The first Wednesday in August was a busy one for David Trone. In the morning, Trone, the co-founder of retail chain Total Wine & More, which has made him very wealthy, announced that he would make his second run for Congress.
Trone’s first bid for Congress had come the year before, when he had spent $13 million of his own money and still lost the primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, to the east of his current target.
This time around, he said, he would raise some money from supporters. That would perhaps shed the image that he was trying to buy his way into Congress.
By the end of the day, he and his wife had cut four checks to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for a total of $267,200.
That was never an option on the whiteboard for Roger Manno, Trone’s opponent in the Democratic primary in Maryland’s 6th District.
Manno is now a Maryland state senator and the party’s majority whip, but it’s been a long road that has taken him through extended bouts of homelessness, unemployment, and other economic depredations rarely found in the biographies of members of Congress, who are much more likely to note that they are the sons or daughters — or even grandchildren — of millworkers or the like.
With an explosion of grassroots energy this cycle, however, the new class of candidates has swept in some whose populist anger has been earned honestly.
Like Manno, they’ll have to overcome big money to get where they’re trying to go.
When political parties and outside groups begin to estimate the chances that a congressional candidate has of winning a race, the first thing they look at is fundraising — particularly money raised within the district. Those cash contributions from wealthy donors in the area serve as a proxy for support from the local elite and translate, in the party’s mind, into a high chance of victory.
The process has a culling effect on the field, which has left Congress with a total net worth of at least $2.43 billion, according to the political news outlet Roll Call’s conservative estimates, with nearly 40 percent of all members being millionaires.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t Democrats from poor and working-class backgrounds who run for Congress. It means that they’re often beaten back by wealthier, establishment-backed candidates who’ve been able to forge better connections. A new wave of candidates this cycle is hoping to change that.
Democratic congressional hopefuls Manno, Will Cunningham, and James Thompson all were in and out of homelessness as children. As a little girl, Karen Mallard had taught her father how to read. Other candidates like them slept on friends’ couches, lived in trailers, and worked multiple minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet.
For a party that purports to reflect the regular people of the United States, rather than the top 1 percent, these candidates are seemingly the perfect kind of representatives to have in Washington. Yet in almost every case, they have been met by the national party with either indifference or outright opposition. There are a select few candidates who’ve gotten Democratic Party support — those who’ve fully escaped the grip of poverty and climbed to the top rungs of the economic ladder.
As primary elections wrap up between now and August, these candidates are fighting to stay in the game.
Here are their stories.
Ammar Campa-Najjar is running to replace scandal-plagued Republican Duncan Hunter in California’s 50th Congressional District. Prior to winning an overwhelming endorsement from the California Democratic Party, the 29-year-old progressive also easily won the pre-endorsement over his challenger, Josh Butner, who has the backing of the New Democrat Coalition PAC, which represents the pro-Wall Street camp. Democratic leaders recruited Butner to run in the district, but as The Intercept reported in April, he registered as a Democrat only four months before announcing his bid for Congress and was actually a registered Republican through the 2010 election.
Campa-Najjar, who was born in southern California to a Mexican mother and a Palestinian father, briefly went viral for being the “hot guy running for Congress” — and the first Arab Latino-American to do so. If elected, Campa-Najjar wouldn’t just diversify Congress with his multicultural identity; he would also do so with his working-class roots. Campa-Najjar wasn’t born into power or wealth.
He was around 15 years old when he had to take a job as a janitor at his local church, in order to take some of the financial burden off his mother, who was raising two boys on her own in addition to working full-time. “My mom kinda raised me by herself, for most of my life,” Campa-Najjar told The Intercept. “And she couldn’t afford a home, single, working-class mom, working as a receptionist at a doctor’s office, not making too much. So we moved in with my aunt, and then we lived with my grandfather, my mom’s father.”
Campa-Najjar said he would walk to the church every day to work as a janitor, groundskeeper, and handyman. He loved that job. “It kind of gave me a sense of accomplishment, of completion every day. … I feel like we don’t have that sometimes in different kinds of work,” he said.
“Your ZIP code determines your destiny sometimes.”
“And I liked the work, I got to work with my hands,” he said. “They can’t take that away from you, like you know what you did. It’s pretty obvious, whether it was me cleaning a bathroom stall or patching up a wall or installing fiberglass in the ceiling or fixing offices and stuff like that — you knew what you did, and no one can take it from you. In politics, that’s not necessarily true.”
He said he recognized early on that “your ZIP code determines your destiny sometimes,” but it wasn’t until Barack Obama’s presidential campaign that he really started thinking about politics as a vehicle for change.
“Certainly, not everything he did I agreed with, during his presidency,” he said. “But he definitely was the hope-and-change candidate. The fact that someone like him could be elected made it feel like the America we love and idealize is within our own reach, if someone like him could become president.”
Campa-Najjar’s primary election is on June 5.
A former congressional aide who served in the Obama administration as a senior budget adviser, 27-year-old Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson could have been one of the youngest members of Congress. She also could have been the first African-American or the first woman to represent Pennsylvania’s 10th District — and she started from humble beginnings. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but, you know, no one around us also had a lot of money, so we didn’t know that we were poor,” she told The Intercept.
She was born in York, Pennsylvania, where she had spent her early years with a foster family that was also raising three other girls around her age. “The three girls and I pretty much shared the same bed all of childhood,” she said. “We had two bedrooms. One bedroom was the foster parents’, and our bedroom just had one bed in it and all the girls shared that bed. But we got on great. I really loved my foster family, because that’s really all I knew was them.”
“The second day I was born, my mother actually gave me to a foster family,” Corbin-Johnson said, “so this was a family that had no familial relations to me. They just happened to be a family that my mother knew, and she handed me over to them. I didn’t go through the state-provided foster care system, I was just kind of handed over to a personal contact that my mother knew.”
It was her grandparents who helped spark her political awakening.
After she turned 2, both her paternal grandparents and foster family wanted custody, and the court ruled that she would travel between different families every week. One week she would visit with her foster family, another week she would visit with her grandparents, “another week with her father, and another with her biological father.” This continued until she was 10. It was her grandparents, she said, who helped spark her political awakening. They were “very big on voting and voting rights” despite never receiving formal education, she said.
Growing up, Corbin-Johnson said she had never thought she would go to college, in part, because “no one in my family has anything above a high school education.” The only thing she had known about college “was the football and the basketball teams that I was seeing on television.”
“My grandmother had to travel 30 miles to the nearest all-black school to receive an education and, you know, they didn’t have books, they didn’t have supplies, xyz,” she said. “She taught me what she knew.”
Corbin-Johnson said she picked up math and five languages quickly, skills that landed the young student at a costly private school. “That’s kind of how I went from the 5,000-person public school I was supposed to go, to a really homogenous private school because I just happened to be a really smart, I guess, minority.”
York Country Day School offered her a scholarship to cover almost the entire tuition, she said. Generous scholarships also made it possible for her to attend Georgetown University and obtain a master’s at George Washington University. In retrospect, she said, “education opened the doors for a lot of my life and definitely my political life.”
EMILY’s List, a group that supports pro-choice women, gave Corbin-Johnson her most high-profile endorsement, but it came just 11 days before the competitive May 15 primary — and it was not enough. George Scott, a veteran and Lutheran pastor who made waves with a campaign ad in which he touted his military record and then threw an assault rifle in a fire, defeated Corbin-Johnson by just 548 votes, with 13,924 to her 13,376.
“EMILY’s List was proud to support Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson and looks forward to working with her again–it’s clear she has a bright future ahead,” spokesperson Julie McClain Downey said.
In the nearby Lehigh Valley, the group spent nearly half a million dollars boosting Susan Wild over both Greg Edwards and John Morganelli, an anti-choice candidate. Wild narrowly won the primary in the state’s 7th District. “We know many of these super PACs have an agenda to maintain the status quo. We know that. Whether it’s on the Democratic side or the Republican side. We know that. So EMILY’s List has given money to both quote on quote pro-life and pro choice candidates, but if you look at their history of how they deal with women of color, and look at what they get on average to what they give white women, it’s very different,” said Edwards.
EMILY’s List has supported every single Democratic woman of color currently serving in Congress, Downey said. She added: “We’d like to remind Greg Edwards that the ‘status quo’ is women representing 51% of the population but 20% of Congress. He should prepare for EMILY’s List and our candidates to upend the status quo entirely in November.”
EMILY’s List gave Corbin-Johnson just $5,000, a tiny fraction of its support for Wild. The difference in the scale of intervention could be because a Democrat is much more likely to be elected in the 7th District, where Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016, than in the 10th District, which voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.
When Will Cunningham was a high school student, a guidance counselor had called him in to ask about the mailing address he had given the school. For a month, the school had been trying to send him mail to an undeliverable address, so the mail kept bouncing back. “It was the first time I had told someone our circumstances, that we were homeless,” Cunningham said in an interview with The Intercept.
He was born in southern New Jersey, where he was raised by a teenage mother who worked a minimum-wage factory job. She didn’t have paid sick leave, so whenever she got sick, it meant a losing a paycheck and possibly going without heat, hot water, or electricity. He was in middle school the first time his mother got sick, he said, and “there we were, microwaving cold water so that we could wash ourselves.”
The 32-year-old hopeful is now running for Congress in New Jersey’s sprawling 2nd Congressional District. Republican Frank Lobiondo, who held the south Jersey seat for more than 20 years, announced his retirement last year, joining the droves of House Republicans jumping ship before the midterm elections.
“It’s not an exceptional story. As a matter of fact, it’s all too common of people to be completely knocked off track by [losing] a couple of paychecks, that’s all it takes,” Cunningham said, “and it can take years to bounce back.”
His mother’s illness meant a year and a half of homelessness while he was in high school, living temporarily in a hotel. “We ended up in this crime-infested, you know, known drug activity, hotel,” he said. “I think it was $150 a week.”
Because he didn’t like living in the hotel, he made it a point never to be there except to sleep. “I did my best in high school and after school, I was doing literally every activity possible for as long as possible,” Cunningham said. “So I joined the football team, I did select choir, I did mock trial and debate, I did a part-time job at McDonald’s.” The one saving grace about living at the hotel was that the library was a 10-minute walk down the street, he added. “So if I didn’t have an activity at school, I was at that library doing school work or reading.”
By the time he graduated high school in 2003, he had an Ivy League application. Stellar grades, a comically long list of extracurricular activities, and coinciding leadership positions culminated in an acceptance letter from Brown University. It’s easy for people to make assumptions about his background, Cunningham said. When they see the Ivy degree or Capitol Hill experience on his resume, they often assume he hasn’t faced adversity.
“I was blessed with friends who have couches.”
“I’ve had to work extremely hard under tough circumstances because we didn’t have, you know, I couldn’t call anyone and ask, ‘Can I have a couple months of rent until I get settled here in this new city and find a job?’” he said. “I was blessed with friends who have couches.”
After working as a deputy field organizer on Obama’s re-election campaign in Ohio, Cunningham moved to Washington, where he had three friends who were willing to let him sleep on their couches for one month each. In some ways, when you grow up in hardship, he added, “it’s not necessarily a good thing that it becomes a natural experience,” but you develop the resilience to deal with hardship as an adult. He eventually found a job at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, then went on to work as a policy writer in Sen. Cory Booker’s office and as an investigator for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Democrats expect to flip the district; the Cook Political Report has classified the 2nd District race as leaning Democrat for 2018, despite its support for Trump in the 2016 election. But the DCCC has already picked sides ahead of the June 5 primary, overlooking progressives like Cunningham or retired teacher Tanzie Youngblood and instead, opting for who they see as their best shot: Jeff Van Drew, one of the most conservative Democrats in New Jersey. Van Drew has enjoyed a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, voted against same-sex marriage in 2012, co-sponsored legislation to restore the death penalty for certain murders, and supported restrictions on abortion.
Van Drew certainly has the fundraising profile that inspires party support. As of May 16, he had raised $631,539 and had $412,156 cash on hand, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Meanwhile, Cunningham, who’s raised $68,184, finds himself with $30,672 on hand. Youngblood, who’s raised $97,6662, has $3,133 cash on hand.
Van Drew, a state senator, also has the active support of the Democratic Party at every level. A posting for internships on the Van Drew campaign obtained by The Intercept shows that the New Jersey state party is recruiting interns through Rowan University to work on the primary campaign, noting their efforts won’t be expected again until “we start prepping for the general in August.”
The internships are unpaid.
Angie Craig, a candidate in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, was raised by a single mother and grew up in a trailer park, where they struggled to pay bills. “My grandmother helped at home and worked in a union shoe factory to contribute,” her campaign website reads. “At times, our family didn’t have health insurance, and I watched as my mom struggled to pay the bills that piled up on our kitchen table after my little sister needed hospital care.”
She worked two jobs to get through college, and then got a job as a newspaper reporter before switching gears. According to her campaign website, she “rose over 15 years to eventually lead a workforce of 16,000 employees” as an executive at St. Jude Medical.
Now, there are two things that set Craig apart from most other congressional candidates from working-class backgrounds: She’s a multimillionaire, and she has the backing of the DCCC. This support comes even after Craig’s failure in a 2016 race in the same district. She lost to Republican Rep. Jason Lewis by 2 points and underperformed Hillary Clinton by 4,000 votes, despite outspending Lewis 4 to 1.
This time around, she insists she’s different because the time she has spent listening to constituents has made her a stronger candidate. Money doesn’t guarantee victory, but it’s undeniably easier to run for office when you can loan your campaign $675,000, like Craig did in 2016. EMILY’s List and End Citizens United also backed Craig early on, and she won the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement this month.
Craig’s campaign, after initially responding to an interview request, did not return requests for comment.
Her opponent in the August 14 primary, meanwhile, previously told The Intercept that he had met with a DCCC official, who only seemed interested in how much money he could raise. But Jeff Erdmann, a high school government teacher and football coach, didn’t know any big funders. In fact, to run for office, Erdmann had to cut down his hours and take reduced pay to have time for the campaign, while his wife took a second job.
Though Mary Geren had always been interested in politics, the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos compelled her to run for Congress. Geren, who is running in South Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District for Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan’s seat, received her first national endorsement from the People’s House Project. She said her campaign hasn’t received any help from the DCCC, known colloquially as the “D-trip,” but still hasn’t given up on trying to work with them.
“Hopefully the D-trip and [the Democratic National Committee] are going to follow suit and realize we have to compete in all of these states, and you can’t just always throw money at money,” she told The Intercept.
Geren, who is retiring from her career as an English teacher to focus on her campaign full-time, grew up in rural northeast Georgia as the youngest in a household of seven. Her father, who had dropped out of high school to work on the family farm, worked in the granite industry while she was growing up. Only a handful of people in her entire family finished high school, Geren said, and she was the only one in her immediate family to graduate high school and go on to a four-year university.
At age 2, a fire burned their house “to the ground,” forcing her family to move into a trailer. “My dad, being the very clever one he is, he couldn’t afford a double-wide trailer, so he found two single-wide trailers and — not making this up — he then put them together somehow.”
They were often on food stamps, received free school lunch, and didn’t have any health insurance, “I did not first sit in a dentist chair until I was 15 years old.” Geren started working at a grocery store at age 16 and would pay for anything she could to help alleviate the financial burden on her family.
“People always ask me, ‘How did you get out of that?’” Geren said. “Education, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it. And public education in particular — I say on the trail all the time that it saved my life and I believe that.”
She credits Georgia’s Hope Scholarship as one of the major reasons that she was able to escape poverty. “I really believe it was a miracle because I didn’t know how I was gonna get to college.”
Jahana Hayes grew up in a housing project in Connecticut, and despite a teenage pregnancy that momentarily derailed her high school education, she finished school and eventually the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.
“Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs, and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope,” Hayes said at the National Education Association Convention in 2016. “I identify with my students because I am my students, and I know what it feels like when every statistic and everything around you is an indicator or a predictor of failure.”
As a congressional candidate in Connecticut’s 5th District, she’s once again showing that she can overcome obstacles. With less than two weeks of campaigning and no real infrastructure and funding, the political newcomer nearly won the Democratic endorsement over a well-funded opponent on May 14.The votes had been tallied, and Hayes was shown to have pulled off a stunning upset, but then the convention chair kept the vote open for an extended amount of time. Eventually, enough delegates ended up changing their votes to put Mary Glassman over the top.
In the days after The Intercept covered her near victory, small donors kicked in more than $34,000 to her campaign, Hayes said. She still has a shot at winning the August 14 primary to replace outgoing Rep. Elizabeth Esty, but she will need an immense fundraising boost to make the race competitive. If she wins, Hayes would also be the first black candidate nominated by Connecticut Democrats and the only black person serving in Congress from all of New England.
Former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed Susie Lee, an education advocate and wealthy philanthropist, last month in her bid for the seat being vacated by Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen. Biden said that, like him, Lee “grew up in a working-class family” and “benefited from the opportunities this country gave families like ours.”
Biden was right about her background. Lee grew up as one of eight children in a working-class family in Ohio, where her father had worked at a steel plant. After her father was laid off, her parents were denied health insurance over pre-existing conditions, and “as they entered their senior years, my mother suffered a heart attack, and they almost lost their house.” In college, she had worked in a cafeteria and relied on scholarships, loans, and other part-time jobs to pay for schooling. Education gave her opportunities, Lee says on her campaign website, which inspired her to start education nonprofits, in the hopes of giving others the same resources she had access to.
But she’s come a long way. She’s now a millionaire, and she and her husband, Dan, a casino executive, own 17 homes around the country and a plane. Lee ran for office in a different Nevada district in 2016, and her campaign defended their usage of a private plane at the time, saying Dan Lee uses it to visit casino properties in rural areas, according to Politifact. She came in third in her 2016 primary, losing by nearly 20 points.
Yet she has the kind of working-class background coupled with current wealth that inspires national support: The DCCC, EMILY’s List, the New Democrat Coalition PAC, End Citizens United, and other top Democrats, including former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, have all endorsed Lee in the 3rd District race.
Lee did not respond to requests for comment. The primary will be held on June 12.
“The only question from EMILY’s List and the DCCC is ‘Can you raise a $100,000 in a week?’” said Karen Mallard, a public school teacher running in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. Her answer is no. Most of her friends are teachers, her husband works in construction, and she doesn’t know a bunch of wealthy people because she grew up in poverty.
Seemingly unimpressed by Mallard’s ability to fundraise, the DCCC ahead of the June 12 primary has thrown its support behind Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander who twice voted for her Republican opponent. “I feel like I’m running against the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” Mallard said.
Mallard said she is frustrated with the concentration of privilege in politics because “if we want legislation that’s for the people instead of the corporations, we need to elect more regular people to office.” But she’s confident that her work ethic will pay off. After all, “I’m a coal miner’s daughter.”
As a kid, she worked in the garden with her siblings, and they collected walnuts in the fall to sell. Her father also did everything he could to make sure the family was fed. Until age 7, “all seven of us lived with our great-grandparents.” For a long time, the family was in a tight spot. “I remember being a little girl and watching my mom worry about money,” she said.
Mallard was in the second grade when she realized her father couldn’t read, and she set out to teach him — an experience that ignited her passion for teaching. Education was “everything” to her family, she said. Mallard and her four brothers were able to attend University of Virginia’s College at Wise with the help of Pell Grants. It was receiving an education, she said, that took them from “poverty to prosperity” in one generation.
It was her connection to education that led to her congressional run. She said everything that helped her and her brothers receive a college education and, ultimately, a better life was “in jeopardy” with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, so she made the decision to run in order to protect her students and kids like herself. “None of the other Democrats were worried about education, and I felt like I had to run to make it an issue so that the danger that Trump and DeVos pose to public education didn’t go unanswered,” Mallard said.
Though she is a first-time candidate, Mallard has been politically active her entire life, as a union leader, voter, campaign volunteer, and constituent. “Daddy would take me everywhere to read for him,” but the most important place he took her was into the voting booth.
“I remember going, in the third grade, with Dad into voting booths and helping him mark his ballot directly like the union wanted him to do,” she said. “We got back in a pickup truck and Dad turned to me, and he said, ‘I may not be a rich and powerful man, I may not be an educated man, but I have a vote, so I have a voice.’”
The contest to succeed outgoing Rep. John Delaney in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District is shaping up to be one of the most expensive House races this year. Multimillionaire businessperson David Trone, who spent a record $13.4 million of his own money in a failed House bid last year, is self-funding his campaign once again — but this time in a different district. The wine store magnate’s deep pockets present a challenge to the other Democrats, who include state Sen. Roger Manno, state Delegate Aruna Miller, physician Nadia Hashimi, and Andrew Duck. Opponents have accused Trone of trying to buy his way into Congress — he has been endorsed by elected officials who have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from his family. (Trone declined to comment for this story.) Manno, for his part, has picked up an endorsement from Maryland Working Families, along with nearly 20 labor unions.
Manno, who was elected to the state Senate in 2010 and is now the majority whip, said he’s running for Congress because “it’s important to have people who understand struggles that the people they represent are going through.” When he was 6 years old, his family was thrust into an economic nightmare when his father, who couldn’t afford health insurance and had been unable to obtain the preventative care he needed, died from heart failure. The loss unraveled Manno’s childhood, which he spent homeless and then in a group home.
“We had the economic rug pulled out from under us,” he said. Further complicating matters, it was soon discovered that Manno had a heart condition requiring medical attention, so his mother took him to a teaching hospital, where they suggested an operation, he said. Someone in the community had heard of their situation and suggested a doctor who might have been able to treat him.
“They never sent us a bill because they knew that we were poor and had no money, and that was a call that the doctor made,” Manno said. “To treat me knowing that my mom was recently widowed, knowing that I had just lost my dad, knowing that we had no money, knowing that my family was going through a terrible health care tragedy, and he never sent us a bill. And so, I made it through that period without having open heart surgery and being treated noninvasively because I had a wonderful doctor who was kind of like an angel in our lives.”
From the death of his father to his own heart condition and later cancer, Manno’s fixation on health care policy stems from his own formative experiences with the system. But it wasn’t until he attended his first political science class at Hunter College class that he “opened his eyes” to political organization as the “vocabulary of how to fix the problems” that had happened in his life, and that he had seen happen in so many other lives, he said.
“I never had a lot of stability in my life during junior high and high school, so I didn’t go directly into college,” he added. “In fact, it took me many, many attempts to get through college. I went to community college several times, and I dropped out and worked odd jobs, restaurants, drove a taxi cab, worked in all kinds of jobs.”
Because he couldn’t receive a proper, structured education, Manno had to take remedial classes in community college, “which is why I kept dropping out.” But before finally making it out of community college, Manno went to the Salvation Army, bought a suit, cut his hair, and knocked on his state senator’s door to say that he wanted to get involved in fixing health care, so the senator’s office put him to work doing casework.
“That was sort of a calling that I had early on because I was almost haunted by it,” he said. “Because of that health care nightmare that we had been through, that just gnawed at me.”
With the help of Pell Grants, he made it through community college and went onto a four-year college. After graduating law school, Manno worked as senior counsel to Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of the House Judiciary Committee, and as legislative director to Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop of the House Appropriations Committee and the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2006, Manno was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. He served a full four-year term in the House and then was elected to state Senate.
But 2 1/2 years ago, Manno had what he called “a real eye-opening experience” — he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “An ugly form of prostate cancer at 49 years old and I had two surgeries at Hopkins, you know, I almost didn’t make it out of that hospital because of the complications I had.” He said it was probably the first time in his life that he ever had to sit still. He couldn’t buzz around; he was “literally in a bed with tubes and got a chance to kind of reflect on my life and the work that I was doing.” Because he didn’t know whether he was going to make it out of the hospital, Manno said, he wants to make use of the opportunity he’s been given.
“I don’t take it lightly that I’m now in a position to make a difference in people’s lives, like my family,” he said. “I try to be the kind of state senator who I wish I had when I was a little kid.”
Outside of a last-minute push, the DCCC didn’t do much to help the Democratic candidate running in the special election to replace former Rep. Mike Pompeo last year. Still, first-time candidate James Thompson nearly flipped Kansas’s solidly red 4th District, losing to Republican Ron Estes by a thin margin. And Thompson came closer to flipping the reliably Republican district than any Democrat ever has, all while receiving no money from the DCCC.
Thompson, a veteran and a civil rights attorney, is running for the same seat this year — the primary election will take place on August 7 — but he still doesn’t appear to be on the DCCC’s radar. Despite the closer-than-expected loss in a deeply red district, Thompson isn’t listed on the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” list, a program that gives its candidates access to additional resources in the committee’s effort to flip the district. He cites Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign as his inspiration to run for office and is running on a Sanders-inspired platform to “get our government back to helping working people.” Thompson has been endorsed by Democracy for America and Brand New Congress.
“We have an empathy for people who are struggling.”
“One of the good things about somebody that has grown up the way I did or the way other candidates have, is that we have an empathy for people who are struggling,” he said. “We understand what it’s like to have to make a decision between paying the rent or putting food on the table. We understand what it’s like to not have electricity or water.”
Thompson said his family had been on welfare for quite a bit, and he remembers “waiting in lines for cheese and butter from the government.” They had lived in bad neighborhoods and moved around often because they were unable to pay the rent. “One time, I counted up that I went to 16 different schools, between kindergarten and 12th grade,” he said.
As a teenager, he worked a fast-food job at Hardee’s. “At Hardee’s, they had a policy where food can only be out for so long and then you had to throw it away,” he said. “So I would take those burgers, put them in a separate trash bag, and then, at close, act like I was walking home and then circle back and go dig through the trashcan to find those bags that I put the hamburgers and stuff in, so I could take them home. And that’s what my brothers and I and my dad would eat.”
Then, when Thompson was 16, his step-father had gotten a job offer in south Florida, and Thompson moved there with his two younger brothers and his friend. But the job offer fell through, so they lived in their van by a canal. Thompson ended up being the only one in the group who had a job — he worked at a go-kart track making $4 an hour.
The family was so cash-strapped that they would wash their clothes in the canals. “We didn’t have money to go to a laundromat,” he said. Their dinner had sometimes been grilled fish that they had caught in a canal.
Thompson became legally emancipated from his parents at age 17, slept on a couch, and worked full-time at a grocery store while going to school. To break the cycle of poverty he was in, Thompson said he joined the military and used his GI Bill to attend Wichita State University and Washburn University Law School.
Those experiences are what he says make him suited for office. “That gives you a definite, certain amount of empathy for somebody who’s struggling, that people who have never struggled a day in their lives just don’t have,” he said. “And part of the problem that we see today is that too many of the people that are running our country, that are involved in politics, are the rich and powerful, and they have no empathy for anybody that struggles.”
Thompson pointed to Betsy DeVos, a billionaire who has never attended public school: “How is she supposed to understand the problems that public school children go through? How is somebody that has never had to work for anything in their lives supposed to understand what it’s like to struggle to find a job or make ends meet?”
They can’t, Thompson said. “People like myself that have struggled are in a better position to represent the masses. This is what we’re supposed to be representing anyway; we’re supposed to represent people, not corporations.”
In 2015, Amy Vilela’s 22-year-old daughter, Shalynne, drove to Las Vegas from Kansas City, arriving with severe pain in her red and swollen leg. Shalynne went to the emergency room displaying symptoms of deep vein thrombosis, a potentially life-threatening condition that is treatable if caught in time. But Shalynne told the hospital staff that she didn’t have proof of insurance, and Vilela believes they denied her treatment on those grounds. “They told her when she begged for testing and for pain medication to treat her 8-out-of-10 pain to go get insurance and see a specialist,” Vilela recalled. “I had to do what no parent should have to do, and that was hold my daughter as she died a needless death.”
The tragedy politicized Vilela. “The last thing I said to her was, ‘You will not have died in vain,’” she said. She turned to activism, organizing rallies in the community as part of her fight for universal health care. “When I heard that there were 45,000 people a year dying from a lack of health care, I remember asking myself, ‘Oh my gosh, where is the outrage? Why are our politicians not talking about this?’”
The same outrage over the human cost of a broken health care system that pushed Vilela into activism also motivated her to challenge incumbent Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District. Since then, Kihuen has said he won’t be seeking re-election, following allegations of sexual harassment from multiple women.
Vilela still has to make her way through a June 12 primary against her strongest opponent, Steven Horsford, who’s running for his old seat. The DCCC has named Horsford to its “Red to Blue” list. Meanwhile, groups like Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, the People for Bernie, and National Nurses United, have endorsed Vilela, uplifting her progressive credentials in a crowded primary field.
Before her daughter’s death, politics had been the last thing on her mind. When you’re poor, she said, you don’t have the luxury of being involved in politics on the level those with a more comfortable financial status are — “you’re just fighting to live.”
“I was worried about providing the next meal for my children, I was worried about having enough gas to get to work.”
“I was worried about providing the next meal for my children, I was worried about having enough gas to get to work. I sometimes would even be looking on the ground to try to find change, so I could get just a dollar to get to work for gas,” she said.
The political newcomer was born in southern Maryland to a high school graduate who worked as a secretary and a tobacco farmer-turned-union ironworker, who had a sixth-grade education. Her parents’ divorce wreaked havoc on the family’s financial situation. Though her mother did the best she could to raise four daughters on her own, Vilela said they had often been on food stamps, and there had been times when they had to live with family friends to survive.
When Vilela became a teen mother, she became ensnared by a vicious cycle of poverty. “I struggled so much as a single mother without an education,” Vilela said. “Financially I was destitute. I was only able to work in jobs that paid a substandard livable wage, and there were many times where I had to be on public assistance.” She relied on WIC, food stamps, and Medicaid, and she sporadically experienced homelessness, forcing her to live with friends and family.
“That struggle is so incredibly difficult because contrary to what people believe, it is very expensive to be poor,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I would get fine after fine after fine for being late, and I’d have to decide, Can I pay for the gas or the electric? So I have a friend where we can go and use their hot water to bathe with, or do I let the electric go? I can get ice from the corner store to make sure we keep our food.”
She eventually managed to work her way through college and walk across the stage at graduation; it was an emotional affair. “The tears were coming down my face,” she said. For 20 years, she had worked as an accountant until becoming a chief financial officer for a developmental disabilities nonprofit, and then at a construction management consulting firm. Vilela has refused to take corporate PAC money, and almost all of her campaign funds come from individuals, “because as a CFO, I can tell you that companies do not shell out big money because they believe in good governance. They shell out big money because they want a return on their investments.”