Election 2016

3 Feisty Candidates Who Proudly Defend the Working and Middle Class

It's been a long time since voters have seen working-class Democrats like Pennsylvania’s Daylin Leach, Maine’s Troy Jackson and Shenna Bellows.

Maine Democrat Shenna Bellows is running for the U.S. Senate.

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.

Daylin Leach

In politics, campaigns romanticize candidates. But there’s little to romanticize about growing up poor. In Daylin Leach’s case, his dad left when he was a toddler and never paid child support. “I lived with my mother in small apartments” in north Philadelphia, Leach said, until his mother had to quit her job to take care of her ailing mother. “We had no income. We were on welfare. I was put into a series of foster homes. Then we [he and his mom] reconciled.”

Those years left Leach with two indelible lessons—that government has a role in easing people’s struggles; and that people are not at fault if life’s hard turns overwhelm them.  

“It really gave me a sense of the importance of a social safety net and the belief, born of first-hand experience, that people who are in trouble aren’t in trouble because they are crappy people, which is how the [political] right tends to portray it. But circumstances happen beyond folks’ control that puts them in a difficult position,” he said. “And we should be there as a society to do what we can to help people, because, eventually, what was invested and what saved me, was the fact that there was good public schools, not only the welfare that kept me alive, but good public schools, good public libraries.”

Leach said public investments in communities and individuals are undervalued in today’s Congress. “I went to college and law school on Pell grants and government loans. So my community invested a lot in me, and then I had some success as a lawyer and paid back in taxes far more than was ever invested in me,” he said. “If my community didn’t invest in me, I can’t imagine what would have happened—but it would not have been good.”

Leach said that voters are looking for authenticity, as he put it, “somebody who will be speaking from the heart, not speaking from talking points or from politically expedient perspective.” He said, “My background gives me the opportunity to speak authentically about the plight of people who need help in our society.”

But what Leach is finding as he tries to move from state senator to congressman is that Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party establishment isn’t with him. They’re backing an ex-congresswoman, Marjorie Margolies, who refuses to debate before the May primary. Donors assume that all Democrats are alike, he said, even though that’s not true. 

“A lot of time I get people on the phone because I’m making fundraising calls,” he said, “and they say, ‘You sound like a great guy, but this is a Democratic seat. What difference does it make? Whoever wins the primary will win the General Election, so it’ll be a Democratic seat and I’m sure you’ll all be fine.’ And I have to make the case, ‘Oh no, we are not clones. We are actually quite different: substantively, ideologically, stylistically, and here’s how….’ You have to overcome the default option.”     

Voters, too, have not seen working-class Democrats in a long time, Leach said.

“The reason that the [Franklin] Roosevelt coalition was so successful was people knew there was a difference between Democrats and Republicans, in terms of how they lived their lives economically,” he said. “The Democrats lost a couple of elections in the ‘80s and they became gun-shy. We needed a Democratic Leadership Council. We needed a Third Way. [Bill Clinton said] ‘The era of big government was over.’ They started hearing all these messages from Democrats that said, ‘We’re really not on your side anymore. We’re sort of like Republicans; we’re not quite as crazy as they are, but we’re kinda like them.’ So a lot of people don’t see an economic difference anymore.”

Troy Jackson

Maine’s Senate Democratic Leader, Troy Jackson, would never make that mistake. He’s a logger from a small town near the Canadian border who got involved in politics in 1998 when he and 14 other men blocked border crossings to try to stop Canadian loggers from working for American landowners—who could pay them less because of the currency exchange rate and fact that the Canadians have national health care.    

“I’m from way far north in Maine, a small area that usually doesn’t get much thought given to it,” Jackson said. “I was upset that large corporate landowners and the logging industry was squeezing me and everyone else I knew. And we ended up blocking the border because of it. And I came out of nowhere and because of that, I found out that it wasn’t only people in the logging field. It was people in farming and fishing, teachers, nurses, you name it, people started calling and it opened me up to it’s not just loggers. It’s basically everyone working-class gets squeezed by big corporate interests.”

Jackson, who may be the biggest thorn in side of Tea Party Republican Gov. Paul LePage, said his rise in Maine politics has surprised even himself.

“Over the past 12 years, I’ve been a labor advocate fighting,” he said. “I’ve risen to become Majority Leader basically on the back of that. I look back even now and understand that I’m someone that probably shouldn’t be in the position I am except for the fact that I’m not afraid to fight for working-class people. People respond to that, obviously, because they want someone to fight for them. I do it because I wanted someone to fight for me.”

“That’s where it is,” Jackson said, turning to his Democratic primary in June. “Just like when I started, 15 years ago, I had a billionaire telling me they were going to do everything they could to shut me up. Now I’ve got a couple billionaires concerned that they don’t want me being elected, because they know they can’t control me. I’ve bever prospered from being a state legislator. I’m still as broke today as I am back when I started. These Wall Street billionaires that typically throw their money around, they know that doesn’t play with me. So they don’t support me. Quite honestly, anyone with money in the state of Maine, I’ve probably pissed off somewhere along the line.”

Like Leach, Jackson has a primary opponent, State Sen. Emily Cain, who has the backing of the state’s other top elected Democrats, such as Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and her husband, the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, and owner of Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Portland Press Herald

“I’m dealing with something here that’s like my entire life,” Jackson said. “I’m running against someone that’s supported by Wall Street. Doesn’t have to worry about making the payments, things like that. And really doesn’t have to work hard for the campaign money because it’s coming in from all these people that are probably nervous about what I mean to being elected… If you’re trying to keep the status quo, trying to keep those record profits, you’re probably going to have a problem with me.”

Right now, Congress is abusing its power to hurt people on behalf of the rich, he said.

“I had my eyes woke up to the fact that government’s not always there to help you,” said Jackson, going back to the border blockade that started his career. “I’ve remembered that very well. That’s why I’m doing this now. It’s probably a thousand times worse in Washington, but it doesn’t seem that government is paying attention to everyday people. So that’s why I’m going to do this. We think that we can pull this off for the same reason that I have been elected six times to the Maine Legislature. That’s my hope.”

Shenna Bellows

Jackson is not the only Mainer running on a working-class platform. In the Senate race, Shenna Bellows is facing the 18-year Republican incumbent, Susan Collins. Bellows is best-known as the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine who helped lead the successful same-sex marriage campaign in 2012. But her campaign has been marked by decisions that set her apart from other Democrats, such as rejecting donations from oil and gas interests because of climate change, or from banks that led to the 2008 recession—because, she says, those industries hurt Mainers.  

When Bellows looks at her state, she sees the result of economic inequalities. “A lot of people in rural Maine have not recovered from the economic crisis of 2008,” she said. “For example, hunger has gone from being episodic to chronic, and one in four Maine children are food-insecure. I toured the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which is a food bank that services over 600 food agencies across the state, and they shared that they’re opening food pantries in schools because they have observed that there were kids going home on a Friday and not having a nutritional meal for the entire weekend. So they are literally sending kids home with backpacks of food.”

Bellows said that kind of hunger is not an abstraction, as it is for many politicians who talk about inequality, but a stark reality that many Mainers know all too well.

“Having grown up working-class, the daughter of a carpenter, I think resonates with working families across Maine because there’s a sense that politicians in Washington are out of touch,” she said. “You only have to look at the income statements of most members of Congress and contrast that with the income statements of most American families to realize that Congress is not truly representative of the economic diversity of the American people.”

Bellows says she’s shaped her campaign message by starting with her story and then moving on to say that she’ll push for many issues that are not embraced by Democrats.

“I talk about my personal experience,” she said. “I share the story that my mother shared with me, about their realization when I was in the fifth grade that they had about $25 left in the bank and no work coming into my father’s business... I describe my experiences as a waitress and working retail through high school and college. I’ve had almost every job that you can imagine to help fund my college education.

“I talk about the reality of student loans and that many members of Congress haven’t experienced the significant student loan debt burden. I graduated 18 years ago, the year my opponent, Republican Susan Collins, was elected to the Senate. And I graduated with significant student loans and the average student loan burden has risen dramatically over the past two decades, and Congress has been complicit in raising interest rates.”

Bellows said “staying true to our convictions” and building coalitions “around principle” are key. “We are building a segment on the ground because of my public support for positions like marijuana legalization, repeal of the USA Patriot Act, support of equal pay for equal work, and raising the minimum wage. These are issues that most Mainers support,” she said. “Issues like marijuana legalization and repeal of the USA Patroit Act are issues where there’s broad support but few politicians are taking a leadership role.”

Finally, Bellows said she’s focused on building a statewide grassroots following—and has gotten $5 campaign donations from people in 366 of Maine’s 504 towns.

“In a sense we are modeling this on the same-sex marriage campaign which I helped lead in 2012,” she said. “That was another campaign that some political observers said that we couldn’t win, that it was too soon. We said that we have to be on the right side of history, and we have a highly organized field campaign to win. So for my campaign, we do think that grassroots organizing the old-fashioned way can kind of break through the noise [of paid political ads] because people trust their friends and their neighbors more than they trust what they see on TV or the Internet.”

Uphill Climbs For Leach, Jackson and Bellows

Polls done earlier in the campaign have put these working-class Democrats in underdog positions. There are other working-class candidates running for Congress. In California’s 31st district, Eloise Gomez Reyes worked in onion fields as a 12-year-old. Under the new “top-two” primary rules, she has to finish first or second in a crowded June primary field to be on the state’s November ballot.

One can only wonder aloud why Democrats don’t embrace more candidates like Leach, Jackson and Bellows. As Duke University’s Carnes argued in White-Collar Government, the absence of economic diversity in politics cannot be underestimated.

“My central argument in this book is that the shortage of people from the working class in American legislatures skews the policy-making process toward outcomes that are more in line with the upper class’s economic interests,” he said. “Ordinary Americans from different classes would choose different kinds of economic policies if they were in charge. Legislators are in charge, and they often do just that.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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