Wichita, Kansas

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Democratic congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came to Kansas to prove a point. But it wasn’t the point that political and media elites imagined.

When Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez stumped for congressional candidates James Thompson, a civil-rights lawyer from Wichita, and Brent Welder, a labor lawyer from Bonner Springs, they were not talking about outflanking ideological rivals or moving pieces on a political chessboard. They were talking about issues that matter to working Americans.

What sort of issues? The sort that Thompson and Welder have made central to their campaigns: support for Medicare for All health-care reform, for an expansive commitment to civil rights, for women’s rights, for humane immigration policies, and for an economic-justice vision that is rooted in a commitment to worker-class empowerment.

Standing up for unions and their members in Kansas—a so-called “right-to-work” state where Republican governors have shredded workplace protections and embraced the anti-labor program of the Wichita-based Koch family—may seem like risky politics to some Democrats. But that’s simply not the case. This is smart politics at a time when Kansans, like working people nationwide, are justifiably enraged by the scorching inequality that the favored politicians of billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch have fostered in states across this country.

“I don’t think the people of Kansas or the people of Vermont or the people anywhere in this country think that it is appropriate that a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers can spend some $400 million in this 2018 election cycle to elect candidates to represent the wealthy and the powerful,” Sanders said as he discussed Thompson’s bid, “so I think a defeat of the Koch brothers, if you like, would be a very symbolic victory.”

As thousands cheered in Wichita, Sanders shouted: “I believe that every state in this country where people are struggling for a decent life is a state that will fight for justice.”

Ocasio-Cortez was preaching the same gospel, arguing before she arrived in Kansas that “an honest, grassroots, lobbyist-free movement for working-class Americans can work anywhere.”

Ocasio-Cortez had her faith confirmed in Wichita, where she thanked an exceptionally enthusiastic crowd for showing her that “girls from the Bronx are welcome everywhere.” The New Yorker hailed Thompson as “a candidate who cares for the needs of working-class people” and brought thousands of Kansans to their feet with a declaration that “wherever there [are] working-class people, there is hope for the progressive movement.”

What Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez talked about in Wichita and Kansas City is a reversal of the equation the Koch brothers and their fellow donors put in place after the Republican “wave” election of 2010. Corporate-aligned governors and legislators, elected with strong support from the Kochs, moved immediately to attack public-sector unions and implement anti-labor legislation—not just in Republican-leaning states such as Kansas but in historically progressive states like Wisconsin.

The fights of the past decade have created a “Which side are you on?” moment in America, and a new generation of candidates—running in red and blue states—has answered that question with an ardently pro-worker, pro-union politics.

Friday’s visits by a pair of nationally prominent progressives to Wichita and Kansas City focused attention on the insurgent candidates in Kansas—both of whom face August 7 primaries and, if they prevail, tough general-election battles with Republican incumbents. But Thompson and Welder were running on working-class issues long before they found themselves standing before thousands of cheering supporters at Friday’s mass rallies.

As with Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, these are some of the core issues that drew the Kansas candidates into politics. Thompson concluded his remarks in Wichita by urging working women and men to believe: “You are people who have power in this country. It’s not the Koch brothers. It’s not the big corporations.”

Welder’s message is the same. “I’m running for Congress because billionaires and giant corporations have too much control over our government,” he declared, bluntly adding that “as a workers’-rights advocate and labor lawyer, I’ve spent my career fighting the giant corporations that rig the economy against workers and our community.”

That’s not a slogan. That’s a passion, as the profile on Welder’s campaign website explains:

Throughout his life, Brent has fought alongside workers across the country for higher wages, safer workplaces, and better benefits. As National Field Director for the Teamsters union, Brent organized over a million union members to help elect pro-worker candidates at the national, state, and local levels. After law school, instead of joining a corporate law firm, he became a labor lawyer for a national labor union, and continued to fight the biggest, greediest corporations on behalf of middle-class workers. Brent strongly opposes the recent Supreme Court Janus v. AFSCME decision, and all so-called “Right to Work” legislation, and will fight to expand union workers’ ability to organize.

Thompson, who credits public education and public programs with making it possible for him to break a cycle of poverty and homelessness, is equally outspoken about his agenda.

In the hometown of the Kochs, Thompson argues that Kansans face a very different set of challenges than those imagined by the local billionaire class. “The way of life for working families is under attack,” his campaign website notes. “James will work to bring the minimum wage up to a Kansas living wage. Full-time workers should not be forced to live in poverty. James believes no one working full-time should have to work multiple jobs to put food on the table for their families. It’s time to rein in unfair tax schemes for the ultra-rich that leave working people behind.”

To that end, Thompson joins Welder in rejecting the anti-union propaganda of the Kochs. “James strongly believes in workers’ rights to organize at the workplace,” his campaign website continues. “He will fight to protect and strengthen unions and collective bargaining rights for all workers.”

This is bolder and more specific language than many Democrats have employed in recent years, especially when it comes to discussions about how to address economic inequality. But Thompson does not believe it’s too bold for Kansas. The former representative from the district he seeks to represent—Mike Pompeo, now secretary of state in the Trump administration—was referred to as “the congressman from Koch.”

Thompson—like Welder, and Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez—thinks the time has come to fill the US Capitol with representatives of America’s too-long-neglected working class.

“Corporations are buying politicians left and right. We’ve seen a lot of that in Kansas, and I think it’s clear that has hurt working people,” Thompson says. “So I think there should be a few of us in Washington who just can’t be bought off, who are just going to be on the side of the unions.”