David and the Speaker: The David Yankovich Interview

By Adam James

This past week a slick political ad injected sudden national media interest in Paul Ryan’s defense of his House seat. It was surprising to me when people I admire started announcing that the Speaker of the House had an opponent, as if he only had one, because I knew he already had a strong opponent prior to this week’s media frenzy.

After watching the election of a president who encouraged violence at his rallies and belittled opponents: disparaging declared presidential candidates, journalists, and even a Gold Star family, David Yankovich, joined the Resistance at the moment Trump was announced the winner in 2016. Since then he saw Paul Ryan, who represents a district not unlike the one he used to live in, manage to pass a health care bill that will strip thousands of his own constituents from Medicaid and millions more nationally. Paul Ryan has to go. So I knew, this is someone you need to meet.  

UPDATE: David Yankovich withdrew from the WI-01 Congressional Election and endorsed Randy Bryce. 7/7/17

AJ: Let’s address the elephant in the room. Why should a Wisconsinite throw their support behind a candidate who recently moved to their state? What will you do for them that Paul Ryan is failing to do?

DY: Good question. Definitely the elephant in the room. A lot of people probably don’t know my mom got sick. April 28 she went to bed, she didn’t wake up the next morning. She had undiagnosed COPD and pneumonia and she went into multiple organ failure, blood poisoning…it was the worst it could possibly be. The hospital called me down to Florida. They said, “You need to come down. Your mom’s not going to make it.”

So, I go down there and when I get there it gets worse and worse. She’s in a coma for 18 days. And they said, Even if she does somehow come out of this coma, she’s probably going to be either brain dead or have the mentality of a 6 year old. But chances are she’s not going to come out of the coma. They wouldn’t even give me a percent [chance of her waking up], that’s how bad it was. Later on they said it was less than 1%. She did come out of that coma. But before that happened, the insurance company was trying to force me into a decision, to make a choice about my mom’s life. She was on a breathing machine-she was on life support.

Had I made that decision, I’d have basically been saying I can’t afford to keep my mom alive, so I’m going to kill her (by removing her from life support). And the reason why I came to Wisconsin, and the reason I’m in this race is because when all of this is happening [in Florida], health care repeal passed [in the House] and Paul Ryan is cheering on TV with Donald Trump and Republicans and they’re rubbing it in everyone’s faces.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, whether to run or not, but it was that moment right there that I decided I had to. I couldn’t stand by anymore after what happened. I have been advocating for a long time for people to run for office, I’ve been writing to give people a voice who don’t have a voice, I’ve been doing all this for a while but to actually run for something yourself, it’s a really scary and hard thing to do. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, for sure. But you have to. Sometimes you just get fed up and you have to stand up and do something.

So, for the people of Wisconsin, they’re really loyal to their roots- every speech I hear starts with how many generations the speaker’s family goes back to Wisconsin. They’re very proud of that and I think that’s great. I come from the same community two states over. [In Ohio] they’re the same way: I’ve been here, my grandfather’s been here, my great-grandfather’s been here. So, they’re naturally apprehensive [in WI-01] about some new guy coming in saying he’s going to run. My intention isn’t to jump in and try to win an easy seat- it’s as hard a race as it gets against a Speaker of the House. [Defeating a SOH] has only happened twice before in the history of the House.

So, what I’m going to do for Wisconsinites is actually represent them. For 18 years, Paul Ryan has ignored them, he hasn’t shown up. He passes bills that are so toxic that nationwide, people are affected by it. I want to be there for the people going through this. Manufacturing jobs here get eviscerated. Just in CD1, which is Paul Ryan’s district, if this health care bill passes, 50,000 people on Medicaid are going to be booted off. And for those who get to keep their health care, they’ll see 750% increases [on their rates]. So, it’s absolutely insane. We have to stop this.

“Basically, what this Medicaid bill does is it takes the money that would have been spent to help people and literally gives tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. It is exactly what [the House and Senate Health Care bills] do.”

AJ: Do you think Wisconsinites elected Paul Ryan to slash Medicaid? His budget has been around longer than the AHCA and he seems pretty determined to end Social Security and Medicare. We know what Paul Ryan wants to do, what will you do about rising medical costs?

DY: He’s been dreaming about this since his keg days. Paul Ryan is notoriously right on message, a polished politician and he said horrible things about Medicaid and Medicare and people who are on those programs; calling them takers and everything else. He’s been dreaming about this since his frat years. Basically, what this Medicaid bill does is it takes the money that would have been spent to help people and literally gives tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires. It is exactly what [the House and Senate Health Care bills] do.

Running for Congress is different than running for president. I won’t have the power to make sweeping policy changes. My number 1 goal here is to represent the people in my district and their interests in D.C. and that’s it. So when it comes to health care, it’s going to be fighting for Medicaid, fighting for people to have access to health care and get “Obamacare” to the point where-nothing is perfect on the first shot. You always have to fix it and upgrade it. We’re still working on Social Security and that’s been since 1935. My goal is just to represent the people here, to make sure they’re covered and keep fighting inch by inch against the Republicans. Now, if we get a huge 2018 majority and we pick up 300 seats in the House or something, then that’s a whole different story. We can come in with a lot more firepower. But if it’s just this one race we pick up here and we pick others up sporadically or the Resistance doesn’t turn out then we’ll have to work with Republicans. We’ll have to go step by step to, you know, basically fight every battle we can.    

AJ: When Hillary Clinton moved to New York to run for Senate, she had just been First Lady and was a bona fide, world famous political celebrity, she heard a lot of the criticism you’re likely to hear in Wisconsin. But in this modern political climate you have the potential to harness some of that as “outsider appeal” that spurred Bernie Sanders in the 2016 race. You’re not part of the Wisconsin Democratic machine that lost to Ryan so many times before. Are you planning on simply running against Donald Trump or are you planning your own Yankovich version of a listening tour?

DY: Actually, I’m on a listening tour right now. That’s why I haven’t released my platform. I know what I like, but I’m in a whole different district. And I’m in a place where people haven’t been listened to for forever. So, it would be really obnoxious of me to just come out with a full-fledged platform. What I’ve been doing is going around and asking Wisconsinites, what’s the most important issue to you? What’s the most critical? What do you care about? And that way when I release my platform, it’s not just my opinion, it’s our opinion. So, I’m excited about that.

In terms of Hillary Clinton and Bernie, I’m really fearful of rehashing the primaries and we continue to do this in the party. And there’s been a lot of negative press out there. Looking at Jon Ossoff in Georgia 06: He ran in the most expensive congressional campaign in history (CNN reports approaching 60 million spent). And in a district that we lost in November by 25+ points, we lost by 3.8. We’re making progress. A lot of what I’m seeing nationally is that people want instant gratification and then the primaries from 2016 get dragged into it [when that doesn’t happen].

Now, when I was little, Hillary Clinton inspired me. I was 10 years old, I went to one of her events and it changed my entire life. But it’s kind of funny, I’ve always loved Hillary, but I kept finding myself voting for her opponents- Obama in 08-I went for him, and then you had Bernie in the primary last year and I voted for him. I liked the ideas that he talked about. He wasn’t afraid of things, we’re left and we’re going to do it and be proud to do it but, the thing is, I’m also a very good Democrat and I go with the party. And Bernie lost the primary and I voted for Hillary in the general. She really inspired me toward the end of the election and I went all-in…I fought like hell for her. The attacks she went under and the things that she had to go through, I can’t imagine any other politician being able to survive that. How emotionally devastating it must have been for her. And I saw it firsthand.

I took my daughter to one of her events (You can read about David’s experience here). We had a really hard experience. It was a scary time. It’s one of the reasons I’m running now because I want to show my daughter that you have to fight for stuff. I don’t want her to look back 50 years from now at that horrible experience she had when she was 11 and I never did anything about it. He was always so into it, so politically active but he never actually did anything. He never actually stood up for anything. So running for office to put these extremists back to where they should be-which is at the fringes. They shouldn’t be in the mainstream. You have the neo-nazis, the KKK on CNN making news and doing this stuff. That shouldn’t happen.

In the beginning, when the Resistance first started, the reason why we were so popular and the reason why our voices got so big was because nobody was saying anything. Donald Trump became president and for weeks and months there was just deafening silence. And I was so mad because all my heroes weren’t turning up. What was going on? Did you guys have a plan for this? What was the motivating factor here? Why are you not talking? People are scared.

I knew ICE teams were going to be coming and rounding people up. I knew we’d be watching feeds of kids crying and holding onto their moms. I knew that we were going to see all the horrible things that have been happening because Donald Trump promised it. And one thing I’ll say for the guy, when he promises the bad stuff he usually plans on delivering it. And still there was silence.

To get back to your original question, since I went off topic there, I don’t want to rehash the primaries. I like Bernie, I like Hillary. I think both of them have really good ideas. I think if we can all come together, no one can stop us. I think that if both sides of the party were able to get on board and just understand that politics isn’t purity, you know, we have to compromise sometimes, we have to fight sometimes. We have to get together. I think 2018 we could really take back everything we lost.  

AJ: The Washington Examiner (a conservative news outlet) took aim at you after you declared yourself a candidate. They highlighted your Buckeye roots and, to my surprise, a piece you wrote for Huffington Post about life after a potential Trump presidency. What’s surprised you about what the real thing has looked like? 

DY: I heard about it but I didn’t read it. That article, I actually wrote two weeks before the election, I submitted it to HuffPo 4 days before and then it was published on Election Day. It was one of the creepiest things ever because it was published and then he freakin’ won. The thing that surprised me the most, in a pleasant way, is the Resistance. I thought that he was going to come in and the first sign of people getting smacked around and hurt, fire hosed, etc. I thought it would be one of those things where people wouldn’t put themselves out there. I didn’t take into account how mad everyone was, just like me. So the Resistance shows up and the first thing the Republican House tries to do is gut ethics. And we organized and called their phone lines and jammed them and, I mean, I had Republican operatives calling me up to say, can you guys freakin’ stop it? They had no idea how strong we were going to be and honestly I had no idea how strong we’d be. So no matter what he’s thrown at us, no matter what the Republicans do, no matter how many elbows, no matter how much they try to napalm everything, the Resistance and the people who are out there marching and doing that, they still show up. And that has hurt the Trump agenda more than anything.

I think that article represented if Trump got everything he wanted. Everything. And people have stopped him from getting that. I mean, on all levels: Trump-Russia and the scandal, his agenda, his travel bans, the wall-even Mitch McConnell laughed and said the wall ain’t gonna happen. And all of these things were stopped because there’s been such fierce resistance. And it’s not even just Democratic resistance because some Republicans just can’t stomach Trump; conservatives like radio host Rick Wilson, these are conservatives who are usually on the other side of the table from me who are showing up and saying they’re right here with us. We’ll get back to arguing policy later, right now we have to protect country. So that’s been really pleasant.

The thing that scares me about what I wrote is his mindset’s still the same. He’s 6 months into office and he hasn’t learned anything. Normally a president, after failing on a major policy, like the travel ban, would say, okay, we need to reassess this and see what’s really gonna work. And instead, he goes on a Twitter rant. And then he goes and resubmits the same EO or close to the same EO, just in different words. He hasn’t learned anything from his time in office; from his claims of wiretapping on Obama to saying he’s got recordings of James Comey. Both times he got hit back by the intelligence community, several people in his own party, the media, he hasn’t learned. He’s still got the mentality that he’s going to fight everything. This is a guy who is in charge of the nuclear codes. This is a guy who, on a whim, can do a lot of damage and he hasn’t learned anything from being in office for half a year. And that’s really scary. It’s what I wrote about really. His personality is like a tyrant who will continue to push the envelope and get as many horrible things pushed through as he can and he hasn’t backed off of that at all. Some [other parts] of what I wrote about haven’t come true yet but his personality hasn’t changed.

AJ: There was an apt analogy used for where we stand as a party during your speech at the March for Truth: it was Rocky IV. Will the Democratic Party be Apollo Creed or will they be Rocky? They are getting thumped by the right, the left and the Russians. Elected officials in the party have tried to round up the troops, they’ve spoken up, they’ve introduced legislation and yet they’re still getting pummeled, frequently from their own left flank. The votes aren’t there to stop anything that can’t be filibustered. But our institutions are largely holding. Congressmen Ted Lieu (who was interviewed here) has been a general…

DY: If there is a Congressman I could point to right now and you would ask, “Who is the Resistance Congressman?” and the first name that would come to mind is Ted Lieu. Hands down. He’s been there. He was one of the few who had the courage to be vocal. To be so vocal, him and then later on it was Maxine (Waters), you know, he started something. I was in a very scary place and things were really hard and I was scared about our country’s direction. But there was this one Congressman who stood up and said the things I wanted to hear.

Donald Trump is different. And the thing is-the problem with the party, the party that I’m a part of, that I love, fight for and am running in right now, is that they have been playing this as “politics as usual” for a long time and Donald Trump came in and he changed everything. When November 8 happened, the world changed. So, you can’t play the same games with him that you played with George W. Bush. He’s not the same person and they continue to try to do that over and over again. That’s not getting them anywhere. It takes guys like me to stand up to Donald Trump. Because you have to be just as loud, just as vocal and just as fearless as he is.

We need people who are just as fearless as he is. Like Congressman Lieu who will say the things that most politicians won’t say because, oh no we can’t say that, we can’t go there. The Rocky analogy works because it’s true. When you’re at the height of Soviet Power, all the way back to the 60’s (See the Cuban Missile Crisis), It was a very scary time. So when I made that joke, we’re really not supposed to get beat by Russia, we’re really not. This is the country than can always outsmart. You know, with Charlie Wilson, with Afghanistan, we helped them to collapse. Capitalism defeated them.

And we’re at this point where they invaded the U.S., and people can say whatever they want to about it. They did. And they took over leadership and they never fired a shot. What I said in the speech at the March for Truth is 100% true and we have a Republican President and a Republican Congress that denies this pretty much. So it’s going to happen again and again and again until we can acknowledge it and fix our voting system. Until we can acknowledge it and move forward together to put an end to it. We saw that they influenced Brexit. There’s evidence of that. They’re interfering in Syria. They’re making moves on the world stage that is dominating just about everyone else. And it’s a really scary time, especially to be an American, to know that they’re doing this, you know that Ukraine and the Baltic States are basically just waiting for the other shoe to drop. They committed a war act by interfering in our presidential elections and it’s a really serious thing and nobody is speaking up about it on the Republican side. They are basically doing everything they can to obfuscate it. That’s terrifying. How far are we going to go down this rabbit hole? Is it going to turn out that our 2018 elections were hacked? Will it come out that 2020 was again? Is this the new world order now? When do we get to a point where we say, we have to do something about this?

AJ: The Republicans have a lot to gain from this so far, aside from any allegations. You described it as an act of war? Former CIA Director Michael Morell called it an equivalent to 9/11. How do we adequately answer such an act and still avoid a hot war with Russia?

DY: The world is getting more dangerous. You can see it with China and their islands in the middle of the China Sea, you got Iran getting stronger, North Korea shooting off missiles-getting closer to an ICBM. And then there’s Russia. Sooner or later the world is going to have to recognize that Russia has to be put back in its place-Pandora has to get put back in its box. But you don’t want to escalate until we get into an all-out shooting war and we definitely don’t want to start a geopolitical war or god forbid a nuclear war. And that’s the dangerous place that we’re in.

I think that when President Obama was leaving office, he put in place things that would have set us on that path if Trump would have picked up on it in terms of sanctions and removing property and freezing assets from them. That’s how we did it in the 80’s, that’s how we won before, just by putting so much political and economic pressure on them that they end up collapsing or starting to do what the world wants. It’s the only way we can do it while avoiding the other scenario. We need to get everyone in the world together and say enough.

AJ: So Congressman Yankovich would endorse a modern version of the containment strategy to deal with Russia?

DY: Yes, I would absolutely endorse that. War has to be the absolute last resort. They committed an act of war and they could have installed leadership in this country. That investigation will run its course and we’ll know how deep that went. But just interfering in a presidential election was an act of war. So, the best thing we can do to retaliate for that is sanctions. I just don’t like the first reaction being we have to take this to an armed conflict. And there’re a lot of politicians who like the sound of that. It sounds great in sound-bites. But it’s never the really, really wealthy people in this country who fight these things. It’s always the merchant class and the middle class and those in poverty who go to war and die. So, my last resort is sending anybody into conflict unless we have to.

“I wholeheartedly believe no one gives a crap whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican. The majority cares about: Am I going to be able to feed my kids, am I able to get them to school, are those schools decent? Am I able to pay my bills? Most people are living paycheck to paycheck. One away from being in poverty. Those are the things, when I’m going around talking to people one on one. I tell them that’s why I’m here. That’s what I’m fighting for.”

AJ: From my observations, as a political scientist not a politician (so I could be completely wrong), Democrats are going to need to go back to all politics is local. The party can’t just campaign against Trump. How will you, if you win the Democratic Party nomination in WI-01, how will you take on Paul Ryan on local issues?

DY: Right now in Paul Ryan’s home town, there’s a pipeline that they’re proposing to put through. These are issues that are facing voters locally. I’m absolutely against any pipeline because I don’t want them to get cancer, and I want them to be able to breathe and not drink water that resembles the water in Flint-another atrocity.

But when I talk to people their biggest issues are 1 of three things 1) healthcare 2) jobs 3) the environment. It depends on if I’m talking to Democrats or Republicans. For Democrats it’s health care, for Republicans it’s jobs.

Donald Trump just flew into Wisconsin talking about jobs. Paul Ryan’s district. And 300 jobs left that day at GE. I don’t like seeing that and if they had a representative that represented the people’s interest instead of donors and lobbyists, I don’t think those jobs would have been lost. In terms of how I’m going to run my strategy: I’m not going for the Republican vote or the Democratic vote, I’m going for everybody’s vote.

I have a unique vision for how I want to do this and it comes down to this: I wholeheartedly believe no one gives a crap whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican. The majority cares about: Am I going to be able to feed my kids, am I able to get them to school, are those schools decent? Am I able to pay my bills? Most people are living paycheck to paycheck. One away from being in poverty. Those are the things, when I’m going around talking to people one on one. I tell them that’s why I’m here. That’s what I’m fighting for.

To me I’m a Democrat because Democrats are all inclusive. Republicans today, they’re having more of an identity crisis than the Democrats are. I know the national media, and everybody likes to say the Democrats are in disarray but we’re making progress. It’s ugly watching a family get back together, which is what we’re doing, but I think the endgame is we’re all going to come together and do the right thing for 2018.

But the Republican Party they’ve gone from compassionate conservative to no empathy whatsoever, you guys are takers and none of you deserve to have any help from the government whatsoever and they don’t really care what happens to you. If you’ve seen Walsh Freedom responding to Jimmy Kimmel sharing the story about his son with, I’m not paying for your kid’s health care. That’s the Paul Ryan brand.

They have gotten so into the pocket of business and interest groups. They take money from these companies and the people running them are only focusing on their bottom line. They don’t think about the good people who work for their factories or those who are working 12 hour days. They’ll cut them in a second if it’s going to look better on a stock report 6 months from now. And they do that all the time, so people in return aren’t loyal to the companies they work for because the companies they work for aren’t loyal to them. Since 1978 CEOs have gotten a 978% increase while regular workers have only gotten a 5.7% increase. And talking to Republican voters, and I tell them that, they’re astounded they don’t realize it’s that bad, they watch different news than we do. All the issues, all these people are facing are the same issues. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Florida, California, Texas, Maine or Wisconsin all anyone wants to know is: how are you going to help me and my family? I don’t care about anything else.

Are you a good person? Are you going to help my family? That’s it. And that’s what the Democrats have to get back to. I mean, Bill Clinton and James Carville very famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” And what it means is people vote with their paychecks.

AJ: I do think it’s important to remember when we shook off the Dixiecrats, we became the Party of Social Justice. You have a lot of people who need to know that the Democratic Party is not going to abandon them.

DY: They can’t. They can’t abandon it. The thing is, I’m in Wisconsin 1 right now, we live in this country together. People donate to my campaign from all over the country and when you’re in Congress, you represent the people in your district but you are also working on behalf of everyone else, it’s a federal office. So when you vote on a bill, whether it’s a social justice bill or whatever it is, you’re voting not just for your district but you’re also advocating for the whole country to have the same thing. I don’t want the Democrats to walk away from their friends and their friends that showed up in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and all the elections before. The thing is, is what’s happening: ICE teams ripping moms away from their kids, people being shot in the street, all these horrible things that are happening. If the Democratic Party walked away from that I would walk away from the Democratic Party. Because, to me, it’s that important.

David Yankovich is a candidate for the Democratic nomination to challenge Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District. Follow him on Twitter @DavidYankovich and visit his campaign at https://davidyankovich.com/

This interview has been edited for space and time. 

6/24 4:05 PM CST corrections have been made in the form of typos. No substantive changes made.