3 Feisty Candidates Who Proudly Defend the Working and Middle Class
Maine Democrat Shenna Bellows is running for the U.S. Senate.
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Daylin Leach grew up on welfare, in foster homes and used student loans to slowly climb out of poverty. Troy Jackson came from a family of northern Maine loggers and was 12 when his father took him to his first strike against wealthy landowners who did not want to pay more. Shenna Bellows, a carpenter’s daughter, didn’t have running water until fifth grade, and worked “every imaginable job” to get her college education.
Today, Leach, Jackson and Bellows are trying do the near-impossible: get elected to Congress as Democrats running on their working-class roots and economic issues, instead of avoiding it as the Democratic Party’s mainstream has done for years.
“They [voters] started hearing all these messages from Democrats that said, ‘We’re really not on your side anymore,’” said Leach, a lawyer and Pennsylvania state senator running for the House, as he described decades of drift away from blue-collar issues. His leading primary opponent could be Exhibit A: she’s backed Social Security benefit cuts.
“I look at Washington,” began Jackson, who is now Maine’s Senate Democratic Majority Leader and also has an uphill primary fight. “Democrats, many times, are working hard for people that don’t understand what it’s really like to keep a roof over your head, make your payments, pay your kid’s students loans, or worry about healthcare. They talk about it—obviously. But in this race, my opponent, while she’s a generally good person, she doesn’t have the background knowing what it’s like to fight for those things.”
“We need more champions of working-class people in Washington,” said Bellows, the Democrat challenging the Republican incumbent, Sen. Susan Collins. “Income inequality at the national level tends to be academic—rooted in facts and figures. But at the local level, it’s a very harsh reality for families that are struggling to pay bills and put food on the table.”
In these and a few other 2014 congressional races, working-class candidates are trying to crack what may be the most enduring barrier in national politics: winning federal office as working-class champions. While women and minority members of Congress have grown over the decades and now hover, percentage-wise, in the teens, working-class officeholders are in the low single digits, where they’ve been for a more than century, writes Nick Carnes in White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making.
“Scholars, political observers and those interested in reforming our system of government cannot afford to continue ignoring the fact that the working class is vastly under-represented in public office, that polities that affect Americans from all walks of life are made by a white-collar government,” wrote Carnes, a Duke University public policy professor. “By virtually any measure of class or social attainment, the average policy maker in the U.S. is vastly better off than the average citizen.”
The way class impacts America’s political life is as vast as it is unacknowledged. It goes beyond the fact that no working-class person has been elected president in more than a century, or that almost every U.S. Supreme Court seat is filled with a Harvard or Yale graduate, or that the median net worth of congress members was $1.5 million in 2012, as Carnes’ book notes. Class also influences behavior, taste and expectations in everything from entertainment, to where one lives, social circles, raising children, health outcomes, incarceration rates—and how people think about politics. “Ordinary Americans from different classes care about different kinds of problems,” he said.
These differences are front and center in the uphill 2014 congressional candidacies of Leach, Jackson and Bellows. You might think that their stories and messages about what is needed from government would be embraced by Democrats everywhere. Instead, they are exceptions—even though their careers and accomplishments are exceptional.