Home 2018 Elections Can Working-Class Candidates Run For Office — and Win?

Can Working-Class Candidates Run For Office — and Win?

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by Kellen Squire

Tuesday has come and gone, the second post-Trump test of how our Republic would respond to the authoritarian threat that’s been looming over it like a specter. We all know how the first test went- because it was right here in Virginia that we stood up and showed the rest of the nation how it’d get done.

And get it done they did. As of now, it looks like Democrats could end up with potentially up to almost 240 seats in the House; as of the time I write this, they’ve “only” officially garnered 226 seats in the House of Representatives, or a net gain of 31- and that in the face of firewalls of gerrymandering specifically built by the GOP to withstand the onslaught of public opinion, and a media circus of demonizing hatred engineered by the President and his allies that has been magically forgotten since the election.

And that’s not counting the governorships, attorneys general, judgeships, and state legislature seats we retook- the latter, almost a third of what we lost during the Obama years. Those are all things that will pay major long-term dividends as we go forward.

So why do I feel left wanting?

I shouldn’t. Virginia played an outsized role once again in showing the country how to get it done. We got the NRCC to dump so much money on Barbara Comstock that they’re going to lose a half a dozen or more races by a fraction of a percentage point when Barbara got blown out of the water. We exposed the fable that was Dave Brat’s fabled win over Eric Cantor, which has subsequently been shown to be simply because Eric Cantor is, perhaps, the most incompetent campaigner of all time. In doing so, we sent future Virginia Senator and/or Vice Presidential candidate Abigail Spanberger to Congress. And it’s win-win for me, because I can still mention the name “Scott Taylor” to any Republicans that want to bring up “voter fraud” as an issue, but with the added benefit it’ll be Elaine Luria standing up for the folks in VA-02 instead of him.

All of that was on the back of an organizing campaign that makes what we accomplished in 2017 look like peanuts in comparison. From Bristol to Winchester, Lexington to Henrico, and Danville to Virginia Beach, people called. Knocked on doors. Wrote postcards. Sent emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures; held barbeques, cocktail house, parties, soirees, and get-togethers. It was an effort second to none; no, really. It’s literally something that’s never been done in Virginia before.

But where there’s waves, there’s seawalls…

It’s nothing short of a miracle, and a testament to the backbreaking work put in by an army of volunteers, that we broke open districts that were drawn specifically to make sure Democrats would lose.

But the losses that hit me the hardest were the working class candidates.

Here in Virginia’s 5th District, we had four great candidates in our primary, the winner of which took her election to the wire in the biggest and perhaps most gerrymandered district in the entire state. Nobody gave her a chance, but she came damn close, closer than anyone ever before in the 5th’s current incarnation. But all four of those candidates could all afford to simply stop working in order to run for office full-time, and pretty much pick up afterwards with an ease beyond the capacity of the vast majority of Americans.

That’s not true of Jennifer Lewis. Of Vangie Williams. Anthony Flaccavento. Richard Ojeda. Jess King. James Thompson. These working class candidates, who went out and gave it their all articulating a bold progressive vision for the future of our country, did nothing wrong. They put in just as much, if not more, work than our winning candidates did, and they did it while running against the antithesis of everything the folks in their districts claim to stand for.

It’s an awful tough thing to get stuck in your craw; losing to candidates who have no shame in saying aloud they “deserve” a Congressional seat because they were “promised” it as a political patronage gift decades ago. Or who actively profit off the misery their constituents suffer on a day-by-day basis. People who don’t care enough about their own constituents to actually show up and be accountable to them.

But these working class candidates stood up, while having to try to make ends meet all the while. With thousands of dollars in student debt. Mortgages to pay. Families to put food on the table for. They buckled down, sacrificed, and made it work, just so they could stand up for the hundreds of thousands of Virginians who were counting on them; and hundreds of millions more whose futures relied on how we passed this stress test on our democracy.

But they all lost. And that begets a very hard question, of course, which is:

Can working class candidates run for office, and win?

Most folks would probably say, no- they can’t. These candidates seem to be only good as “money sinks”, forcing the opposition to spend money, garnering a few attaboys before being quickly forgotten. Or you might hear someone point to the few blue collar candidates that defy the odds and, through a combination of incredibly hard work and luck, win the day- like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez- but shrug and say, yeah- if you’re not running in an impossibly blue district, it’ll never happen.

I refuse to accept that.

We’ve created a political system specifically designed to be toxic for working folks to participate in, both through voting (via voter suppression, party flack-ism, and Solomon-esque “bipartisanship”) and through running for office. How does a firefighter being held over after working their Kelly shift make it to all of the hobnob events she needs to build up support to win a primary? How does an elementary school teacher find the time to just learn all the things that goes into running a political campaign when they’ve got a class of twenty-six students and a second job to make ends meet? And is the overnight pharmacy tech at the 24-hour CVS really ready to have their personal life thrown into the bloodsport arena that’s the US Political System?

It has to change- now.

This needs to become the new normal. And it can. But only if folks like you and I stand up and make it so. We need to finish blazing the trail started by the folks above, who gave their all so we’d have a chance to show everyone what a blue-collar revolution looks like.

What it looks like when the spirit of our communities- being in this life together, pulling for each other- carries over into our politics.

What it looks like when good people stand up for their principles and say with one voice, indivisible, enough is enough.

What it looks like when we are at our best.

But it’s not enough to just call for change; these words are cheap and easy to write. Actions will always- always– speak louder than words. Because nothing will change until we stand up, defy the odds, and be the change we seek to make.

And that’s exactly what I intend to do.