The Fall of Wisconsin and the Rise of Randy Bryce
By Dan Kaufman July 9, 2018
Randy Bryce, a former union activist and veteran endorsed by Bernie Sanders, has a chance to win the district represented for twenty years by Paul Ryan. Photograph by Philip Montgomery
On June 18, 2017, Randy Bryce, a member of Milwaukee Iron Workers Local 8, announced that he would challenge Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, for his seat in Wisconsin’s First Congressional District. Bryce’s campaign launch might have received little notice—he had failed in two previous bids for state office, and now was taking on one of the country’s most powerful politicians—but for the online video he released that day. The video, co-produced by Bill Hyers, a top Democratic strategist based in Brooklyn, begins with President Trump introducing a smiling Ryan at a press conference about health care. The video then cuts to an interview with Ryan. “This is about repealing and replacing Obamacare,” he says. “Everybody doesn’t get what they want.” Next comes a shot of green Wisconsin farmland, followed by one of Bryce and his mother, Nancy, sitting in her living room, as Nancy describes the pain she experiences from multiple sclerosis. “It’s like hot knives going through you,” she says. Bryce hugs her after she chokes up expressing gratitude for the medicines she receives that keep her condition in check. At the end of the video, Bryce is standing at a job site, wearing his hard hat and a denim shirt emblazoned with an ironworkers’ union logo. “Let’s trade places, Paul Ryan,” Bryce says. “You can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.”
Released at the height of Democrats’ hopes for their Party’s chances in the midterms, and for winning back the Midwestern states, like Wisconsin, that had handed Trump the Presidency in 2016, the video went viral. Within days, Bryce was appearing on MSNBC, CNN, and other networks. He soon began holding fund-raisers across the country, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and attracting prominent supporters, including Cynthia Nixon, the former “Sex and the City” actress who is now challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York State’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, who offered to help Bryce in any way he could. People began recognizing Bryce on the street and calling him by his Twitter handle, “IronStache,” a reference to the thick mustache he has maintained, off and on, since high school.
Two months later, I flew to Wisconsin to meet with Bryce. I had first spoken with him five years earlier, in 2012, while reporting on the effort to recall Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker. That effort was a response to Walker’s signing of Act 10, a measure that stripped the state’s public-sector workers of collective-bargaining rights. Walker signed Act 10 in March, 2011, just a few months into his first term in office, and—in addition to the recall effort—the new law had provoked enormous protests in Madison and a three-week occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol. Bryce, who was then the political coördinator of Local 8, had been active in the Act 10 protests, but when I met him he was also a reluctant supporter of Walker’s plan to rewrite Wisconsin environmental law so that Gogebic Taconite, a company owned by a billionaire coal magnate named Chris Cline, could build an iron-ore mine in a pristine section of northern Wisconsin. This change to the law was fiercely opposed by Native American tribes and environmentalists, but Cline’s company had promised to use union labor to build its mine, prompting many of the building trades, including Local 8, to back it. “They’re trying to divide us, but my members need work,” Bryce said. (He later recanted his support.) Bryce and I stayed in touch, and, in late 2014, at the onset of another Republican fight with organized labor in Wisconsin—this one over a right-to-work bill that Walker’s legislative allies were pushing—I spent months following Bryce’s organizing campaign against the measure. (Ultimately, Walker signed the right-to-work bill.)
CNN was hosting a town hall with Paul Ryan in Racine, a small city on Lake Michigan twenty-five miles south of Milwaukee, in the southeastern corner of the state. It was Ryan’s first town hall in nearly two years—which some took as a sign that Bryce’s early success was making the House Speaker nervous. As I drove through town to the venue, I saw nearly as many vacant storefronts as open businesses. The industrial jobs that had sustained the local community for generations were mostly gone. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the passage of NAFTA and China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization have cost Wisconsin nearly seventy thousand manufacturing jobs, most in its industrial southeastern corridor. In the Walker era—a period during which Republicans have maintained nearly uninterrupted control of the state’s governor’s office, legislature, Supreme Court, and most of its seats in Congress—Wisconsin has also experienced a large decline of the middle class. Its child-poverty rate has increased dramatically, while funding for K-12 education and the state’s public university system has been sharply reduced. And union membership in the state, which had been fourteen per cent when Walker took office, has fallen by almost half—a change that can be traced directly to the anti-union laws that Walker has championed.
A few hours before the town hall was scheduled to begin, dozens of protesters gathered nearby, on a patch of grass blocked off by barricades—the sanctioned protest area. Many held sheets of paper with their Zip Codes written in black marker, proof of their residency in Ryan’s district and of their exclusion from a forum with their representative. Bryce showed up at around 5:30 P.M. , trailed by campaign staff, intending to join the protesters. He was greeted like a rock star. The crowd was mostly older white union workers and Latino immigrants—the kind of voters Bryce was counting on to help him flip the district. Ryan had first won election to Congress in 1998, and the Democrats who had challenged him in 2014 and 2016 each failed to attract more than forty per cent of the vote.
Yet in the lead-up to the CNN town hall, Ryan’s poll numbers were falling. His campaign staff had begun arguing that Bryce was nothing more than a “liberal agitator,” but Bryce’s campaign had reminded people that Wisconsin’s First District wasn’t really that conservative a place—it went for Barack Obama in 2008, and only narrowly for Mitt Romney in 2012, when Ryan served as the Republican Party’s Vice-Presidential nominee. And Ryan’s awkward relationship with Donald Trump—occasionally issuing a mild rebuke of Trump’s latest sexist or racist outrage while supporting and serving as a prominent ambassador for the President’s agenda—wasn’t playing particularly well back home.
Outside the town hall, Bryce did a local-TV interview, took selfies with a few young supporters, and talked to a reporter from Rolling Stone . Eventually, Bryce and his campaign crew headed for downtown Milwaukee, to watch the event from a bar. “You’re like a real-life superhero, Randy,” a woman sitting next to him said. Bryce smiled politely, then turned back to his phone, which he was using to tweet responses to Ryan’s performance. Bryce’s background would make him something of a novelty in Congress, which has long been occupied by the professional class. Of the four hundred and twenty-eight current members of the House of Representatives, three hundred and forty-seven have backgrounds in law or business. Only three are tradespeople. For many of Bryce’s supporters, though, his greatest appeal is that he is an ordinary worker, like them. “We don’t need a lot of people with classroom knowledge,” a retired Kenosha plumber named Tom Nielsen told me. “We need people who have experience in the field and know people who have suffered, been discriminated against, and got thrown under the rug and mistreated. These people deserve better.”
Bryce grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the southwestern edge of Milwaukee. His stepfather, Richard, was a beat cop, and his mother, Nancy, was a doctor’s secretary whose grandparents were immigrants from Poland. Bryce’s only memory of his birth father, a Mexican immigrant, is a box of crayons marked with “Enriquez”—his father’s last name. Richard adopted Bryce and helped raise him. A proud patrolman, Richard could be forgiving, like the time he pulled over a group of Bryce’s teen-age friends for speeding and let them go without a ticket. But he could also be severe. When Bryce was eleven, Richard took him into his precinct house, put him in a cell, and closed the door. “It was a warning to follow the right path,” Bryce said.
Bryce attended Rufus King International High School, a magnet school on Milwaukee’s north side, where he played trombone in the school orchestra. He was a mediocre student, and a few months after graduating he enlisted in the Army so he could pay for college. It was the early nineteen-eighties, and the Cold War was raging in Central America. “My dad was conservative,” Bryce once told me . “When I was in the Army, I was, too. I was into Reagan, but it was more ‘America first, U.S.A., U.S.A.’ The Russians were the devil was the way I looked at it.”
Bryce trained to be a military policeman at Fort McClellan, in Alabama, and was eventually stationed at Soto Cano Air Base, in Honduras, then a launching point for American covert operations in Nicaragua and El Salvador. His job in Honduras was to guard the air base’s “secret square,” where Army officers reviewed intelligence collected by surveillance planes flying over the Nicaraguan border.
For decades, Fort McClellan had been used as a testing site for chemical, biological, and radiological warfare. Mustard gas, Agent Orange, DDT, and other toxic materials had leached into the soil and water. Additionally, until the nineteen-seventies, a Monsanto plant poured millions of pounds of cancer-causing PCBs into a nearby landfill and creek. In 2003, the company paid a settlement of seven hundred million dollars to twenty thousand people who lived nearby, but the beneficiaries did not include soldiers from Fort McClellan, a disproportionate number of whom were stricken with cancer at an early age. The Army has maintained there were no adverse health effects from training at the base, but, in 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered its closure. After his discharge, Bryce enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, but he dropped out after one semester, after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Bryce underwent treatment in an experimental trial at a local medical college, which cured him, and he eventually landed a job helping homeless veterans find shelter and medical care. One day, a veteran who had been exposed to atomic testing during the Cold War showed Bryce his back, which was mottled with scars. The government wouldn’t help because the vet couldn’t prove the injury was caused by exposure to a nuclear test. The encounter marked the beginning of a shift in Bryce’s conservative politics.
After a series of odd jobs, in 1997 Bryce was accepted into the apprenticeship program at Milwaukee Iron Workers Local 8. “I knew how to read a tape measure; that was about it,” he said. After four years of training, Local 8 apprentices take a state certification test in welding and then a journeyman’s test to become union ironworkers. Work was spotty, depending on the season and the economy, and some years Bryce made as little as thirty thousand dollars. But when work was plentiful he could make double that. In 2006, Bryce married Faye Boudreaux, and later that year they had a son, Ben. Boudreaux’s pregnancy came as a happy surprise to Bryce, who had previously been told by doctors that he would be unable to have children. During these years, Bryce worked on many of Milwaukee’s landmarks—the elegant tied-arch Hoan Bridge, the Harley-Davidson Museum—and he gradually became more involved in his union. When there was a job action, a call to hold a banner outside a non-union job site, or to pass out union literature, Bryce would volunteer.
He also began to worry about Walker, who was then the Milwaukee county executive. Already a declared enemy of the county’s public-employees union, Walker was winning praise from national conservative organizations for his anti-union positions. In 2010, when Walker ran for governor, Bryce became one of the most active participants of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, an umbrella group of the Milwaukee-area A.F.L.-C.I.O. locals. The Act 10 fight that followed Walker’s inauguration in January, 2011, made international headlines—it came in the wake of the Arab Spring protests on the other side of the world, and was seen as a forerunner of the Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged the following September. During the protests, tens of thousands of people descended on Madison every day, including Bryce, who began taking off work to go to the capitol, driving two hours each way, morning and night. This commitment soon cost him his job working on an addition to a Nestlé plant in Racine. It also contributed to the strain on his marriage, which eventually ended in divorce.
Walker, for his part, had relished the conflict that Act 10 created. And, after he survived the recall effort, and watched the movement that had risen up to oppose him mostly dissipate, he became a politician whom conservatives talked about as a potential future President. In 2015, during a question-and-answer session at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Walker was asked what he would do to confront Islamist terrorists such as ISIS . “If I can take on a hundred thousand protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he said.
While other Act 10 participants went back to their day-to-day lives, Bryce kept protesting: he participated in rallies for immigrants’ rights, Black Lives Matter, a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, and a unionization effort at Palermo’s Pizza, one of the largest frozen-pizza makers in the country. Around the same time as the union drive, Palermo’s terminated eighty-four workers who could not produce documents confirming their residency status. The company claimed that the firings were unrelated to the union campaign, but the workers didn’t see them that way. About a hundred went on strike, and Bryce joined them. He was the only member of the building trades to walk the picket line. “Whatever’s been going on, I’ve usually been involved with,” he told me once. “Just showing up and holding a sign and talking to people. It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m an ironworker, and I am with your cause.’ It’s something that keeps me going.”
Bryce’s transformation from obscure labor activist to star candidate for national office has not been entirely smooth. In November, Daniel Bice, an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel , wrote that Bryce had declared bankruptcy in 1999, when he was an apprentice ironworker. The article also revealed that two months after launching his campaign, Bryce paid twelve hundred and fifty-seven dollars in delinquent child-support payments to his ex-wife. Cathy Myers, Bryce’s rival for the Democratic nomination in the First District, offered a quote to Bice for his article. “When my ex-husband got behind on his child support, I had to take a second job,” she said. “I put my personal interests aside and focused all my attention on providing for my family.”
A few weeks later, Politico published a story saying that Ryan planned to retire at the end of his term. Ryan, a close ally of Walker’s, had become Speaker of the House in 2015, at the age of forty-five, the youngest Speaker since the nineteenth century, and his quick rise to power had tracked with Republicans’ successful takeover of Wisconsin politics. While he had always professed that he hadn’t sought out the position of Speaker—his predecessor, John Boehner, of Ohio, had given up trying to wrangle the increasingly fractious Republican caucus, and the job had only grown more difficult with Trump in the White House—there is little doubt that Bryce’s success contributed to Ryan’s decision-making.
In April, Ryan officially announced that he would not seek reëlection, and soon afterward Bryce’s campaign commissioned a poll that showed Bryce with a one-point lead over a generic Republican candidate. Bryce was no longer a sentimental long shot—he was a serious contender. Republicans were suddenly scrambling to find a viable candidate. For a few days, Paul Nehlen, a self-described “pro-White Christian American candidate”—who had previously entered the race, challenging Ryan from the right—was the most prominent Republican running. Then Bryan Steil, a corporate attorney and University of Wisconsin regent, who once worked as Ryan’s legislative aide, announced his candidacy, and quickly set about unifying G.O.P. support.
Bryce’s newfound status as the most famous name in the race raised his background from a local issue to a national one. In May, Vice ran a piece titled “Democrats Bet Big on ‘Iron Stache.’ They May Have Made a Mistake,” in which Myers brought up the issue of the delinquent child support again. The day after the piece was published, Vice added a statement by Bryce’s ex-wife defending him. “Randy has not hidden from the public that he fell on hard times in the past,” Boudreaux wrote. “And when he did fall a little behind on child support, he reached out to me and we worked things out among ourselves, just like millions of other families do.”
Other potentially damaging episodes from Bryce’s past resurfaced last week, when CNN reported that Bryce had been arrested in 1998, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for drunk driving. Bryce had made things worse by failing to appear for a court date, prompting the police to issue an arrest warrant. Over the next few years, he was arrested three more times for driving with a suspended license. In 2003, Richard, Bryce’s father, drove him up to a Michigan courthouse, and Bryce turned himself in. “I didn’t try to get a lawyer,” Bryce told me. The judge gave Bryce a sixty-five-day suspended sentence and a fine of eight hundred and fifty dollars. “It’s something I feel horrible about,” Bryce said. “I never should have done it, and there is no excuse for it.”
With the August primary several weeks away, Bryce’s campaign has raised more than five million dollars and racked up important endorsements—he is the only candidate in the country who has both been endorsed by Bernie Sanders and featured on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of crucial races. A victory in the primary over Myers, who has raised a million dollars, still seems likely. If Bryce makes it to the general election, he would start out as an underdog—in mid-June, Paul Ryan endorsed Steil and, according to CNBC, promised unlimited help with his fund-raising—but, crucially for a Democrat in the First District, an underdog with a chance.
During the past seven years, Wisconsin’s Republicans, enabled by a combination of dark money, gerrymandering, and a weak Democratic opposition, have enjoyed unfettered control of the state. Tax cuts, deregulation, and other corporate-friendly policies have been at the top of the state government’s agenda, most recently exemplified by the four-and-a-half billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies that Walker and his allies want to give to Foxconn, the electronics manufacturer, in exchange for building an LCD-screen factory near Racine. Last month, Trump, Ryan, and Walker spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony of Foxconn’s plant. Bringing Foxconn to Wisconsin “is the most vivid picture of what a strong and healthy economy looks like,” Ryan said. Trump also held a fund-raiser for Wisconsin Republicans.
Dale Schultz, a moderate former Republican state senator, once described to me a Republican caucus meeting he attended a few years back with a prominent conservative lobbyist, which in his view illuminated his party’s current approach. “All we need is fifty per cent of the vote plus one,” the lobbyist told Schultz and his colleagues. “If we get any more than that one vote, then we didn’t push the state far enough in the direction we want to push it, because we had votes to spare. And if we lose an election we’ll win it back, and then we’ll start up where we left off.”
Conservative activists see a model to emulate in Wisconsin. “Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 did not lay the groundwork for Republican political dominance,” the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist wrote after Trump’s victory. “But the March 2011 signing of Act 10, a dramatic reform of public-sector labor laws, by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker certainly did.” Since Walker signed Act 10, Republicans in many other states have passed measures restricting collective bargaining. An extreme version of Act 10 was passed in Iowa in early 2017, after Republicans seized the governorship and both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1998. The bill, supported by Americans for Prosperity-Iowa—a non-profit group funded by the Koch brothers—eviscerated collective-bargaining rights for Iowa’s hundred and eighty thousand public workers, and it went further than Act 10 by placing some restrictions on even police and fire-department unions.
The number of right-to-work states, meanwhile, now stands at twenty-eight—Missouri, West Virginia, and Kentucky have joined the ranks since Trump’s election. A 2018 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that right-to-work laws correlate with lower vote shares for Democrats up and down ballots, from Presidential candidates to state legislative races. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME nationalized right-to-work for public employees—a coast-to-coast threat to union funding and Democratic Party power.
Walker knew that by crushing labor in Wisconsin he could atomize his opposition. Whether the state’s labor movement can ever reacquire its past political power is unclear, but, after seven years of Republican control of the state government, Wisconsin’s beleaguered Democrats have begun winning small victories. Just a few months before Ryan announced his retirement, in a special election for an open state senate seat, a Democrat named Patty Schachtner trounced her Republican opponent in a rural western district that Trump had carried by eighteen points in 2016. “Everything we have done is at risk if we don’t win in November,” Governor Walker warned in a fund-raising e-mail after Schachtner’s victory. Since then, liberals have won an open seat on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and another state senate race.
Bryce has drawn inspiration and hope from those victories, as he has in the success of underdog progressive candidates across the country this year, and in the recent wave of teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma. “We are going to have to go back to things like that to get what we need,” Bryce told me. “Without people doing the work, nothing is going to happen.”
This piece was drawn from “ The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics ,” by Dan Kaufman, which will be published on July 10th by Norton .
An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Steil’s work for Ryan and the beneficiary of Trump’s fund-raiser in Wisconsin. More: