[Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders visited Wichita,
Kansas, to woo progressives in support of congressional candidate
James Thompson. Is the red state ready to turn blue?]



 Sarah Smarsh 
 July 26, 2018
The Guardian

	* [https://portside.org/node/17777/printable/print]

 _ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders visited Wichita,
Kansas, to woo progressives in support of congressional candidate
James Thompson. Is the red state ready to turn blue? _ 



In a dim corridor backstage, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders
[https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/bernie-sanders] looked down at
Kansas congressional hopeful James Thompson’s denim jeans and black
boots. “Hey James,” Sanders said without cracking a smile.
“Could I borrow your cowboy shoes?”

Thompson took just a second to recover from the razzing.

“I wear them because the shit’s so deep around here,” he

Through the thick cement walls of this downtown Wichita convention
hall, we heard the roar of 4,000 Kansans awaiting speeches by Sanders,
Thompson and progressive rocket ship Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in
support of Thompson’s run for Congress. It was Ocasio-Cortez’s
first political appearance outside New York after her remarkable
primary win in June, when the 28-year-old democratic socialist
defeated one of the most powerful House Democrats
[https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/democrats] in Washington. Here
in the midwest, Thompson – who also has never held office – has
tapped into similar yearning for a representative who has more old
friends at the local pub than in DC.

The choice of location for Ocasio-Cortez’s debut outside New York is
poetic: like Sanders, she and Thompson have refused corporate
donations, and this district is home to perhaps the greatest
conservative influencers in US history – the Koch brothers, whose
political network pledged to spend $400m
[http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/371069-koch-network-to-spend-400-million-during-2018-midterm-election-cycle] on
conservative candidates
[http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/371069-koch-network-to-spend-400-million-during-2018-midterm-election-cycle] before
the midterms.

It’s one thing to push the Democratic party left in New York City.
It is quite another to rabble-rouse for universal healthcare, wind
energy and a livable wage in Charles Koch’s backyard. Doing so
takes, my friends in the north-east might say, “hutzpah”.

Or, as my Kansas [https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/kansas] farmer
grandpa might have said: “That Jim is full of piss and vinegar.”

No congressional candidate has ever done what Thompson is doing in
this era of unrestricted corporate campaign donations: hold a
progressive sword at the precise geographic heart of the dark-money
beast. When I asked whether anyone has, say, tried to break his
kneecaps, Thompson let out a big laugh.“I’d like to see them
try,” he said. “That’s one good thing about being 6ft 2.”

Such humor – joking in a manner that polite society might view as
unseemly – is the necessary roughness that millions of Americans
develop to survive on job sites, in barrooms, in their own homes while
the air conditioning window unit drips water on to the carpet.

It only makes sense that a progressive movement unifying the working
class across lines of race, gender, age, religion and location would
contain candidates like Thompson, who is both a civil rights attorney
who represented detained immigrants and victims of police brutality
and a former bouncer at a Wichita country-western nightclub called

A hard story often comes with hard language. During a period of
homelessness, Thompson bathed, washed clothes and fished for food in a
canal. He fought for emancipation from an abusive parent and attended
16 schools before finishing high school. This is a not a man who, in
the face of rising authoritarianism, will be “civil” to please
pearl-clutching political leaders on either side of the aisle.

This is precisely his appeal in southern Kansas. Thompson might be a
new star for coastal reporters. But his combination of progressive
ideas and unapologetically impolite language has been gaining
supporters – and even converting some Trump voters – for a year
and a half without the national Democratic party lifting a finger.

In contrast to a version of liberal America often criticized as, well,
a bunch of wimps, his campaign slogan is “Fight for America”.

 Attendees watch a short promotional video at Century II Performing
Arts and Convention Center in Wichita. Photograph: Amy Kontras for the

Thompson told me he was first encouraged to run for office by
Republican friends who felt out of sync with a party morphing into an
“insanely right caricature”. A pro-choice, gun-owning military
veteran who supports legal weed and social security expansion,
Thompson can kick dirt with farmers at rural events, walk in
Wichita’s recent pride and Juneteenth parades, and post a photo of
himself smiling with two guys wearing “bearded deplorable” shirts
after a long conversation about the issues.

He nearly won a special election last year. Now Ocasio-Cortez and
Sanders – who won the Kansas Democratic caucus for the 2016
presidential nomination two-to-one – are here to make sure he gets
it done in the midterms, thus flipping this district blue for the
first time in 26 years.

The eager crowd, which outgrew its original venue and was relocated at
the last minute to accommodate thousands more, is mostly midwesterners
who loathe Trump and were long ago written off as a waste of resources
by the national Democratic party. Recently governed by extreme
conservative Sam Brownback for eight years, they were resisting long
before it was a national movement.

In contrast to red-hatted rallies that in 2016 got far more political
coverage, they are both pissed off and peaceful, both riled up for
change and diverse in racial makeup.

Thompson knows that, while the progress his would-be constituents seek
is toward a serene, humane society, the fire in their bellies must now
be summoned.

“I had to fight all the time. Literally and figuratively,”
Thompson will tell them from the stage, as he asks them to fight now
alongside him. “That’s just part of growing up in poverty. When I
see people struggling and I talk about it, I’m not talking about it
from up on a hill somewhere.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who has faced different uphill battles, carries herself
with the same self-possession. She taunted on the Late Show with
Stephen Colbert that the current president doesn’t know “how to
deal with a girl from the Bronx”. She and Thompson evoke the
unflagging spirit of California representative Maxine Waters, who
received death threats for unapologetic criticism of the corrupt
Washington regime and responded: “You better shoot straight.”

This scrappy attitude is not the empty bluster of a fearful ego with
an orange combover seeking to preserve itself. It is a knowing of
one’s own strength, fortified by the mortal dangers of poverty,
labor, misogyny, white supremacy.

It is the Statue of Liberty looking a bully in the eye in a barroom
and saying to someone standing behind her: “Hold my torch.”

To back up their talk, Ocasio-Cortez and Thompson quite literally walk
the walk.

The day after the Wichita event, Ocasio-Cortez told me by phone from
Missouri, where she was campaigning for congressional candidate and
fellow progressive Cori Bush, that physical presence both builds
support and dissolves the political polarities on which so many
pundits feed.

“When someone actually knocks on your door or goes to your civic
association meeting and you actually touch their hand, it really does
change everything,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who recently tweeted a
[https://twitter.com/ocasio2018/status/1012816020476743680?lang=en] of
the shoes she wore door-to-door, holes worn through the soles, with
the comment: “Respect the hustle.”

“There are places in the Bronx and neighborhoods in Queens that look
like neighborhoods in Wichita. I walked in thinking I was in for a
world of hurt,” she told me. “There is this impulse to just
abandon it. To just say, you know what, forget it – it’s a lost
cause. It’s just gonna be difficult or hurtful or dangerous. But I
decided to go in anyway.”

What she got for her leap of faith was one of the greatest political
upsets in modern history – and an appreciation for the extent to
which working-class voters have felt forgotten.

Her 48-hour tour of Wichita, Kansas City, Kansas, and St Louis,
Missouri, confirmed this theory, recalling fellow community organizer
Barack Obama’s musings about his well-received travels through the
rural midwest as a black liberal.

“The thing that I hear over and over and over again is ‘Thank you
for coming here’. ‘Thank you for coming,’” she said, her tone
implying incredulousness that, besides Sanders, other Democrats with
national platforms hadn’t deigned to visit. “Presence is such a
basic thing to ask for.”

Sanders told me by phone from Washington, a few days after his Kansas
stop, that a 50-state strategy is common sense.

“It is beyond comprehension, the degree to which the Democratic
party nationally has essentially abdicated half of the states in this
country to rightwing Republicans, including some of the poorest states
in America, those in the south,” Sanders said. “The reason I go to
Kansas and many so-called red states is that I will do everything that
I can to bring new people into the political process in states which
are today conservative. I do not know how you turn those states around
unless you go there and get people excited.”

For many in the crowd, his visit was validation of months of hard work
that takes particular gumption in a place described by so many
headlines as “Trump country”.

Since launching his first run for the seat in early 2017, Thompson
says, he and his campaign have knocked on 40,000 doors and made
330,000 phone calls. Including phone bankers across the country, the
effort has included 7,000 volunteers.

That hustle has already knocked 25 points off the Republican party’s
lead – from 31 points when the current secretary of state, Mike
Pompeo, won in 2014 to just six points in last year’s special
election won by Representative Ron Estes. Before the rally with
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Thompson reflected on the difference
between his approach and that of opponent Estes when he’s back from

“[He] is either in a vehicle waving or walking down the center of
the street waving,” Thompson said. “He had 400 individual
donations in the special election. We had 29,000. As long as he’s
got his 400 people that are willing to donate money, and the big
corporate Pacs giving money, he doesn’t need to dirty his hands
shaking hands with people.”

On social media, Thompson has been challenging Estes to debate him in
each of the district’s 17 counties – “show up or shut up”–
with no response. While under a very different context, it’s not so
unlike when New York representative Joe Crowley kept failing to appear
at primary debates against Ocasio-Cortez.

“Thinking that you can get a job without showing up for the job
interview just is wild to me,” Thompson said.

This is the great irony of conservative criticism of progressive
candidates. Candidates such as Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Thompson are
accused of seeking handouts for lazy moochers, while evidence suggests
they are the hardest workers in the fight.

‘I would prefer to sit down and talk. But if you wanna be an ass,
all right’

When Ocasio-Cortez was in fifth grade, her tough teacher in the New
York City public schools was a Kansas native with a fierce love for
her home state. Young Ocasio-Cortez was nervous, she told the Wichita
audience, when the teacher organized a state history project and
assigned her Kansas.

“After reading a lot about wheat, as a 10-year-old,” Ocasio-Cortez
said to laughs, “I learned that Kansas was founded in a struggle
over the conscience of this nation.”

She referenced the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which charged the
Kansas territory with deciding whether they would allow slavery.
Abolitionists fought bloody border wars with neighboring,
slave-holding Missouri – sparking the civil war – and Kansas was
established as a free state.

“That is the crucible and the soul of this state,” Ocasio-Cortez
said, articulating what many Kansans know but rarely see reflected in
modern politics, national discussion, or the electoral college that
obscures their votes.

Like Sanders and Thompson, she pointed out that persistent notions of
Kansas as a “deep red” state didn’t jibe with the large minority
she was seeing on the ground. While the Wichita crowd thundered after
one of Sanders’ remarks on stage, Ocasio-Cortez peeked out from
behind the curtain with her cellphone. She tweeted the video
[https://twitter.com/Ocasio2018/status/1020431045303431171], adding:
“The midwest feels pretty all right to me!”

Meanwhile, leaders in the Democratic party from the House minority
leader, Nancy Pelosi, to former senator Joe Lieberman have been
critical of this excitement, saying it won’t play in middle America
or that moving left harms the party.

“If a centrist model is what works [in Kansas] then why has that
centrist model not won the past 20 years, and in fact lost by 20-30
points in every election since [1992]?” Thompson asked me. “The
idea that we need to be more like Republicans so we can beat
Republicans is asinine. We need to have a clear choice. Something to
vote for instead of against.”

One such thing would be Medicare for all, he said, which he
acknowledged isn’t feasible under the current legislature but has
pledged to work toward. When describing public healthcare or other
programs that have been defunded or privatized into oblivion, he put
it in language working-class voters might appreciate.

“It’s like taking a car, taking the battery out and going, ‘Oh,
see, it doesn’t run any more. So we need to get rid of it,’”
Thompson said. “_Put the battery back in_.”

He laughed when I noted there are a lot of lawmakers who would never
think of a car battery as an analogy – because they’ve never had
to change one. Thompson explained that law school taught him to avoid
legalese when addressing a jury.

“[Voters] want to hear me talking about real solutions in plain
language that is not mealy-mouthed and trying to play both sides of
the fence,” said Thompson, who walked onstage to Garth Brooks’s
1990 country hit Friends in Low Places. “Regardless of whether they
agree or not, they’re going to respect that a lot more.”

‘Must be doing something right if Fox is talking about me’

Thompson told me that he learned in the military both to be willing to
have conversations with people who have different perspectives and to
draw a line in the sand when someone doesn’t share your openness.

“You offer ’em a choice,” Thompson said. “I would prefer to
sit down and talk. But if you wanna be an ass, all right.”

While he does not identify as a democratic socialist like Sanders and
Ocasio-Cortez, Thompson is perceived at the national level as a party
rebel for his stances on the minimum wage, healthcare and other basic
assurances that all three candidates insist will summon voters
regardless of location in midterm primaries and elections this year.

“They’re not radical ideas – they’re commonsense ideas,”
Thompson told the crowd at the convention hall. They laughed when he
added, “That’s why we see a crowd of thousands here today when
there was a MAGA rally four days ago that had 50 people at it.”

But Thompson got some of the event’s wildest cheers when he spoke
about the supposedly more divisive matters of women’s reproductive
rights – he is a staunch defender of Roe v Wade – and drug laws.

“When people talk about raising money for our state? Here’s an
idea: legalize marijuana,” he said, and the crowd exploded.

Congressional candidate James Thompson, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez wave at the end of the campaign event. Photograph: Amy
Kontras for the Guardian

At another point, he called out false narratives about his home that
might cause some to be surprised by the massive gathering at noon on a
weekday, months before the election in a midterm year: “When people
wanna say this is Trump country, I say ‘hell no’.”

Video of this statement made it on to his least favorite cable
television network, later prompting Thompson to tweet with several
laugh-cry emojis: “Must be doing something right if Fox is talking
about me and causing alt-right heads to explode.”

It’s a herculean undertaking to fight the forces that work against
Thompson’s campaign: Fox News, the Koch brothers, his own Democratic
party. Where I’m from, there’s only one thing that might hold more
sway than they do: straight talk and an authentic handshake.

Solidarity from Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and other candidates and
activists across the country fortifies the progressive Kansans doing
the talking and shaking.

“If James wins here,” Sanders said onstage, “this will be not
only another progressive member to the Congress. This will be a shot
heard around – not just this country – the world.”

All three candidates challenged the crowd to channel the energy of the
moment into the civic action that might decide election outcomes.

“I’m just a figurehead,” Thompson said. “You are the way that
we flip this district. You are the ones that can make the changes that
you want. You are the ones that have the power in this country. It’s
not with the Koch brothers. It’s not with the big corporations.
It’s with you.”

The crowd cheered so loudly that a woman behind me plugged her ears
with her fingers.

“Ron Estes, I hope you look at this crowd and are shakin’ in your
boots,” Thompson said. “Because we’re coming for you.”

_Sarah Smarsh is a journalist and essayist covering socioeconomic
class in the US. Follow her on Twitter at @sarah_smarsh

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