What Randy Bryce Built: An Unlikely Coalition of Supporters Want a Working Man in Paul Ryan's Seat

By Gunn, Erik | The Progressive, October-November 2018 | Go to article overview

What Randy Bryce Built: An Unlikely Coalition of Supporters Want a Working Man in Paul Ryan's Seat


Gunn, Erik, The Progressive


Mike Kluka remembers tagging along with his mother when he was about fourteen years old as she knocked on doors in their hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin, for Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984.

Kluka's mother and uncle belonged to the United Auto Workers union and worked at Kenosha's American Motors Corporation plant, part of the city's industrial backbone. It was a time when, Kluka says, "you could graduate from high school and walk into a $15-an-hour job."

But when Kluka finished high school in the late 1980s, the auto plant, by then part of Chrysler, was closing, leaving just an engine factory. Kluka became a union carpenter and, in 1995, left to help build casinos in Las Vegas and power plants in California. Despite his mother's example, he says, "in my twenties I really hated everything about the idea of politics," convinced all politicians were self-serving liars.

Time has softened his cynicism, and paying attention has sharpened his sense of urgency. Since returning to Kenosha in 2003, Kluka has watched the industries of his childhood downsize, outsource, or shut down. New employers have taken their place; Kluka helped build Amazon's massive distribution center located miles from downtown Kenosha out on Interstate 94. But the system is broken, he says. Since the election eight years ago of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and even more so since Donald Trump entered the White House, "it feels like there's a wall crashing down on us." To Kluka, the Republican agenda is clearer than ever: "To crush the middle class."

And that's why, on a sunny September morning, Kluka has joined more than two dozen other volunteers to knock on doors in Kenosha, to urge his fellow citizens to vote for ironworker Randy Bryce as Wisconsin's next First District Congressman.

Bryce is also on hand to give a pep talk. "They're scared, you can tell," he tells the volunteers gathered around in the Kenosha Democratic campaign headquarters, referring to a round of attack ads highlighting his old arrest record. "Let em spend all that money. Because I have you."

A few minutes later, Kluka sums up his assessment, before heading out on his canvassing assignments: "This guy is a working union brother--that's important to me. This is a guy that I truly believe understands what it is like to get up and go to work every day''

Countless politicians--even Trump himself--have run for office professing to champion the hopes, dreams, and perspectives of ordinary working people. The 2018 midterm election cycle has given birth to an army of insurgent progressive stars, from New York to Michigan to Idaho, with their own distinctive backgrounds and biographies.

Even in that crowded field, the solidly built, mustachioed construction worker Randy Bryce--popularly known by his Twitter handle, @Iron-Stache--has managed to become one of the most-watched midterm election candidates, running for the Congressional district represented for the last twenty years by Republican Paul Ryan, now Speaker of the House of Representatives.

For as long as Ryan has been a Congressman, Bryce has been an ironworker, building projects ranging from parking garages to some of Milwaukee's most recognizable landmarks. While serving also as political coordinator for his union local, he emerged as an outspoken advocate for labor in his community. When Walker took office as governor in January 2011 and soon after introduced his plan to strip teachers and most other public employees of their union rights, Bryce joined the tens of thousands of public- and private-sector workers who staged massive protests at the capitol building in Madison.

"I just remember his consistent presence at the capitol back in 2011," says JoCasta Zamarripa, a Latina Democratic state representative from Milwaukee who was just starting her first term at the time.

"He's very passionate about labor issues," says Chris Liebenthal, a Milwaukee County social worker, union activist, and blogger who got to know Bryce when both were delegates to the Milwaukee County Labor Council. …

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