As Democrats struggle to plug into the economy and continue to hemorrhage white working-class voters, national party leaders might want to take a long look at a state legislative race in Missouri for inspiration in the stride and head into 2024. President Joe Biden has been the best organized labor president since FDR, and if the party is content to just watch the polls and see where voters are going, unions may be the key to a victory democrat.
Adrian Plank does not have the experience of a typical politician because he never intended to become one. A union carpenter and former small business owner, whatever his veneer, he was honed knocking on doors in Boone and Randolph counties, pitching his biography and candidacy to locals. And when he diagnoses the issues affecting his community and the nation as a whole, he lays blame in no uncertain terms.
“If you’re working and living paycheck to paycheck, there’s not much you can do about politics, you just have to keep plugging in, and that’s the reason we don’t have of policies that help working people, just rich men,” Plank tells Progress Report, delivering his porch presentation and explaining his own political awakening. “I always tell people that the poor don’t write the tax codes. The people with all the money who own our government, they write it.
Running in a new iteration of a district now leaning slightly blue into a state settling red, Plank is betting on that kind of working-class economic populism to secure a crucial election victory in a troubled year. inflation and show the way forward for the Midwest Democrats.
Plank’s political awakening and journey trace the dissolution and radicalization of the American middle class. A carpenter by trade, Plank, now 49, spent a decade building a small business that installed granite surfaces — think showers and kitchens — in hotels across the country. The business continued to grow throughout the 2000s, taking it from its central Missouri home to new construction sites across the country and leaving it little time to think about the broader economy or the inner workings of government policy.
Then a gang of Wall Street bankers blew up the global financial system with junk mortgages and convoluted derivatives trading, which devastated everyone but was particularly catastrophic for the construction industry. Most jobs were drying up, and the jobs that were coming in sometimes made it nearly impossible to collect a paycheck.
“I look back and at one point paid myself eleven hundred dollars in two years,” Plank recalled. “It was about keeping employees paid. I would have a paying project [the company] $80,000, but it took them a year and a half to pay it off.
Working for essentially free was not viable, especially with a wife and small child at home, so Plank closed the business. The decline left him feeling “lost”, he now admits, and two years of selling cars in a weak economy provided no new direction. It wasn’t until Plank found a job as a union carpenter, and then became politically active, that purpose and motivation took over.
Inspired by an unlikely presidential campaign led by a Vermont horsefly senator in 2015, Plank helped co-found a local chapter of the sprawling grassroots organization Our Revolution. Operating alongside Bernie Sanders’ campaign, Plank and his co-founders spanned the Midwest, Iowa and Kentucky, canvassing the populist candidate and building infrastructure on the ground.
Hillary Clinton ended up edging out Sanders by less than 2,000 votes in Missouri, while the two candidates split state DNC delegates right in the middle. Plank did not object to the outcome, but instead focused on building from the ground up — a particularly difficult task for Democrats in Missouri.
It’s been a tough half-decade for Show Me State Democrats. The 2016 election heralded Missouri’s official transition from a swing state to a relatively red state, and the GOP used its ill-gotten legislative supermajority to suppress all Democratic priorities. Electoral losses have piled up, driving regular reshuffling at the top of the party that often results in the purging of institutional knowledge, Plank says.
The only mitigating factor was the ballot initiative process, which progressives used to win a higher minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, and campaign finance reform (although it was later gutted by the GOP). Voters in the state are also set to legalize marijuana through Direct Democracy in November as well.
As has been the case in many red states, voters have shown themselves more than willing to support progressive policies, even as they increasingly distrust Democrats. Plank has seen this dynamic firsthand, as he has been involved in each of the initiatives efforts while simultaneously running his own narrow campaigns for the legislature.
Missouri Republicans grabbed their supermajority after gerrymandering the state in the post-2010 redistricting cycle, passing the cards over Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto. As a result, Plank’s home in Columbia, in the relatively blue enclave of Boone County, was surrounded by more conservative rural territory.
Staggered district lines made his campaigns for state legislature in the very tough battles of 2018 and 2020, but Plank still outshot the average Democrat with 43% of the vote. It exceeded expectations in part by focusing on the incumbent’s dropout of public schools in a part of the state where many schools had been reduced to teach four days a week. It was a good enough show to suggest that a message from the working class, with a real budget behind it, could resonate with voters around the world.
The new Missouri maps place the 47th District entirely in Boone County, making it a bit more Democrat-friendly terrain. Between a named starter and better demographics, the district went from being an afterthought to being attractive enough to produce Plank’s first main opponent. It was a hard fight, exhausting campaign which pitted the union member against a local activist and supervisor of the child rights advocate. Plank ultimately won the nomination by less than 50 votes.
He is now up against a militant anti-abortion Republican in the general election, a glaring difference he uses to frame his case for campaign finance reform, which tops the list of issues he returns to time and time again.
Here is her argument: “The Supreme Court has ruled that it wants states to make policy, that the federal government cannot get involved, as it has with women’s rights. So if they’re going to say it’s up to the states, then let’s get that black money back from our state and stop allowing them to buy our policies and our politicians.
If elected, Plank promises to make a bill banning black money his top priority in the Legislature, even though he knows the odds are not in his favor: Republicans could still retain their supermajority. , while many Democrats have learned to love the big bucks in politics, as well. Missouri Democrats are no exception; in clearing the Senate ground for Trudy Busch Valentine, the party ousted well-regarded populists such as military vet and grassroots activist Lucas Kunce out of respect for an heiress to a legendary American fortune.
Plank complains about what he suggests was internal pressure from the National Party on behalf of Busch Valentine, who ultimately won only one victory over Kunce in the early August primaries. But this is domestic politics; Plank has publicly backed the party’s Senate candidate and was encouraged by her recent take on an issue he’s been trying to raise for years: Russian and Chinese companies. purchase of tens of thousands of acres farmland in Missouri.
“I think that’s kind of how you bridge those gaps with Republicans,” he explains. “Talk about these issues, understanding that we cannot sell our farmers downstream to foreign entities.”
He hits the beat with conviction, bringing up the issues he hears about the most while knocking on doors and meeting potential voters across the county. Unsurprisingly, the door-to-door conversations indicate that “most people are tuned in to policies that affect their wallets,” even as reproductive freedom, civil liberties and the future of democracy also continue to be at stake. Game.
Polls this fall consistently found voters were primarily concerned about the economic pain caused by soaring prices and slowing wage growth. Democrats trail Republicans by more than 30 points on the issue in some polls, largely because party campaigns have largely refused to engage on the issue.
Having put in place protections for workers, handed out historic direct stimulus to working families, and come one step closer to passing a broad social agenda, Democrats should have the credibility to compete on the issue, by especially when compared to a Republican Party increasingly funded by billionaires. Plank is betting his candidacy that he’s found a way to do it that seems to transcend partisanship while building a coalition in a part of the country where Democrats have barely competed.
“I don’t think it’s your party that matters,” says Plank, “if you can show people that you’re working class and you’re just there to make a difference, then they have sympathy. for this because most people are workers.
PS This is adapted from an article in my newsletter, Progress report. The newsletter focuses in-depth on progressive politics and politics, including great state and local government coverage you won’t get elsewhere, and holds bad Republicans accountable.
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