Democratic activist Ady Barkan made national headlines late last year when he confronted Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., on an airplane about his support for the GOP tax bill. Building on that momentum, Barkan this month launched a “Be a Hero” campaign to target lawmakers who voted for the tax law.
The phrase “Be a Hero” refers to Barkan’s exchange with Flake last year. “You can be an American hero. You really could — if the votes match the speech,” Barkan told Flake, who later went on to join almost every Republican in Congress in voting for the tax law.
The campaign will involve using digital persuasion ads and get-out-the-vote efforts to vote out incumbents who supported the tax law. Barkan and his team are still developing their strategy, but they plan to focus on congressional races in eight districts around the country. They will be campaigning in Arizona, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Barkan was in Arizona this week to kick off the campaign, conducting a test run in the 8th Congressional District, where there will be a special election on April 24 to replace former Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned in December, a few weeks before the tax bill was passed.
The Republican in that race, Debbie Lesko, obviously did not vote for the tax law as she did not serve in Congress at the time, but she does support it. “[President Donald Trump] cut taxes, which boosted the economy, helped businesses, helped individuals keep more money in their pocket, and also a lot of these businesses are now giving their employees raises and bonuses,” she said in a recent debate on an Arizona news channel.
Barkan spoke to The Intercept in the middle of a day canvassing under the Arizona sun. He explained that “Be a Hero” will focus on stories and narratives, not fact sheets and figures.
“I’m a policy wonk. I’m a lawyer and that’s how I began to approach my career in progressive politics. But the truth is that people make decisions based on narratives and stories … because that’s what sticks with us and not dry statistics or white papers,” he said. “We’re trying to use my story and the stories of other people to highlight how this tax bill harms working- and middle-class families who need health care and need some more money in their pocket at the end of the month for the benefit of the millionaires and billionaires who funded Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump’s campaign.”
Barkan was referencing the fact that he has Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, which makes the new law’s ramifications personal. Within the span of a few years, he will be paralyzed and need to rely on technology to communicate with eye movements. Until then, he’ll need a ventilator to breathe, a food tube, and nursing care. All of that requires the federal government’s disability program, which some fear might be slashed as a result of increasing deficits under the new tax bill. Indeed, Office of Management and Budget Chief Mick Mulvaney has said that he could do just that. In an interview he gave last year, Mulvaney singled out the Social Security Disability Insurance program for criticism, saying that “it grew tremendously under President Obama. It’s a very wasteful program, and we want to try and fix that.”
Winnie Wong, a Bernie Sanders campaign alum who is serving as a principal in the project, told The Intercept that Barkan wants to focus his remaining energy on organizing against the tax law. “He’s insisting on nonstop, in-your-face organizing,” she said. “There’s no going back to the old Ady. It’s just a matter of how much he can do between now and November, which we think is a lot.”
Wong, who teamed up with Barkan during a series of protests during which they were both arrested in Washington, D.C., last year, plans to accompany him to a number of districts where there are expected to be competitive elections this year.
Liz Jaff, a progressive consultant who filmed the initial exchange between Barkan and Flake, is also a principal on the project. She said she was amazed by the civil but firm dialogue between the senator and Barkan, and she wanted to keep working with him against the tax law.
“I’ve never really seen somebody talk to a senator that way, where it wasn’t angry, it wasn’t offensive, but it was very honest, and he didn’t back down,” she said. “Normally people will say, ‘Why are you voting for this tax bill?’ He’ll give a little political answer and you’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, fine, thanks.’ Or you’ll see people saying, ‘Go to hell’ or getting very angry. And Ady is like, ‘I’m dying and this is how it’s going to impact me.'”
Jaff believes that Barkan’s human story moved people during the tax bill debate and can continue to move people now.
“To be honest, something that’s really been lacking is … humanizing what the tax law really meant because it’s so obtuse for many people,” she said. She noted that after the video featuring Flake and Barkan was published, a number of self-identified Republicans reached out and told her they now agreed with her about the legislation’s flaws.
By choosing to travel the country for activism despite his illness, Barkan is hoping to encourage others to follow suit.
“I’m trying to show people that making sacrifices on behalf of what you believe in can be a joyous and fulfilling and liberating experience,” he said. “It’s much more fun to go out in the streets and go canvassing door to door than it is to sit on your sofa and watch TV. And you’ll find it much more fulfilling, and so I want to encourage everybody to join me in the streets this year.”