Randy Bryce’s campaign to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan had barely started when he experienced his first Hollywood moment. After whistle-stop trips to New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta to introduce himself to Democratic supporters away from home, Bryce landed in Los Angeles and went out for a bite to eat.
He’d just sat down when a waiter came dashing over to his table and told him: “Hey, make sure you kick Paul Ryan’s ass.”
Bryce is wide-eyed as he recounts the moment he realized he’d become a national figure a full 16 months before 2018’s mid-term elections. “It was surreal,” he says. “I had no idea that anyone outside Wisconsin would recognize me. One of my campaign guys asked the waiter afterwards if he really knew who I was and he was, ‘Oh, yes.’
“People are coming up to me now wanting a picture taken. I’m not used to it. I don’t know how you get used to it.”
Like it or not, Bryce might do well to prepare himself to be recognized on a regular basis. With a mustache the size of a caterpillar, he stands out in any crowd, although some might mistake him for Nick Offerman.
The modest ironworker became a viral sensation when he launched his congressional campaign in June with a slick two-and-a-half-minute video. As a blue-collar Army vet, cancer survivor and single parent, he is being sold to the public as the ideal candidate to bring down career-politician Ryan.
Cynics have suggested Bryce’s penchant for wearing his construction hat in pictures is an image carefully crafted by his campaign. Yet his Timberland work boots really are battered, his “dad” jeans well washed.
When chatting with locals on his home turf, he is personable, rather than charismatic, and seems genuinely interested when people stop him on the street to talk, something that could give him an edge over Ryan, who stands accused by some as being out of touch with his constituents.
The surprise results of the 2016 election could also bode well for Bryce. If a reality TV host with zero political experience can become the leader of the free world, why can’t a working-class community activist snatch Ryan’s seat? Undoubtedly, it’s a long-shot – Wisconsin’s First Congressional District is strongly Republican and Ryan has won by wide margins in every election since 1998. And Bryce has to get by a Democratic primary opponent, Cathy Myers, before even coming up against the speaker. But in the era of Trump, one could argue that anything can happen.
Bryce pinpoints his interest in politics to the protests surrounding Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 union-bashing legislation of 2011, when – bullhorn in hand – he became one of the most recognizable voices during the Statehouse occupation.
How that type of grass-roots activism led him to this point seems to surprise Bryce as much as anyone. “IronStache” – his longheld Twitter handle and now the nickname everyone knows him by – does not stand out noisily in a crowd. There’s a quiet reticence about Bryce that belies the public’s image of a man one observer described as “genetically engineered from Bruce Springsteen songs.”
Milwaukee-born Bryce adores The Boss: “Born To Run” is one of his all-time favorite songs. And yet, he’s never seen Springsteen in concert because he can’t afford the sky-high prices.
“His concerts sell out, the scalpers get the tickets and I can’t afford the resale prices,” he says, echoing the sentiments of so many music lovers.
Until recently, his only brush with celebrity came via Celtic punk rockers the Dropkick Murphys, who threw their support behind the workers protesting Act 10. Ironworkers Local 8 union organizer Bryce has the band’s “Worker’s Song” as the ringtone on his cell phone, and he has managed to score tickets to see them.
“I saw the Dropkick Murphys at Summerfest,” he says. “I brought a union flag that I had and my friend and I marched the flag through the crowd, up to the stage and gave it to the band. They draped our flag across the speaker. It was great.”
During the Act 10 protests, which stripped most public sector employees of collective bargaining rights, Bryce met Ryan for the first time. They engaged in “small talk” but they clearly had little in common.
At 16, after discovering his 55-year-old lawyer father Paul Sr. dead of a heart attack, Ryan received Social Security survivor credits to save for his university education, although his family was among Janesville’s most prominent. “He took those credits but now he wants to take everyone else’s away,” says Bryce. “He’s definitely changed, especially since becoming speaker of the House.”
Bryce has constantly criticized 47-year-old Ryan for refusing to hold traditional town hall meetings. Ryan strongly rejects those claims and in August staged a CNN-sponsored event at Racine Theatre Guild. Bryce applied for one of the 300 seats. Perhaps not surprisingly, he wasn’t selected and instead found himself standing outside with 250 placard-carrying protesters.
But his campaign aired two 30-second TV ads featuring Bryce firing the questions about the Affordable Health Care Act he wanted to ask during the town hall. He also asked Ryan when he would “censure” the “clearly racist” Trump and reiterated his campaign mantra: “Let’s trade places, Paul Ryan. You can come work the iron, and I’ll go to D.C.”
Bryce knows full well Ryan, who ran for vice president in 2012, couldn’t do his manual job. Policy-wonk Ryan went straight from Ohio’s Miami University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science, to Washington, working as a Republican legislative aide and speechwriter.
His only post-college job outside politics was a year-long stint as a marketing executive at Ryan Inc., Central, the Janesville earth-moving company founded by his great-grandfather Patrick Ryan, a job he held immediately before he ran for Congress in 1998.
Bryce is close to Ryan’s polar opposite. One of three children born to policeman Richard Bryce and Nancy, a doctor’s secretary, Bryce grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee, in what he describes as “the policeman’s ghetto,” dutifully attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church every Sunday. His dad supported Republican Ronald Reagan.
He signed up for the Army straight out of Rufus King High School in 1983 and did his basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. It was the height of the Cold War and his three-year tour of duty included a stint in Honduras. Returning home, he briefly enrolled at UW-Milwaukee but was forced to drop out when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Unable to work and without health insurance, he threw himself on the mercy of trainee doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
“I was a guinea pig for experimental treatment. I didn’t have much of a choice,” says Bryce, who underwent two surgeries to remove the tumor and several lymph glands.
And while he is quick to praise both the students and teaching staff, it is clear that the traumatic diagnosis in his early 20s and the very real fear that he would not receive treatment paved the way for his views now on single-payer healthcare, the system championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders in which the government provides the means for everyone to receive medical coverage.
Bryce, 52, has been cancer free for almost three decades, but health woes have devastated both of his parents. His 70-year-old mother, who appeared in his debut campaign video, suffers from multiple sclerosis, and his 77-year-old father has Alzheimer’s and is living in an assisted-living facility.
After his cancer battle, Bryce assumed he would never be a parent, but 11 years ago his now ex-wife discovered she was pregnant. He shares custody of Ben, who he calls his little miracle. “I work every day so that my son can have health insurance,” says Bryce.
Life experience, not ambition, led Bryce to politics. After bouncing around bartending jobs in his 20s, he started working with homeless veterans, something he says “really opened my eyes on how people are treated when they are no longer wearing a uniform.
“It’s heartbreaking to see someone who volunteered to risk their life for their country who then doesn’t have a place to sleep.”
In 1997 he signed up for a four-year ironworker apprenticeship and quickly became interested in union affairs.
Bryce has been quoted often about how he can look around Wisconsin and point to the buildings he helped construct. But the job has come with its fair share of heartache.
In July 1999 Bryce was working on the construction of Miller Park when a giant crane collapsed, killing three of his co-workers. Bryce shudders at the memory. “If I hear a noise that sounds like a bolt snapping I jump, I wonder what it is,” he says.
After finding his voice as a union organizer during the Act 10 protests, Bryce decided to run for public office, first for the state Assembly in 2012, then for the Racine school board in 2013 and finally for state Senate in 2014. He failed on all three occasions – something his opponents on both the Democratic and Republican sides have been quick to point out.
There are also questions over Bryce’s stand on a proposed Enbridge pipeline and the Foxconn electronics factory, projects that could create thousands of new jobs. Bryce advocates the $15-an-hour minimum wage and is pro-jobs but is proceeding with caution, taking a wait-and-see stance on both projects. He can be hard to pin down on policy specifics.
Mike Gousha, a close political observer and host of WISN-TV’s current-affairs show “UpFront With Mike Gousha,” believes Foxconn is an especially tough call for Bryce, as the Taiwan-based company has been offered nearly $3 billion in taxpayer-funded incentives to build the plant here and could be exempt from normal environmental protection rules.
“He is still learning, something he told me when he was on my show,” says Gousha, a Marquette University Law School fellow. “Foxconn is a tough one for Bryce as it concerns working people and jobs. For Bryce, I think that is part of the learning process and his momentum. But he needs time to sort through the issues and make consistent stands on issues.”
When Bryce flubbed an early TV interview, unprepared for questions on North Korea, the National Republican Congressional Committee swung into action, calling his interview “a dumpster fire” and slamming Bryce as “all style, no substance.”
Ironically, Bryce says that was the moment he realized Republicans were worried about his candidacy. Ryan’s people normally ignore rivals until much closer to elections. At that stage, Bryce’s campaign was just three weeks old.
(When asked for a comment about Bryce, Ryan campaign spokesman Zack Roday supplied a quote that did not mention him, or any opponent, but praised Ryan as a “serious, solutions-oriented leader … constantly working to improve people’s lives.” But elsewhere, Roday has been quoted saying Bryce had “far-left views.”)
The initial idea of running against Ryan took shape over coffee with Wisconsin Working Families Party director Marina Dimitrijevic in an Oak Creek diner at the end of April. The grass-roots organization had been sifting through potential candidates and Bryce’s name kept coming up.
“I’ve known Randy for a long time,” says Dimitrijevic, a Milwaukee County supervisor. “He is active in the labor movement and on immigration. Our paths have crossed a lot. I could not think of a better candidate.
“There is no reason why a young mother or a single father like Randy should not run for office. In fact, that’s what I said to Randy.”
Bryce agreed to go home and think about it. His first port of call was his mother, who after his son is the most important person in his life.
“She was okay with it,” he says, “but right before I accepted she called; she was concerned. She’s real protective, and she was worried they [opponents] were going to do stuff, personal attacks,” he says. “Well, the personal attacks have started and it changes nothing.”
After assuring his mother he could withstand the barbs thrown at him, he linked up with Bill Hyers and Matt McLaughlin, specialists in underdog candidates. The emotional video they made – featuring Bryce, his mother, son and friends, with he and his mom talking about health issues and the fears of losing insurance – had 500,000 views and helped raise almost half-a-million dollars in just two weeks.
Early Democratic contender David Yankovich, who moved from Ohio to Kenosha specifically to run against Ryan because he feared no one else would, took one look at the video and realized he was beaten.
“Randy Bryce just exploded on the race,” the 31-year-old father of two says. “When the video appeared I was like, ‘That’s a really bad day for my campaign.’ So I called him up and said, you do this.”The two met for dinner the following night, then Yankovich urged his supporters to get behind Bryce and pulled out of the race.
“He is definitely impressive, a regular dude. If you run into him in the street he starts talking to people,” he says. “Everyone loves him, he keeps things positive and works really hard.”
Lost in the midst of Bryce-mania is the fact he isn’t even a shoe-in for the Democrats yet. He faces Cathy Myers in the August primary and even though her campaign has been largely ignored, she isn’t planning on slipping quietly out of the race anytime soon.
The 55-year-old Janesville teacher, union official, school board member and community activist refers to Bryce simply as “my opponent” and cites his previous election failures and promotion of jobs over environmental concerns as reasons why voters should reject him.
She concedes he “made a good campaign video” and received great exposure because of it but says: “The money he has raised from that is not coming from Wisconsin; maybe one percent has come in from the district.
“Voters in this district are going to decide who is beating Paul Ryan. When they find out about me and how I have won elections, we are talking an incredible positive.
“I am talking to the middle class, I want Medicaid for all; protecting public education is my forte. I’m talking about the jobs we can create if we invest in green technology and clean energy. People say that’s their three priorities.
“My opponent backs the Enbridge pipeline. He appreciates the pipeline and I don’t.”
Bryce’s opponents worry about his pipeline stance and his apparent lack of substance. Walworth County Supervisor Charlene Staples, a retired nursing attendant and former union rep, is backing Myers in the primary, even though she supported Bryce in previous elections. “It’s not that he is a bad guy. I like Randy, but I think Cathy Myers is a better candidate. She is more articulate and intelligent,” she says.
“They are very similar on most of their stances. Randy talks about the pipelines for workers but Cathy [is] for sustainable industry.
“He has darn good handlers, whoever they are. His fundraising is going really well, he has a catchy Twitter handle, he looks like a working man with his hard hat but what substance is there?”
Bryce was an early Bernie Sanders supporter, speaking up for him at rallies during the 2016 primaries. When Sanders lost, he voted for Hillary Clinton, but he’s considered a progressive, something that could come back to haunt him because he also needs to appeal to more middle of-the-road Democrats and snatch swing voters from the Republicans. Gousha, for one, isn’t sure that is possible.
“It’s a challenging district for a Democratic candidate, a hard district to win, ” he says. “Four of the last five presidential elections went Republican. Trump ran pretty handily there in 2016. Ryan wins that district by large margins every time.
“Bryce is a personable guy, he is a bright guy, plain spoken. How well that plays in 2018 I don’t know. He is a different kind of candidate.
“Whether his appeal goes above people who describe themselves as progressives or working folks, I am not sure. I don’t know if people know him well enough and what he stands for. There are so many variables.
“There are a lot of variables in play for Ryan too. Does Donald Trump work to Ryan’s benefit? And Foxconn is a factor,” says Gousha. He also points out that historically, the district was fairly evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats. “It’s a little different today, it has moved to the right in the last 15 years.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee denounced Bryce as a “liberal agitator” shortly after he launched his campaign. He took it in stride, telling a New York crowd that included “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon that he’d take that as a “badge of honor” and get it tattooed on his body.
But he is very aware that he is up against a Republican juggernaut. Ryan has a war chest of $11.5 million; Bryce needs at least $5 million to compete with that.
Barry Burden, a political science professor at UW-Madison, agrees with Gousha that Bryce is a long shot to beat Ryan.
“Bryce would have to run a flawless campaign, there would have to be a lot of discontent with Ryan and Bryce would have to attract a lot of Democrats,” he says.
As for Bryce’s viral video, he says: “There are a lot of campaigns that have great opening ads. Some are very clever and well produced, and it is helpful for starting a campaign.
“It’s harder on the day-to-day campaign, you are doing interviews, answering questions, the rough and tumble of the campaign – all things that are not as flashy or controllable as the ad.”
The election race could end up being a national event, a test-case for Trump’s administration, and the Democrats are already playing up the differences between working-man Bryce and “Wall Street Ryan.”
Bryce’s fundraisers are priced between $3 and $50, and after hearing Ryan was charging $10,000 to have a photograph taken with him at private events, Bryce Tweeted: “If you see me around, I’ll take a photo with you for zero dollars and a high five.”
Indeed, Bryce manages plenty of high fives as he sits in a Racine bar nursing a can of beer. He looks around him and notes the abandoned factories, crumbling houses and drug problems. “Racine once had great jobs but that’s all gone,” he says.
Like any parent, he worries about his son, Ben’s, future but says he understands protests, having spent more time on picket lines than 90 percent of adults in America. They’ve never lobbed breakable items at the television when Ryan is on but Bryce laughs when he explains how he makes fun of Ryan, saying: “When Obama was president I would throw a T-shirt over Paul Ryan when he stood next to him on TV.”
He spends every other weekend with Ben and if they are not on a picket line, they’re fishing or watching movies. Bryce’s favorite film is The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford’s Depression-era classic, which inspired Springsteen’s 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad. Like the fictional Joad, from John Steinbeck’s1939 novel, Bryce seeks to give his voice to the silent, struggling and disenfranchised in a new era of social activism.
His small apartment in Caledonia is full of books. He reads voraciously and often has three or four books going at the same time. Comedian-turned Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s new memoir, Naomi Klein’s anti-Trump tome No Is Not Enough and Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein’s account about the decline of Ryan’s hometown, are on his current reading list.
The November 2018 election to capture Ryan’s first district seat is still a long way off but Bryce is thinking long-term. He worries he won’t be able to afford the sort of apartment in Washington expected of politicians but says if need be, he’ll settle out in the distant suburbs where rents are cheaper.
Unlike Ryan, accused of “enabling” the thin-skinned Trump, Bryce says he has no problem calling out the president.
“He’s upsetting our allies. When you see the former president of Mexico and the current prime minister of Australia going for him, even the Pope pulling faces, that’s something. We need to get back to working persons’ values. That’s what people think is lacking; they need people to fight for them.”
Or as Marina Dimitrijevic puts it: “It is an outsider moment, and whether you like it or not President Trump captures that. I think that outsider movement works for Randy on the other side of the aisle. If Randy keeps doing what he is doing, he is going to win.” ◆
Randy Bryce’s mother, Nancy, always thought her son was destined for the spotlight – but she hoped he would become an actor, rather than a politician.
“Growing up, he was a good boy,” she says. “He played football and was in the school jazz band. When he was 16, he appeared in a play and I thought he might become an actor. It was something he liked to do.
“There was a bit of rebellion though. I found out he was smoking when I kissed him goodnight after the play. He said that was his first cigarette.
“He was a dickens around the neighborhood. I would get calls from other moms. But really he loved the jazz band and the football field.”
Like most mothers, she still worries about her eldest child, along with her policeman second son Gene and teacher daughter Jennifer. In turn, they worry about her.
The grandmother-of-four needs 20 medications a day to keep multiple sclerosis at bay and initially felt self-conscious about discussing it for her son’s campaign video.
But now she is enjoying her own brush with viral fame.
“I didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal,” she says. “I was someplace the other day
and someone called out, ‘You’re Randy’s mom.’
“And, of course, I am proud of him. He has worked his way from the bottom up.” ◆
Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Nov. 7 at 10 a.m. to hear more about this story.
Annette Witheridge’s most recent article for the magazine was about then-Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.
‘Born to Run’ appears in the November 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Find it on newsstands beginning October 30, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.
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