Democrats to the state senate… A little bit of background for people who aren’t from New York, there has been a breakaway faction of the state senate Democrats, they call themselves the “Independent Democratic Caucus,” and for the last six budgets, they have sided with Republicans and led to Republican budget after Republican budget.

Budgets are a moral document, that’s where we get to fight about what’s important to our society and who pays and who gains … Andrew Cuomo in 2014 promised that he would end that unholy arrangement that was artificially keeping the New York State Senate from passing the progressive agenda. He promised he would end it, he promised he would pass the progressive agenda, he mostly broke those promises entirely….

I was at this meeting and I was really struck because there had been a lot of threats made that week. Andrew Cuomo did not go gently into that good night; he threatened the unions in order to threaten the funding of community organizations that were backing Cynthia Nixon. I was struck by the way that people in that room seemed like they weren’t scared of Andrew Cuomo anymore.

Turns out organizing works. People got together and built a shared vision and said, “We’re not going to be bullied by this guy.” There was a sense of defiance, even.

Definitely. I think there were a couple of votes for “Hell yes” and even “Fuck yes” for Cynthia Nixon. How does this connect to the more national strategy that is now really in earnest for you? How does the choice to challenge Andrew Cuomo connect to the success of a Randy Bryce?

Here’s how I would say: I think especially with Trump in the White House, with a cabinet and an administration composed of billionaires and avowed white nationalists who’ve been running the country, the urgency for our kind of values is felt more deeply and more broadly than ever before. People who are the opponents of that progressive agenda — whether they’re Republicans or whether they’re Democrats — are really feeling the heat right now.

And it’s emboldened people to pay closer attention to politics…. It took until the election of Donald Trump for people to really wake up to the politics, pay attention to the news in a deeper way, look around and say, “Well, why can’t New York pass the DREAM Act here, pass health care for all to ensure that if Trump guts Obamacare people are still covered, pass the Reproductive Health Act, and all of these measures of the progressive agenda that people deeply needed — why can’t we do that?”

It was because of these state senators who were caucusing with the Republicans, and people got active and people got mad. I think that kind of thing has happened all over the country where there is this new, activated — almost radicalism — there’s a new energy in voters who are hungry for serious change and are really more open than ever to big ideas about the kind of change we need.

It separates you a little bit from the old model, which was very much based in New York — unions and community groups and the fusion voting strategy. That still matters, but it’s not quite the center of the WFP strategy anymore.

We have always been built on a base that includes unions, community organizations and grassroots activists, and what we’ve seen since the election of Trump especially — but even going back before that, to the Bernie Sanders campaign, to the rise of some of the social movements over the last couple of years — is that that grassroots base, the individual activists are on fire.

Unfortunately, that has meant that some of the unions, both four years ago and this year, are deciding to — at least for now — back away.

That’s right. I think they’re in a difficult position. I feel for them. I think they made a difficult decision, but I get why it happens. We are 100 percent committed to unions, to the labor movement, to workers’ rights, and that’s never going to change. We’re always going to be there fighting for working people — the ones in unions, the ones who deserve and don’t have the protection of a union, and people piecing together work in the gig economy and those who are unemployed. Those are all working families and we’re going to fight as hard as we can for each of them.

Another thing just announced about the WFP is that you have a new director. Tell us about him and the vision that he embodies for the party.

His name is Maurice Mitchell. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve known him for a while and he’s always impressed me as an unbelievable organizer, strategist and leader…. He’s spoken really eloquently in the media in the last couple of days about his vision for where we’re going, which is a vision that kind of ends the false dichotomy between the fights for economic and racial justice, and says we need both of those things and a vision that embraces the rise of some of the social movements that have sprung up over the last couple of years — from Occupy to the climate movement to the DREAMers to the Movement for Black Lives — and says there’s all these people in the streets, all the way up to the most recent youth-led movement against gun violence, and says these are people who are fired up and need a new political home, and we could be that home.

And there was one other thing going on for y’all this week.

One other thing — actually, there’s a few other things. We won paid sick days in New Jersey this week. But the one other thing I was going to talk about was, we also had 75 people in Las Vegas at our … growing political education program … for an intense, three-day-long political education program that was built on a big analysis about helping people develop their ideology, on class exploitation, on structural racism, on the reinforcement of gender roles in our society and on a broken democracy that has failed to really transform and overcome those challenges that we’re facing…. It’s a pretty cool model that we’re trying out that we’ve been growing around the country.

How can people get involved with any and all of the things we’ve talked about today?

People can go to our website at WorkingFamilies.org and sign up…. And also follow us on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all the social media if that’s how you stay engaged — you can find us there, too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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.