Should Democrats present a moderate corporate-friendly agenda to try to win suburban swing voters, or should they instead embrace the populist politics of Bernie Sanders? Lee Carter, the self-described socialist who won a pivotal election in Virginia this week, says the latter path is the only way forward.
In a podcast interview with International Business Times, Carter discussed how his candidacy encapsulated the larger battle now roiling the Democratic Party — and how Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign may have created a legacy fundamentally reshaping the party from the ground up.
Carter is a 30-year-old Marine veteran. During the campaign, he declared that he was a democratic socialist and was met with skepticism by his state’s Democratic Party. That is because his populist campaign message was the opposite of what Democratic operatives have been telling candidates to run on in suburban districts like the one where he was competing. But Carter campaigned in support of a state-based single-payer health care system and union rights. At one point, he tweeted out himself putting a letter from an anti-union group into a paper shredder.
Carter’s opponent, the House of Delegates’ Majority Whip, sent out mailers likening him to Marx and Stalin. But on election night, Carter shocked Republicans and Democratic Party elites alike, winning by 9 points. It was one of the key victories that helped Democrats rack up historic gains in Virginia.
Subscribers can listen to the full podcast by clicking here. What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion.
What prompted you to jump into this particular race?
I was motivated to run for office after I got hurt at work in the summer of 2015. I was treated so horribly by my former employer and by the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission that I thought, I have to run for something, I have to fix this, because I can't allow anyone else to go through what I've been through...
I've been interested in politics my whole life, but the thought of running for office was sort of in the same place in my mind as the thought of winning the lottery. You know, it's that thing that you dream about when you're spacing out, instead of paying attention to what you should be paying attention to. But, yeah, it was the injury that really made me step forward and run for office.
I was installing lighting controls. I was a Virginia employee of a Georgia company and I got hurt in Illinois. I couldn't walk for about three months and came back to Virginia and took up the legal fight to get the compensation that I was owed… It highlighted to me the glaring loopholes and problems that have been intentionally inserted into worker protections over the last 40 years by corporate special interests.
Did the 2016 election play a formative role in your political outlook?
I've always been somewhat dissatisfied with the way that the Democratic Party acts when it gets into power, but I could never reconcile the two until 2016.
What we saw in the presidential race in 2016 was, we saw a formerly unknown independent senator from Vermont come out and say, “I'm a democratic socialist and this is what this means,” and he got 13 million votes in the Democratic primary. And then on the right we saw obviously the rise of Donald Trump as this sort of, you know, this anger that didn't really have a direction, that didn't really have a form, but his candidacy gave voice to that.
It really just showed me that the center of American politics, we've known it for a very long time, no longer holds. The common knowledge of the 1980s, 1990s, belongs in the 1980s and the 1990s, because people, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, people are hungry for a change from the status quo. The vast majority of people don't necessarily know what direction they want that change to go in, but they know that they want something different.
That's what the 2016 election showed me. It really gave me the example that I needed to actually pursue the politics of conviction and righteous indignation, and the politics of going out there and saying, “We need to rework our economy and make it an economy and a political system that works for working people first, and doesn't worry about how much large corporations can make in the process.”
For years, Democratic strategists have said that their party needs to run moderates in suburban districts. But you ran as a democratic socialist in one of those districts. What do you think your victory says about the party’s strategy?
My district, even thought it is a suburb of Washington D.C., it's the suburb where most of the blue-collar workers live. It's one of the more affordable places. We have a lot of people that are in the building trades. We have a lot of carpenters, painters, electricians, and so on and so forth, that live here and work throughout the rest of the D.C. area.
It's also one of the more diverse places in Virginia. Our population is about 13 percent African-American, about 23 percent Hispanic and Latino here in the 50th district, so when the conventional wisdom says that the sort of politics of working people can't work in the suburbs, they really discount the fact that 99 percent of people are working people.
There's only two ways to make a living. You either make a living through the work that you do, whether that be through brain or through muscle, or you make a living off of the money that you've already got. Those are your only two choices. And so when we go out there and talk about making life better for working people, there are a lot of blue-collar workers in my district who reacted to that, who said, “Yeah, I have heard the phrase, ‘If you fall off a ladder you're fired before you hit the ground.’” There are a lot of people who work for less than $15 an hour who we go out there and we say we're going to make sure that every job provides a living wage, and they know that their lives will actually improve immediately when we implement that.
This just goes to show that this sort of message of making life better for working people connects with working people, it connects with 99 percent of the population. It's sort of hard to get through a lot of people's pre-formed notion of their partisan identification. The Republican performance was fairly consistent with previous years, but we were able to go out there and target people who have been disaffected with the local process entirely.
We won on the back of thousands of votes of people who typically don't vote, or maybe only vote in presidential years. And because we were able to go out there with the help of hundreds of grassroots supporters knocking on doors for us, we were able to go out there and talk to people and give them a reason to be excited about a House of Delegates race that they would've otherwise ignored.
How do you define socialism, and did the label become a political liability for you in the campaign?
My opponent actually sent a mailer to about 11,000 homes in the district that featured pictures of Karl Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Lee Carter. So clearly the old Red Scare tactics of 40 and 50 years ago, they just don't work, because what democratic socialism is, is an economic philosophy that potentially says, “Worker-owned businesses are better than investor-owned businesses.” That's all it comes down to.
When you have a business that's owned by the employees where the decisions are made democratically in the workplace, that company is not going to ship its own jobs to China, that company is not going to downsize, it's not going to force people to work 80, 90 hours a week on starvation wages. These are things that just aren't going to happen if the people that are affected by the decisions are the people making the decisions.
And obviously it worked out. We were able to go out there and say, “Yes, I am a democratic socialist,” much like Bernie Sanders. We were able to go out there and say, “We want to empower working people both economically and politically. We want to bring democracy to the workplace and we want to bring healthcare to all Virginians as a human right,” and people responded to that.
Did you labeling yourself a socialist generate pushback from the Democratic Party establishment in Virginia?
Not over that specific label, but about my policy position, absolutely. Even before the presidential primaries of last year, the very first conversation that I had with the Democratic Party of Virginia, they told me, “You can run as far left as you want, but you're going to lose.”
Do you think the election in your district should be looked at as an example of how that notion, that conventional wisdom, should be rejected?
Absolutely. In the wake, particularly in the wake of last year's election, there's been a lot of hand-wringing within the Democratic Party and sort of the pundits out there about how did the Democrats lose white working class voters and how did the Democrats lose the enthusiasm among black voters, and all these various things that led to our loss in the presidential election last year to Donald Trump.
The fact that I was able to go out in a very diverse working class district and I was able to garner support across racial and ethnic lines on a platform of inclusion and a pro-worker stance, should show people in districts like that, in places like the Rust Belt and working class suburbs throughout the country, it's to show people that this is the message that you have to have if you want to excite a broad coalition of voters, and actually start winning elections again… I certainly hope it will provide a concrete example for candidates like me throughout the country to look to and to say, “This is a winning electoral strategy.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported “the Democratic Party establishment is aligned with Dominion Energy, a regulated monopoly and supportive of Dominion's desire to build the Atlantic Coast Natural Gas Pipeline across Virginia.” The paper went on to note that during the campaign, you opposed that plan. What kind of pushback did you get from your position on that issue?
[Dominion is] the largest single source of funding for both major political parties here in Virginia, and so whatever Dominion wants, Dominion gets. Things like this, the tight relationship between a lot of elected Democrats and the large corporate interests — you know, on the state level it's usually power utilities, on the federal level it's usually Wall Street — this tight relationship that they have allows the corporate interests to water down the Democratic Party's message, to make it wishy-washy and weak and something that you can't really convey to the voters, because it's confused about what exactly it is.
When you forego the funding from those corporate interests, it allows you to go out there and say, unabashedly, “If you work for a living, I'm going to make your life better,” because you're not taking money from the people that are going to have to pay for that. It strained the relationship a little bit between myself and particularly the state party. I had good relationships with the local parties and good relationships actually with the staff on the gubernatorial campaign in the regional office, but with the house caucus in Richmond, it was difficult because there are a lot of members in the house caucus who do take money from these large donors that I was actively attacking.
How do you think you're going to be received by your fellow Democratic legislators? Some of them have taken big donations from the very corporate interests that you were elected to challenge.
I see this as being on a bill-by-bill basis. Anytime somebody wants to work on a bill that'll make life better for people, I'll work with them on it. If they want to work on a bill that will make it easier for corporations to take advantage of working people, I'm going to fight them tooth and nail.
I'm going to be in an interesting position to both be an ally on some issues, and be a thorn in the side on others. I really feel like it's important for me to do that because the Democratic Party cannot just rest on opposition to Trump as the strategy going forward, because eventually Donald Trump's going to be gone and Donald Trump has the lowest approval rating of anything in American politics, and the second lowest is the Democratic Party.
We need to work on making the Democratic Party the kind of organization that people can be proud of, the kind of organization that people will gladly claim the name of and work to elect. Thankfully, we have a few years of grace period now to do that while Donald Trump is in the White House, and we can use that opposition to him for electoral advantage. But yeah, like I said, when he's gone, if we haven't fixed our own house by then, we're in for a world of hurt.Business0