Shenna Bellows, the daughter of a carpenter and a nurse, spent her formative years working minimum-wage jobs. Through high school and college, the Maine native waited tables, worked retail, and even did a stint as a “Subway sandwich artist.” After graduating from college, she went on to join the Peace Corps and would eventually become the executive director of Maine's American Civil Liberties Union. Now, at 39, she’s the Democratic challenger running against Republican Sen. Susan Collins for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
In a post–Citizens United world, Bellows is not your average candidate: She’s receiving a good deal of her campaign contributions from the working-class masses instead of the rich few.
“The depth of our grassroots support has really helped us have the resources we need to run a competitive campaign,” Bellows said. The average contribution to her campaign is a mere $60, and she has “on principle” decided to not take any money from corporate PACs. Collins, a three-term incumbent, has received nearly $2 million from business-backed PACs this election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.
“Corporate money drowns out the voices of everyday people,” Bellows said.
Bellows is one of the few candidates running in the 2014 election who can legitimately identify themselves as a working-class candidate. She was named by Alternet as one of three candidates “who defend the working and middle class,” and she wears that title loudly, campaigning neither as a liberal or conservative politician but a “working class” one.
And while many political prospects like to talk up their blue-collar credentials to get votes, it has become increasingly hard for the everyday Joe to make it into office, even at the state or local level. The cost of running an election, taking time off work to campaign—even securing the opportunity to run for office in the first place—are all luxuries not afforded to the common man. But with unemployment persistently high despite the Great Recession being a distant memory on Wall Street, some think our representative democracy could use a couple of Joe the Plumbers, so to speak.
“Politicians have always been a lot better off than ordinary citizens," said Nicholas Carnes, assistant professor of public policy at Duke University and an expert in the role of class in government. And the glass ceiling of money that keeps the 47 percent—if not the 99—out of elected office can be a detriment to the rest of society. “Government by the rich really promotes government for the rich, and that’s often bad news for the rest of us,” Carnes told Pacific Standard earlier this year.
Most successful political candidates come from wealthy backgrounds and white-collar professions, such as law or medicine. In 1901, less than 2 percent of Congress came from working-class jobs, according to Carnes, and that figure hasn’t changed much over the past century. But the working class is loosing a foothold on the state and local level. Just a few years ago, about 5 percent of state lawmakers were working class; now, that number is down to 2 or 3 percent, he said.
The problem for all of those white-collar candidates is that the American public doesn’t always relate to the exceedingly rich—the ones who can afford a $10,000 wager (as John McCain placed at a 2011 debate), or a $400 haircut (which John Edwards repeatedly caught flack over before his downfall).
Although it is typically the media that meets elitism with pure disdain, the voters’ relationship with the rich is much more complicated—and even ambivalent, according to the Princeton report Campaigning With Class. While some see the wealthy as hardworking and successful, voters may also lack empathy and feel more envy toward the rich.
“On one hand, a majority of citizens believe the rich possess very positive traits that explain their accumulation of resources,” the report says. “On the other hand, Americans feel considerable aversion toward members of the upper class, perceiving them to be less warm than other social class groups.”
But since most political candidates don’t have their own resume as receptionists, servers, or construction workers, they often call upon their upbringing and their parents’ occupations to make themselves appear more relatable.
“Every election cycle there’s going to be politicians who play up their humble roots.” said Carnes. “Candidates have understandable strategic reasons to exaggerate how hard they’ve had it in life.”
Some candidates strategically play the (often unearned) poverty card too; in the 2012 campaign, tales of Mitt Romney using an ironing board for a table made their way around the Web, and more recently, Hilary Clinton talked about how she and Bill were “dead broke” after moving out of the White House.
But it’s really not all about image—a candidate’s background can have a profound effect on policy too. Getting a genuine working-class candidate into office can produce very real results for the state or even the country. These politicians tend to vote differently, think differently, and introduce different legislation, said Carnes.
“What really seems to matter in terms of predicting how a member of Congress behaves in office is what they really did for a living themselves,” he said.
Maine Congressman Mike Michaud, a Democrat, is a “case in point,” according to Carnes. Before getting into politics, he ran a forklift in a papermill, and remains one of Congress’ only card-carrying union members.
Michaud has proven true to his roots by consistently getting high marks from labor unions. In 2013, he voted with the AFL-CIO on 96 percent of the bills they scored, and he has even received the union’s Working Class Hero Award. The congressman, who has been in office since 2003, is running for governor of Maine this year. And adding to his multidimensional appeal, he came out as gay last year in an op-ed piece he released to three Maine papers. If he gets the governor slot, he will be the first openly gay person to win a governor’s race.
But no, not all working-class candidates, like Bellows and Michaud, are from Maine. (Although Bellows does say that the small size of the eastern seaboard state makes it easier to run a more affordable, grassroots campaign.) And not all blue-collar candidates are Democrats either. Dan Bongino is a Republican running for Congress in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District. He started a career in law enforcement, working for the New York Police Department before joining the Secret Service, eventually moving his way up the ranks to the Presidential Protective Division. Bongino was raised by a single mother, is now married to a first-generation immigrant, and is also the best-selling author of a book about his time with the Secret Service.
His own campaign started as a grassroots effort, and he’s continued to tout his working-class background, using it as the platform for his advertisements. His first campaign spot, which is no longer online, reportedly included scenes of him hitting a punching bag intercut with people working.
“I wanted my first ad to be a salute to working-class Americans just like me—the farmers, the small business owners, the manufacturers—who have been forgotten by this administration, they are now, and have always been, my inspiration and are the reason I’m running for Congress,” Bongino wrote on his blog.
Even if Bellows and Bongino were to win their races, the representation of the middle class in politics would still be flailing. The average member of Congress has spent less than 1.5 percent of his or her pre-congressional career doing manual labor or service industry jobs, according to Carnes. So in an attempt to boost these figures, certain labor unions have begun taking matters into their own hands by training their own workers to run for office.
The New Jersey State AFL-CIO’s Labor Candidates School is a well-established, two-day immersion program that recruits union workers with political potential and teaches them how to build a successful campaign—from attracting volunteers and handling the media to public speaking and campaign planning. This year a record-breaking 37 people participated in the course. Graduates have gone on to run for all types of government positions, from school boards to state legislatures.
The union’s program has a “stellar track record,” said Carnes, with graduates of the school winning 75 percent of the elections they run in, as well as continuing on to have successful careers in public service. “When working-class people run, they tend to do great in elections,” he added. This year, the program heads into uncharted territory as state Sen. Donald Norcross becomes the first labor school graduate to run for federal office—he’s running for the 1st Congressional District seat in New Jersey.
Research shows there are plenty of qualified middle- and working-class people with the potential to become political candidates, but they don’t often have the support they need to overcome basic obstacles, such as taking a leave from their regular job, according to a report coauthored by Carnes and UC Berkeley’s David Broockman. If public interest and advocacy groups start following organized labor’s lead and creating training programs of their own, there may be hope for future generations of working-class politicians.