Boyle Launches Blue Collar Caucus

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BY TONY WEST

A band of Democratic members of Congress are seeking to restore the working-class brand to their party in the wake of the disappointing 2016 election results by reaching out to their onetime core constituency of blue-collar voters.

For generations, blue-collar voters – people who were not poor and held steady jobs, but did not aim to complete college – were the backbone of a Democratic Party that dominated national and state elections in most states. But their allegiance began to waver in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Era and the social upheavals of the 1970s. Enough disaffected working-class voters abandoned Hillary Clinton in key states last November to throw the Electoral College to Republican Donald Trump.

CONGRESSMAN Brendan Boyle

To push the reset button on the future of the party, Congressman Brendan Boyle (D-Phila.), together with Congressman Marc Veasey (D-Tex.), launched the Blue Collar Caucus on Dec. 1. They began recruiting colleagues over the holiday season; Boyle estimates the group will number a couple of dozen by the end of January.

“We came back to Washington after New Year’s Day and sat down to plan out the events we want to be doing during the whole year,” Boyle said.

Nationwide, 67% of non-college-educated whites voted for Trump, according to CNN’s election poll. But although most nonwhite Democratic blue-collar voters stayed loyal to the party, they, too, saw a falloff, drifting away from the Clinton ticket by about the same percentage. In 2016, this disaffection was the difference between winning and losing the White House.

The Blue Collar Caucus hopes to bring them back by concentrating on messages that unite working-class voters across racial lines. While Boyle’s 13th Dist. in Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County is largely white, Veasey’s 33rd Dist. in Fort Worth and Dallas is largely Hispanic while Veasey himself is Black.

In Pennsylvania, the damage to the Democratic Party was widespread, as Republicans took General Assembly seats in blue-collar parts of the state that had long dependably elected Democrats.

“I lost suburban Montgomery County when I ran for Congress in my first primary,” said Boyle. “But I won by putting together a coalition of blue-collar voters with low-income voters. That unites people and focuses on their concerns.

“I agree Democrats have not been focusing on the problems of blue-collar Americans,” he continued. There is a widespread malaise in their communities, he said, a feeling that the future is no longer theirs.

CONGRESSMAN Matt Cartwright

Boyle’s Pennsylvania colleague, Matt Cartwright (D-Lackawanna), who serves the 17th Dist. that reaches from Scranton to Bethlehem and Pottsville, is also on board the Blue Collar Caucus. He, too, is dissatisfied with what he sees as the party’s drift away from working-class lives.

“These are my people,” Cartwright said. “And they’re hurting. It isn’t working out so well for them. We fell down on the job in the presidential election, making them understand we were really standing up for their needs.”

Democrats have not lost disaffected blue-collar voters for good, Boyle insists. He pointed out that Bernie Sanders also did well in the same communities where Trump scored big, especially in states with open primaries.

A Fading Dream

But Trump’s victory gives the Blue Collar Caucus an exciting opportunity by putting the spotlight on this demographic and its problems. “These were issues that were getting very little attention in Washington and state capitals: the dramatic decline of well-paid industrial jobs and the consequent hopelessness, drug abuse and suicide,” Boyle said.

“The diseases of hopelessness seem primarily economic issues. But they go to the heart of the American Dream. Blue-collar workers are still working as hard as their parents but they’re not doing as well,” he noted. “Look at the World War II generation: 92% of blue-collar people earned more than their parents. Today that number has fallen to 40%. Average household income has been stagnant for over two decades.”

Wage growth must be put on the front burner, Boyle stated. “We’re talking now about raising the minimum wage by 100%; it’s a disgrace that it’s been frozen for so long. But we can’t just make that our entire policy. What about others who are above the minimum wage but whose wages are stuck?”

Economic advancement is increasingly tied to academic advancement. But with college costs higher than many workers’ annual pay and climbing, the path upward for their children looks steep and rocky.

The Blue Collar Caucus hopes to find common ground with Trump in several areas where he appears to be at odds with typical Republican conservatives.

“Don’t come out of the gate attacking Donald Trump,” Cartwright advised. “People were looking for a big change and he offered it. He may not come through, but give him a chance.”

Instead, the caucus aims to keep a scorecard of Trump’s campaign promises that jibe with traditional working-class Democratic goals: preserving Social Security and Medicare, striking trade deals that safeguard American workers, and boosting public investments in infrastructure. They will back him if he delivers, and will hold his feet to the fire if he doesn’t.

In the process, the caucus may be able to drive a wedge between the Republican congressional majority and their president.

“House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan is to abolish the Affordable Care Act by privatizing health care through vouchers,” Boyle said. “But ‘affordable care’ is blue-collar care. The beneficiaries of the ACA are overwhelmingly working-class. These citizens will not be helped by its repeal.”

Boyle predicts that now the context of campaigning is over and Republicans must craft actual policy, facts on the ground will put them in a bind.

Some of Trump’s foreign-policy leanings may not endear him either to working-class citizens or congressional Republicans, however. Cartwright, pointing to politically motivated hacking by Russia and other oversea rivals of the USA, said his GOP colleagues are “jittery” about these developments after confidential briefings by the intelligence community.

“Right now, we are at cyber war,” said Cartwright. “Enemies are attacking America’s democracy and sovereignty. They don’t want to see democracy succeed. I think my blue-collar constituents are with me all the way on this one.”

Talking Tactics for 2017

The first move by the Blue Collar Caucus is to schedule regular “Special Orders.” These are events staged on the floor of the House of Representatives after that body has officially adjourned. The chamber usually empties but the cameras keep rolling as a caucus of like-minded representatives takes turns speaking, for up to four hours most nights. This particular caucus is booked for one hour.

In effect, this creates a “BCC Show” series. In these Special Orders, caucus members will hone Democratic messages targeted to their blue-collar base.

Then they’ll take their show on the road. Boyle, their co-chair, reports they are already planning a tour of Texas, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They’ll look for venues where they can connect with grassroots working people to reconnect with voters whom Hillary lost, but whom other Democrats can win.

It’s important not just to pitch working-class people, but to listen to them and talk with them first, both congressmen stressed.

“I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing,” Cartwright said. “I enjoy town halls. They know I’m not pulling any punches.”

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