The highest profile non-incumbent congressional candidate is a union advocate, iron worker, cancer survivor, and army veteran from Wisconsin named Randy Bryce (who is not unchallenged — we’ll be talking to his primary opponent soon). I call him Randy because that’s his name and he’s a friendly guy who lets people do that, but in reality he has become more “myth than man” by his Twitter handle @IronStache. Poor guy can never shave again…
I talked to the man behind the mustache who was thrust into the national spotlight by the video below about who he is, what kind of Democrat he is, and what kind of leader he wants to be and I’m happy to introduce you to Randy Bryce: candidate for Congress in Wisconsin’s 1st district whose opponent is Speaker of the House—Paul Ryan. [mobile users can view the video that launched Bryce’s campaign here]
(This interview was lightly edited for clarity.)
AJ: I was so happy to do this interview, but sad to have to begin by asking this question: As a veteran of the U.S. Army, how at ease are you with the preparedness of the United States to respond to international incidents like the terrible events in Barcelona and domestic incidents like the one in Charlottesville, VA as terrorism here and abroad fills our news alerts with such an erratic individual running the executive branch?
RB: It’s not the military I’m concerned with because, having spent some years in the army, I know they’re prepared for anything. It’s where are they going to be sent and why, I think, that can become the problem. I have absolutely zero faith in Donald Trump right now. With his foreign policy it seems you have to look at his tweets to find out who the bad guys are on a daily basis. Some days China will be okay and other days they’re not doing enough. He’s threatening stuff like “fire and fury.” It’s a really scary place where we’re at.
And not just that, to bring in the reason we’re talking, Paul Ryan—in the middle of the night—took out Barbara Lee’s amendment. It was a bi-partisan amendment that would take away Donald Trump’s blank check to do whatever he wanted to do with the military. It’s not the army or the preparedness of the army; it’s going to be the orders that are issued to them. That’s what scares me.
AJ: I’m wondering if he has the competence necessary to even give an order. We saw that on display recently with how he handled the trans-ban in the military. Also, for example, when missiles were used in Syria, they damaged the grass next to an airport runway. 59 or more missiles were still operational.
RB: That’s right, from a guy who took 5 deferments, [Trump is] the last person I want in a foxhole with me. He had his opportunity to defend our country and he got out of it multiple times. When you’re talking [about trans service people], about people who have saved lives. To exclude people who want to serve their country, from a guy who refused to serve his country, that’s pretty outrageous.
AJ: I’d like to steer this back to why we’re together today. I’d like to talk a little more about the catalyst for your running. I was surprised to see that even though you’re a cancer survivor, you hold up your mom’s battle with multiple sclerosis (MS) juxtaposed with Paul Ryan’s Health Care Act that Ryan and his GOP allies passed in the House as your inspiration for the health care debate.
RB: Sure! Well the thing is, health care was chosen as a huge issue because…Well, first of all as a cancer survivor I was told I probably wouldn’t be able to have my son, but I do. So now, as a father, I worry about my son growing up. Being self insured—iron workers are self insured, and it’s based off of hours worked—come winter time, if I don’t get a lot of work in because of the weather, having to work outside, then I have to worry about falling off of insurance.
And that affects things like if my son wants to go sled down a hill outside; well, no [he can’t because] I have to worry about him sliding into a tree and parents shouldn’t have to worry about their kids being kids. I don’t talk a lot about my dad, but he’s in an assisted living place because he has Alzheimer’s. And my mom has MS, she’s in the video [above], and I refer to her being lucky because of her access to health care. And it’s just a crazy world we live in where somebody with MS can have the word “lucky” to describe them. But she has insurance because my dad’s a retired police officer, so she has access to health care, luckily. But that’s not just access to health care. That’s her independence. That’s her ability to go buy groceries on her own, or her ability to go visit my dad. Health care is such a basic right for people. You can’t do much if you’re unhealthy or if you’re sick. So that’s a huge issue for her.
The pain that she gets sometimes…just last week when I stopped over, she was telling me that one side of her face hurt a little bit so she had to go get injections. But I’ve spent time in a room next to her when she is in such terrifying pain, it sounds like someone is torturing her. So I can only think of other people who don’t have access, to get them some kind of help. [People] who have to live with that [pain] every single day. It’s not just that they’re trying to take away people’s access to health care, but it’s in order to benefit people who have already got everything they could possibly want. That’s just inhumane, in my view. And that’s a really big motivating factor in running against Paul Ryan.
AJ: Your career as an iron worker is very prominent in your campaign material. It’s clearly more than just a job to you. How has that occupation shaped who you are?
RB: One of the first things you learn as an iron worker: you’re taught that if someone is going up a ladder and you’re behind them then you hold the ladder steady for them until they get up to the top. And then whoever is at the top holds the ladder steady for you to climb up until you’re able to tie both ends down. Sometimes you can’t tie down the bottom. But the first thing you learn is to watch each other’s back.
Whether someone is welding and there’s a crane swinging a 20 ton column under [their] head that they’re not going to notice, it’s just something you have confidence in. I know if I have to weld something and my hood’s down, somebody’s going to have my back. If somebody’s going to swing something over or something’s going to happen near me, there’s going to be someone looking out for me. So, it’s looking out for each other. Which is something I also got out of the army.
Another thing that we learn early is that when somebody says, “I can’t,” what we hear, as ironworkers is, “I won’t.” Because I’ve seen people do some unbelievable things. I’ve done some things that, until I started doing the job, were unbelievable. You have all your tools and a couple bolt bags filled with bolts, 500 feet up in the air walking across a beam that’s 3 inches wide. That’s the sort of thing we do on an everyday basis. So when it comes to hard work, it’s looking for ways to get something done instead of looking for excuses why it can’t be done. If you’re not tired at the end of the day then you’re not doing your job.
It’s not just hard work. We like to work smart, not hard as the saying goes, but every day you have to feel that you’ve earned your pay. And we do. Nothing is too impossible to get done. It’s like walking up to a new project—there’s usually a drawing of what the building is going to look like—and you’re looking at it when nothing is in the ground yet. Well, that’s what it’s going to look like [when it’s done,] and if you want to give up, then this thing isn’t going to get built. The job’s never going to get completed. So I’ve learned that nothing’s impossible, and everybody benefits when we look out for each other.
AJ: Your leadership in the union must have put you face to face with people of all political stripes in WI-01. What can you offer the people of your district that they aren’t getting from Paul Ryan?
RB: [I can offer]a working person’s values and a working person’s point of view. I’m one of “us.” Not one of “them.” Paul Ryan refers to the voters as “them.” I’m one of “us.” I get up in the morning and know what it’s like to try and scrape a couple of nickels together after being laid off for awhile because work dried up here. I know what it’s like to (laughs) creatively finance things…probably better than a lot of hedge fund managers as far as juggling and keeping bills getting paid. You know, I’ve earned everything I have and the people of the 1st district, I know, are hard working people and they’ve earned everything that they have too. So what I can bring is a viewpoint of one of “us,” as a working person and things are that important to “us.” What we need. And Paul Ryan, not only is doing things that are affecting people, you know, at the top 1% of the economic spectrum, but he has no idea what it’s like. He’s one of these lifetime politicians that’s just making life more and more difficult for us in the 1st district.
AJ: Paul Ryan supports so-called Right to Work laws and they have spread across the country. How can you work in congress to change that trajectory when it comes to worker’s rights?
RB: They are all blatant political attacks—all of this anti-worker legislation that’s being passed down. What I can do is definitely advocate against the adoption of a national “right to work” bill. Unions are the last line of defense for working people.
People have gotten to know me in this area. I live in the center of the “tea-party” as far as Wisconsin goes, in Caledonia. Today I was at a retiree picnic talking to a retired UAW member who told me he voted for Trump, but after talking [to me], he’s going to vote for me. He has a big problem with the things that Paul Ryan has been doing because he sees [Ryan] as part of the problem; that working people aren’t getting anything out of what’s going on in D.C. It’s pretty slanted toward richer people.
I’ve seen firsthand what these things do [Randy was union coordinator until he declared for Congress]. In Wisconsin, what goes along with this horrible legislation is how they’re getting it passed. Wisconsin used to be a very hospitable place, listening to everyone’s viewpoints. But when Act 10 was introduced, we had people testifying around the clock, knowing that as long as we had someone in line to testify that legislation could not move forward. So there were signup sheets for people who wanted to testify, people were being directed to the hearings. But now we’ve come to a place where they do what we call “ambush legislation.” They use the minimum amount of time that can be allotted for people who want to testify, a 24 hour timeframe, and that leaves us scrambling. So, you pretty much have a day’s notice which means that any expert testimony, you’re going to have to get them in within a 24 hour period. And it’s amazing how the Republicans are able to get their experts all lined up to testify with the 24 hour notice—which makes me question how much advance time they really had. But it’s very difficult for us, for working people, to get our allies to show up for something like this. And then they cut off the testimony. They’ll only listen for x amount of hours.
Now with Right to Work, we did Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests on some of the legislators, just to find out the correspondence—like [which legislators were] opposed to it, and who was in favor of it. 90% of them that we requested information from were opposed to Right to Work. Yet they still voted along party lines. And it’s not just how they’re passing the legislation through, but it’s what they’re doing to stay in office with all of this gerrymandering. In the case that’s going before the Supreme Court right now (Gill v. Whitford ) we’re supposed to get new district lines in November, but the case going before the Supreme Court is a very interesting one: the plaintiffs were able to prove, and this is through emails (!!), that the Republicans had 5 different models to choose from—from a slight Republican lean to an extreme model. They chose the extreme. It’s ridiculous when your ideas are so bad you have to do this to stay in power.
Thousands upon thousands cast more votes for Democrats yet Republicans get more seats. It’s something that’s being spread from Wisconsin to the national level because that’s how they were able to do everything here and pass all this garbage. It was having an assembly, a senate, and a governor [that were] all Republican. And even a [state] Supreme Court—anything that they passed when it made it that far, [they said] “Yep, that’s perfectly constitutional.” That’s what’s going on in D.C. right now. Luckily for us, they’re so inept and can’t figure out how to work together because who knows what would get passed. I mean, I’m almost afraid with Pence taking over, if Trump would step down or be impeached, as far as how fast they’d be able to ram things through.
AJ: There is a national movement of resistance to this administration that now more than ever consists of Democrats, Republicans and Independents that lean one way or the other, and a sizable crowd that has disdain for both parties. During the primaries of 2016 you were a surrogate for Bernie Sanders—you voted for Hillary Clinton—but your state went for Bernie in the primary, and you’re likely to have his support. Your opponents are going to try to divide and conquer. How do you keep the factions together?
RB: It’s working out very good right now because people know that I spoke at a Bernie rally, that I supported his ideas. There was this guy [Bernie Sanders] walking picket lines! I saw him walking picket lines, which is something I do. I take my son as well. I voted for him during the primary, but after that I was elected to be one of the electors on the Electoral College on behalf of Hillary. So, I knew what was at stake. And now I’m being proven right.
There wasn’t any second thought as far as supporting Hillary. She was the only chance to keep Trump out of the White House. But I think what’s going on now is that there seems to be much more of an issue on social media as far as the back and forth with the pro-Bernie vs. the pro-Hillary. But in the district when I actually talk to people, and I’ve also been the chair of the veterans’ caucus for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, that’s never a question. It’s like, “Okay, you belong to the Democratic Party, you share these values, you’re going to help working people, and you support veteran issues. I’ll help you however I can.” That’s what I’m counting on. The only way to take on Paul Ryan is to be united. And that’s taking place right now.
And like I said earlier about talking to the man who voted for Trump who is now going to vote for me; I’m counting on people who voted for Bernie, for people who voted for Hillary and those people who voted for Trump, to support me…And it’s not done because I’m brilliant, or I have something or invented something. It’s because of the “basicness” of who I am. I’m a working person who lives this life on a daily basis. And I think that’s what we need. Who better to stand up for working people than one of our own?
I’m going to need everyone’s support. You know, the people who voted for Trump, he touched on a working person’s message, but look at his record. He has a history of stiffing workers and if you’re trying to “stick it to the man,” do you think voting for a billionaire is really the way to do it? People are like, “I voted for Trump, but this iron worker, he’s the real deal.” I face issues that working people face. So I’m going to need help from everybody.
Randy Price has been called “the manifestation of a Bob Dylan song”-by his political opponent. His campaign was called the first viable challenge to Speaker Paul Ryan in 20 years by Rep. Mark Pocan (WI-02) who has also called Bryce’s campaign launch the most impressive he’s seen in his entire career-raising $430,000 in 12 days! Randy was quickly endorsed by one of his two rivals in the Democratic primary, David Yankovich, and they have been demonstrating the kind of unity normally displayed in a presidential ticket. Randy’s working person’s roots give way to a Democratic populism that puts America’s interests first without resorting to isolationism. In this second part of our interview we discuss the economy, jobs and health care.
AJ: In your view, can a congressman bring back lost jobs or create jobs in a district with their actions in the House? Do you have a plan or a plan to unveil a plan to make this happen?
RB: Yes, I do. And it’s something that’s simple too. It’s requesting that people buy American. It’s requesting that, when we build something, we use American materials. That was something that Donald Trump said that caught a lot of attention. But he lied about it. You know, whether it’s doing something to infrastructure, privatizing isn’t going to do it. There’s so much work. Look at how we got out of the last Depression. It was by building our infrastructure.
Well, the infrastructure has aged. The bridges have a lifespan of 50-70 years. I’ve worked on some big bridges in the Milwaukie area and I’ve seen what’s left of the bearings on them. We went to repair one side then I looked over at the other side of the bridge and they’re just crumbling into nothing. There’s a lot of money to be spent on a project like Foxtown, they’re talking like 3 billion dollars. If we want to take pride in our country and get people back to work, one good way of getting jobs would be to reinvest in America, rebuild our infrastructure and also demand that things that we use every day, things that we buy, are made in America because that helps keep our neighbor employed.
Paul Ryan was against [Buy America amendment http://thehill.com/policy/transportation/308358-last-minute-fight-over-buy-america-provision-emerges-in-water-bill]—this is all due to people slipping money in their campaign coffers to keep them elected. There are some very simple things we can do to get jobs. Right now, Amazon moved into the area, building big warehouses filled with stuff—but none of it’s made in America. It’s just distributing things.
The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t subsidize steel, which I think is pretty shameful. Not to mention, some of the iron that has come from other countries, that’s been shipped to larger projects is garbage. And that can be found out whenever you’re welding on it. Just the way the metal blows out into nothing. It doesn’t act like quality steel. So once we start believing in ourselves and start building our own things that we use, that’s going to put more money in people’s pockets and that will increase demand for products. And we’re going to have to work on the supply end.
AJ: It’s interesting to imagine a member of the House being able to describe in detail why foreign steel doesn’t hold up.
RB: Oh, yeah. And it’s unbelievable. Once you get something like that and you’re welding on it and it just, literally, disintegrates. Temperature is very important and you usually base it on the thickness of the material that you’re welding on and you’re welding …it’s going just fine for a bit and then all of a sudden a big hole blows out. And you’re like, “What the hell?” Then you have to report that to the inspectors and that delays the project.
AJ: I wouldn’t presume to call Donald Trump a smart man. But he is right about one really vexing thing: his whole family produces all of their products overseas. And they do this because it’s cheaper to produce in other countries. How do you approach that issue without starting a trade war or alienating allies?
RB: For me, I would prefer a quality product that’s going to last a long time. Now, to create higher profits for companies, [products are] not meant to last. It wasn’t always that way. Maytag washing machines used to be made like tanks. I did some work hauling them around, delivering and installing them shortly after I got out of the army. Cars, too. I used to drive my dad’s 1966 Plymouth Fury. I was driving by the airport, it was raining. I came to a stop with a Lincoln Continental behind me. I just remember the bat-shaped grille coming up and hitting the car. I got out and [the other driver] was all dressed up, him and the woman he was with, they were going to a wedding, and I looked at the front of his car, the whole grille was just totaled. Then I looked at the back my dad’s car and there was just a little scratch and just barely a dent in the real solid bumper. Cheapest isn’t always better.
It comes to talking about union labor, too. It’s about the workers being able to do something effectively so you can pay workers more. They’re going to turn a profit by being more productive. It’s been shown before. The largest construction project in Wisconsin history was the Market Interchange. And it came in so far ahead of schedule and so far under budget that the state was able to spend [approx] $50-60,000 dollars on an advertising campaign thanking the workers. We saved so much money, and these were great paying, union wage jobs. So, cheaper isn’t always better and if people are being paid a good wage, they’re able to afford quality products. There was a time when we used to be proud and demanded that we look for the “union label,” which I still do whenever possible but it’s also important for me to go out of my way to find products that are made in America.
AJ: Part of the original model of Sam Walton’s Wal-Mart (prior to his death) was to provide customers less expensive products so lower income people could afford to buy a version of some other items that would otherwise be out of reach. For those making minimum wage, people often have to look at how many hours they need to work to buy an item. For example, you’re lucky to find a shirt at Wal-Mart, made in China, that you only have to work 2 hours for. How would you recommend making the transition in the private sector where workers’ wages are low, executive pay is high, and instead of increased wages leading to responsible corporate budgeting where the executives make less to be able to afford the labor costs, they simply start laying people off? It’s a complicated economic situation we find ourselves in and federal regulation is limited. What are some of the things that can mitigate the sudden raise in labor costs while the cost of production makes products more expensive for consumers?
RB: If you go to Wal-Mart and find the item they sell the most of—for Wal-Mart this would be macaroni and cheese—if Wal-Mart charged a penny more for each box of mac and cheese, at the volume they sell it, they’d be able to pay everybody $15 an hour. (In other words!) If they paid people $15 an hour I would shop at Wal-Mart. If they offered them health care. I don’t shop there right now, and I don’t have any numbers right now but a lot of people I know personally refuse to shop at a Wal-Mart. I know that sometimes when they move into an area, they put a lot of mom & pop shops out of business to the point of where [Wal-Mart] is the only place to shop. [Their low wages cost the government a lot of money in assistance programs like food stamps (EBT), WIC, etc. in subsidies] so that the workers can just get by. People need to learn about that.
When I was organizing and I would go to a company [also iron workers] that wasn’t organized, that didn’t have [union] representation, I would ask how much they paid and it was always substantially less than the union workers made. One of their complaints [issues presented to oppose unionizing] was always, “you have to pay dues per month.” That’s true. But I would refer to the lesser amount that they made. Often times it was $12-15 per hour, which is less than half of what a union iron worker makes. I would ask them to subtract what they’re making from what the union workers were making, multiply it times 40 (hours per week) and that’s how much less they’re making. That number is usually the same number as what they actually made in a week—and that’s your dues for not being in a union.
There’s more to consider than just wages. We have to stop offering these huge tax breaks to companies just to move into the area. There are a lot of things wrong with offering lower or no taxes to a company for a number of years when we’re also going to have to subsidize their employees [because of the low wages]. For Mobile users you can view Randy testifying to how important his union has been to him.
AJ: I’m a firm believer in our elected officials being educators. You’ve mentioned the 600+ days since Paul Ryan’s had an actual town hall meeting. Would you commit to not only town halls, but assuming an educator’s role with your constituents so that you can explain how these things work?
RB: One of the main purposes of being a representative is to communicate back and forth. And I have no problem guaranteeing a town hall in every county every year so that people know what’s going on. And that’s the problem with Paul Ryan. His policies are so horrible that he’s afraid to come and face the people which is why he’s doing everything to prevent having a town hall [Monday night Paul Ryan had a CNN “Town Hall” with a pre-screened audience and pre-screened questions]. Mark Pocan decided to come and do town halls in his place and everywhere he went has just been packed with people wanting to know what is going on. That’s the number one job: communicating and educating, letting people know what’s going on, what they can do, who they can contact, and telling the voters how they can go about getting what they need.
As a union representative, we have Republican members who pay their dues who I work with side by side. And I value them just as much as I do anyone else. On the job, we look out for everyone regardless of who we voted for in the last election. And when I do things on an organizational basis to try to get more work for our workers, I don’t look at political persuasion. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. I do it because my fellow brother and sister union workers need work. We don’t ask if they’re a Republican or a Democrat before sending them on a job. What I do benefits everybody, and that’s the way I’ve always been. And now being in the middle of tea party central, people are starting to understand that about me. I’ll call out someone paying dues to the Democratic or Republican Party if they’re doing something to screw with city or county workers. I have no problem calling them out. I have always put people over party which is why watching what’s going on now is so disgusting.
Right now I see the Democratic Party, it’s just obvious, is the only party standing up for working people. We’re not perfect. But we’re the best shot that there is as far as protecting working people.
AJ: How important is inclusiveness to you, especially given the recent failures of the leader of Paul Ryan’s party, Donald Trump, in regards to Charlottesville? It’s only gotten worse, which is amazing because normally they clean it up. As a Democrat, for people in conservative districts, it’s become acceptable to abandon a woman’s right to choose even though expanding education and access to family planning reduces the numbers of abortion. The right to vote has been under assault to the point where, in Wisconsin, there’s an argument to be made that without voter suppression there’d have been an opposite result in 2016. It’s terrifying as a supporter of Democrats going into 2018. As the candidate taking on the Speaker of the House and considering your heightened national profile, are you comfortable taking on a national leadership position defending Democratic Party values?
RB: I look at it this way: nothing inside of me has changed. That’s all stayed the same so in a matter of speaking, I consider it a blessing to have been given a bigger megaphone to be able to reach more people. I’m firmly convinced that working people need working people to represent us. And I’m seeing other people stepping up and asking why not? Why not me? Which is a place I was at not too long ago. Part of the reason I’m doing this, besides pushing out a person who is pushing some really horrible policies that affect the entire country, is to advocate for working people and veteran issues, to get more people involved. Things are very surreal, having people reach out to help. It’s different—I’m definitely not used to it —but I see it as people waking up and seeing what direction we’re heading in and wanting to do things. And they’re saying, “This isn’t our America.” And actually standing up and doing something about it.
In Wisconsin, we’ve been getting knocked down a lot. It’s about getting up one more time and just refusing to stay on the ground. Because we know when we look in the mirror before we go to bed that we’re worth fighting for. It’s the best feeling in the world to know that a garbage man, a truck driver, an iron worker knows that there’s someone who will do everything they can for them because we need more people like “us” making decisions for us. It hasn’t gotten too far away from us yet, but I really feel that if we don’t reach up and grab the reigns and get control of this thing soon, it’s going to get out of reach.
AJ: Last question – with a Republican controlled Congress, positive changes to health care law seem almost out of reach but 2018 could be a whole other story. Could you give us your health care vision—short term, medium term, long term?
RB: Sure! I’m in favor of Medicare for all. There are several reasons why I’m in favor of it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s not going to happen if we get a Democratic majority in 2018. It’s going to take some time to do. So, what’s important to me right now is to keep whatever possible in the way of protections [provided by the ACA] that we can as we start moving toward that. Like pre-existing conditions, I read somewhere that [Republicans] wanted to put in somewhere that if you couldn’t pay your premium, if you miss a payment on your insurance, you have to wait 6 months or they can jack up the rates to some incredible amount. But Tammy Baldwin has introduced legislation to lower the age for Medicare to 55. I think that’s a good step to take. I think a step after that would be to start covering people from birth to their late 20’s.
That way, you’re going to have the healthiest people being covered, but still contributing to it. And not needing it as much because, for the most part, they’re healthier. So that way we’ll have people adding in [to the system]. I’d like to see us work to meet in the middle and not take a long time to get there. And I think, not only are we paying unbelievable amounts now for basically nothing…we’re already covering people who don’t have insurance by our own higher premiums. Being self insured, basically what we’re doing as iron workers is paying an administrator to turn down our own claims which is kind of crazy when you think about it. We’re paying administrators to turn down our own members’ health benefits claims. That’s crazy.
But that’s the health industry; which is about making a profit. And that’s wrong in my view. The same thing as privatizing education. That’s wrong in my view. That’s something that shouldn’t be done because the kids suffer. Your goal there should be to educate children and do the best you can do. Not make a profit. And it will help with jobs too, talking about the cost of products in the United States and making things cost effective. The price of a car right now, if you look at the cost for the steel on an automobile, the cost for the employer to cover the employee for health insurance cost more than the steel does in the car. If everyone is already covered, someone who gets laid off through no fault of their own doesn’t have to worry about their children suffering, or going bankrupt or having their house foreclosed on. Medical costs are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. and that won’t be a worry anymore. It’s just peace of mind —if you need to get something fixed, you can go get it fixed.
Randy Bryce is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the Wisconsin 1st Congressional race. The incumbent is Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. You can follow him on Twitter @ironstache Donate to his campaign