In a dim corridor backstage, Vermont senator 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 replied.
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 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 on conservative candidates 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 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 InCahoots.
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 Guardian
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 photo 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 Washington.
“[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, 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 ?” 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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