Lee Carter: ‘Your Elected Representative Is Part of the Problem’

Lee Carter: ‘Your Elected Representative Is Part of the Problem’

This week on the Next Left podcast, the Virginia delegate who isn’t afraid to be called a socialist.


This week’s podcast takes us to Virginia, where we talk to Lee Carter, Marine Corps veteran, Democratic Socialist, Lyft driver, and member of the Virginia House of Delegates. When Carter was elected in 2017, as part of a Democratic wave that transformed the legislature and Virginia politics, he celebrated by leading his supporters in a rousing rendition of the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever.” That was just one of many signals that Carter planned to shake things up in Richmond. And so he has!

We talk with this rabble-rousing legislator about tangling with the Democratic establishment and reactionary Republicans, about his fight to upend Virginia’s anti-union “Right-to-Work” law and power up organized labor in the south, about how he has made himself one of the most transparent political figures in the country, and about the genius of Billy Bragg’s version of “The Internationale.” “So comrades, come rally… for this is the time and place!”

Subscribe to Next Left on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Show Notes

Since Trump’s Victory, Democratic Socialists of America Has Become a Budding Political Force, The Nation, Anna Heyward

The 7,282-Seat Strategy, The Nation, Joan Walsh

Lee Carter’s Campaign for Labor Rights in Virginia Is Important for All Working Americans, The Nation, John Nichols

The Racist Roots of Right to Work, AFSCME Now

A Virginia politician’s novel approach to personal scandal: Tell all before opponents doWashington Post, Paul Schwartzman

GOP delegate Miller’s mailer compares Democratic opponent to Stalin, communistsRichmond Times-Dispatch, Patrick Wilson

Carter Singing Solidarity Forever on His Election Night, from YouTube

The Internationale, Billy Bragg

This episode of Next Left was produced and edited by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our executive producers are Frank Reynolds, Erin O’Mara, and Katrina vanden Heuvel. Big thank you this week to Nation engagement editor Annie Shields. Recording help this week from Tom Bernath and Angelo Bautista. Our theme song is “Deli Run” by Ava Luna.

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Full Transcript

Introduction by John Nichols: This is John Nichols of The Nation magazine. Welcome to Next Left. This week we’re visiting Virginia. 50 years ago, a fellow named Henry Howell almost got elected Governor of Virginia. He was a Democrat, but the Democrats didn’t like him very much because they said he was too radical. And the Republicans, well they just hated him. But Henry didn’t care. He built a multiracial coalition against the big corporations. He was pro-civil rights in the 1960s, pro women’s rights and pro-union. His slogan was “Keep the Big Boys Honest.” After Henry Howell got beat, it seemed as if his kind would never be seen again. Well meet Lee Carter, a 31-year-old working man who’s pro-civil rights, pro-women’s rights, pro-union. He’s also an anti-war Democratic Socialist and he’s sitting in the Virginia House of Delegates, the same legislative chamber where Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Henry Howell once sat.

John Nichols: Lee Carter, welcome to Next Left.

Lee Carter: Thank you so much for having me on John.

John Nichols: Hey Lee, it’s, it’s fair to say that you got shocked into politics.

Lee Carter: Yeah

John Nichols: And what I mean by that is, you grew up military family, joined the Marines, served in the Middle East, came back, and you became an IT guy, a tech. And why don’t you pick the story up from there?

Lee Carter: Yeah. So, I was an electronics repairman in the Marine Corps. And when I got out of the Marine Corps, I started working fixing cancer therapy equipment for a few years and I absolutely loved that work, but I didn’t love doing 70-hour weeks. And so I started bouncing around a little bit trying to find something that was a little bit more conducive to having a personal life. I ended up in lighting controls, and that’s where I got hurt at work. I was working on a lighting control panel, the electrician that installed it had mis-wired it, so instead of 24 volts on a line there was 245. Thankfully it didn’t stop my heart, it didn’t clog my kidneys. Those are the two major ways that that sort of thing can kill you. But it did do some pretty serious damage to my lower back. I was essentially bedridden for about two months. I mean, I could walk, but maybe about 50-feet at a stretch and the workers’ comp doctors were just trying to give me pain pills and get me out the door. And so I finally went to a doctor with my private insurance, it was the last thing I did before my employer canceled that health insurance, and the guy got me back up and running. And I called my boss I said, “Hey, I’m ready to go back to work.” And they said, “We have work, but none for you, because the customer you are contracting for it doesn’t want you on their job sites.”

John Nichols: Why didn’t they want you there?

Lee Carter: I mean, anybody who works in the building trades has probably heard the phrase, “If you fall off a ladder, you’re fired before you hit the ground.” And that’s the sort of thing that’s said as a joke, but it’s completely serious. If you get hurt at work and you file a workers comp claim, you’re a troublemaker, you’re done. You gotta find a new job. And so, I went to some folks that I knew that worked for state legislators and I said, “Hey, you know, what’s, what’s your boss gonna do about workers comp? Because this is completely broken.” And nobody had an answer. And one person even told me, “Oh, we don’t have any polling data on workers comp. So I don’t know.” And I realized at that point that if it was going to get fixed, it was going to have to be someone with a personal experience. And I met the description there. So I decided to go ahead and run for the House of Delegates, and I was primarily motivated to fix the workers comp system and everything else sort of came later.

John Nichols: So, is it fair to say that you weren’t particularly political at the point where you decided to run for the state legislature?

Lee Carter: Well, I was a politics nerd, but that never went beyond arguing with people on the Internet, right? Which I still do, which my campaign manager would probably not be thrilled about, but it never, it never rose above that.

John Nichols: So you were interested in politics, you talked a lot of politics, but had you ever worked on a campaign?

Lee Carter: No, I mean, I volunteered to knock on doors for Obama in 2012, but that was it.

John Nichols: So this was kind of a big learning curve, and interestingly, you decided to do this, to run for the legislature, sometime in 2016–during the presidential election?

Lee Carter: Yeah.

John Nichols: You were quite inspired by what Bernie Sanders did.

Lee Carter: Yeah, I started hearing about Bernie Sanders right around the time that I decided to run for office. Here was this guy who was making clear, convincing moral arguments, talking about the kind of society that he thinks we should have, and he called himself a socialist. And that inspired me to sort of Google, “What is socialism?” Because at that point I had no idea. I just had always considered myself a Democrat. I was inspired by the New Deal Democrats of days gone by, and always sort of disgruntled by what I saw from Democrats that were actually in power throughout my whole life. But I never really had an explanation for why that was until I saw what happened with Bernie’s 2016 presidential campaign.

John Nichols: And, when you Googled socialism, did you say, “Oh man, that’s what I am?” Or did you read a lot? What happened there?

Lee Carter: Yeah, I read a lot. I started listening to some contemporary voices on the left. You know, folks like Richard Wolff, who runs Economic Update podcast and Democracy at Work. Reading up on the history of the labor movement and the bloody, violent labor wars that we had in the late-19th and early-20th century in America that, that are just not taught about in history classes. And when I started reading about socialist analysis of politics and the economy, it all made sense and it all completely explained everything that I had a problem with. It completely explained everything that I sort of fundamentally believed but didn’t have the words for. And, I tell you, I was not excited by the fact that it described me, right? I mean, it was, it wasn’t, “Yay, this is what I am.” It was, “Oh, dammit, I am one.”

John Nichols: “I’m gonna have to go out and be this for the rest of my life.”

Lee Carter: Yeah, exactly. I wasn’t really making a big deal about it and my campaign or in my personal life, I just said, “Okay, this describes what I believe, but these are the issues that I’m running on, right? I’m running on fixing the workers’ compensation system, making sure that people have democratic control over their workplaces, and making sure that we have a healthcare system that guarantees everyone can see a doctor.” And it was my opponent in 2017 that actually made a big deal about it first.

John Nichols: Let’s talk about your opponent. This is an interesting thing because you like a challenge, clearly.

Lee Carter: Absolutely.

John Nichols: When you decided to run for the legislature, you decided to run in a pretty Republican area and you ran against, am I right, the number three guy in the Republican caucus in the state legislature, one of the most powerful Republicans in the capitol.

Lee Carter: Yeah, that’s right. And you know, he was the majority whip in the house, and this was a time when the Republican caucus was one seat away from a super majority. So, he was leadership in a massively powerful, deeply entrenched Republican party that was extraordinarily well-funded by big corporate interests. And so, I knew there was absolutely no way I was ever gonna raise more money than this guy. I knew if I somehow raised a million dollars, he would raise two. And so, we just went out there and made the case for the kind of society that we want to live in, and talked to people at their doorsteps, and got people excited, gave people who traditionally have not voted in state legislative races in the past, a reason to believe that this election actually mattered.

John Nichols: So you built up this incredible campaign. You had grassroots supporters, you had a real message and at a certain point—even though your opponent was very powerful, very connected, had a lot of money—your opponent clearly realized that you were a threat, and then your race produced some of the most bizarre direct mail I’ve ever seen in American politics.

Lee Carter: Absolutely. My predecessor sent a piece of direct mail out to, my guess is about 11,000 homes, that had sort of the communist Pantheon, right? So it had Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Lee Carter. And all of the copy on that ad was talking about my healthcare plan, because if there’s one thing people remember Stalin for, it’s the health insurance. I was mad for a couple of days, but then I realized that this is absurd. And I sort of, embraced the absurdity and started using it, as essentially a shorthand for pointing out whenever the right-wing of American politics goes off the rails. Accusations of being a socialist or a communist is something that Republicans have been beating liberals over the head with for forty years. But, we’re in a completely different political era. The majority of the voting population now is folks under 40 who, if they remember the Soviet Union’s existence at all, it was a childhood memory. When the Berlin Wall fell, I was four. And we’re at this point now where they can say whatever they’re going to say, and then you just describe yourself, and it shows a lack of good faith on their part, that they don’t even try to understand the distinction between folks on the left. You know, leftist infighting is a very long and storied tradition, there’s absolutely no understanding of any of that, and they just say, “Oh, Nancy Pelosi is gonna Gulag your grandma.” It’s absurd. And so you just sort of laugh at it, and you articulate your position, and it kind of bounces off these days. And my position, I’m a socialist. I draw heavily from the syndicalist tradition, so my positions are people should have democratic ownership and control over their workplace, because we spend the majority of our adult lives at work where we don’t have any democracy at all. And so if you spend the majority of your life in an area where there’s no democracy, how can you say you live in a democracy? Right? And there’s all sorts of things that follow on from that. If you have a democratically controlled workplace, there are a lot of things that are never going to happen. You’re never gonna ship your own jobs overseas to make more money for the owners. You are the owners, right? You’re never gonna disregard the environmental consequences of what you’re doing, because it’s your kids that are drinking the water that you would be polluting, and breathing the air that you would be polluting. And you wouldn’t have these enormous concentrations of wealth and power in our political system. So really, when you talk about building a democratic society where people who are impacted by decisions are the people making those decisions, it has to start in the workplace.

John Nichols: You brought some of that home, on your victory night.

Lee Carter: Right.

John Nichols: You won by a pretty convincing margin on a night when a lot of other Democrats won legislative seats. It was seen as this kind of surge that came through, and there were so many incredible victories on that night in Virginia. But the striking thing about yours was that at a certain point when victory was declared, you responded not with a speech, but with a song.

Lee Carter: Yeah. We sang an old union hymn, “Solidarity Forever,” because I figured “The Internationale” might be a little aggressive.

Audio from Video: There’s a song that comes to mind, those of you who know, join in. When the union’s inspiration through the worker’s blood shall run-

Lee Carter: A bunch of my supporters from socialist organizations knew the words to “Solidarity Forever.” But, you know, we were at the local Democratic Party’s watch party. And so, you know, the local Democrats were just sort of astounded and looking around like, “What in the hell was happening.”

Audio from Video Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong! Thank you, Lee!

Lee Carter: It was a good night. I was horribly off key, we were exhausted from essentially five straight days of the hardest campaigning of my life and Get Out the Vote weekend, and we were one of the first elections to be called in the entire state.

John Nichols: It’s pretty amazing. And you went off down to the capitol with a Democratic Governor, Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Democratic Attorney General. And Democrats didn’t have full control of the legislature, but they had a lot more heft, a lot more power. But you hit the ground running as a legislator. And one of the interesting things about it is that, you didn’t fit in immediately. I hope I’m not making you feel bad, but tell us about that.

Lee Carter: No, you’re absolutely right. Being the only elected socialist in a Republican-held chamber in the South, I very much feel like an invader down there, even within my own caucus. I realized very early on when the Republicans barely maintained control of the house, when we did not take control of the chamber, that my name was going to be a party line issue, and didn’t realize how far that was gonna go, until I presented my first bill, which was to make cars stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, because current law says yield. I tried to change the word “yield” to the word “stop” and I got a party line vote in subcommittee and I realized, “Oh, okay. All right, this is how it’s gonna be. You know, we’re, we’re not going to be winning these fights through persuasion,” right? I realized it’s gonna be through uh public pressure and attrition. So, from that point forward, it was sort of eyes on 2019 to make sure that after the next election I came back in a majority, where the people who had been roadblocks to my bills weren’t there anymore. And so, we have a lot of very hard to oppose bills. My legislative philosophy working from the minority has been that a lot of my bills will be stripped down to the bare minimum. A singular change to correct a singular injustice. And so I carried a bill that says that you can’t fire someone for getting hurt at work. That’s it, that bill doesn’t touch anything else about workers comp. Just, you can’t fire someone because they got hurt at work, killed on a party line vote. A bill to say that when you file a workers comp claim, your employer has twenty-one days to let you know what they’re gonna do with the claim. Killed on a party line vote.

John Nichols: So you came there and started working. This is one of the things as I’ve watched you in the legislature: you have stuck to a lot of your hardcore, essential working class, workers’ interest issues. But you have also been willing to go big on this.

Lee Carter: Yeah.

John Nichols: Because Virginia was one of the first states in the country to do a right-to-work law–part of the south where right-to-work has been a huge barrier to union organizing. Right-to-work laws are not really right to work at all. They are in fact laws developed by right-wing interests back in the post-World War II era to make it very, very hard to organize a union, make it very hard to maintain a union. They are, frankly, rooted in segregationists who didn’t like the fact that the CIO was coming in with multiracial unions. So, you, in Virginia, proposed to get rid of right-to-work.

Lee Carter: Yeah. You know, so there were basically two kinds of bills that I put in. There were those small ones that were meant to correct singular injustices, and also to make opposition to them completely untenable, so the folks who have been roadblocks to progress don’t come back. But the second kind of bill that I’ve been introducing are these big, overarching, the sweeping changes of putting out the vision of the kind of society that we want to live in. And you’re absolutely right about the history of Virginia’s Right-to-Work law. Taft-Hartley was through the Congress in 1947 and same year, 1947, Virginia was one of the first states to enact that policy, after states were allowed to do it. For those who may not be familiar, it sounds good on the label: Yeah, you have the right to work, right? But it’s an intentional misnomer. What it really is, is the right to freeload, because labor law requires that a union bargain on behalf of everybody in the bargaining unit, and a right-to-work law says that you can get the benefits of the union that your coworkers are paying into and refuse to pay into it. So it’s a freeloader protection that’s designed to bankrupt unions, and it came about in this tremendously racist, segregated south. It was pushed largely by southern legislators who were cozy with business interests and who wanted to maintain segregation and wanted to maintain that sort of, you know, genteel class control over American politics. And it was aimed at bankrupting unions that were organizing across racial lines. They wanted to exploit this idea among white workers back then that you’re paying for a union that black workers are taking advantage of. I had a lot of very angry conversations behind the scenes after I introduced that bill. You know, a lot of my colleagues had essentially begged me not to introduce it. They underestimated how popular fighting for working people can be when you actually do it. You know, when you stand up and you put your name on it and you say, “I’m going to empower you in the workplace and in our politics.” And you know, looking back at the data, you know, we just, we had a ballot referendum on whether or not to add Right-to-Work to our state constitution in 2016. It was overwhelmingly defeated. I think about a 10-point margin. In 2018, Missouri, which is a much redder state than Virginia, they overturned their state’s right to work law with a ballot referendum by a two-to-one margin. I mean, it was, it was like 66-34.

John Nichols: That’s right.

Lee Carter: And you look at the areas in Virginia where people voted to keep right to work out of the constitution, and it’s very surprising, it’s the poor areas essentially, it’s places with working class folks. The Right-to_Work laws, very popular in sort of liberal-leaning rich suburbs, but in places like Manassas and places like Newport News and even rural Appalachia, southwest Virginia, where people have this sort of ancestral memory of “my granddaddy was in a union, my daddy was in union. God, it would be nice if I could get a union job.” Those are the places that voted against it, and those are the areas that the Democratic Party really struggles to grow in. And another bill that I introduced, which would have legalized public sector strikes. So right now if a public sector employee, like a teacher, were to go on strike, they’re automatically deemed by law to have resigned from their position and they are permanently ineligible from being a public sector employee in Virginia again, and so I had a bill to overturn that. And both of those bills went to the rules committee, which is the speaker’s personal committee, and the expectation was the speaker is going to put these both on the floor, he’s gonna make all 100 members take an up or down vote on each of these bills, and they’re going to fundraise off of them. And then an interesting thing happened about a quarter of the way through the legislative session, we had 6,000 teachers and other union members show up on the capitol steps, from all corners of the Commonwealth. And a lot of them came from areas in southwest Virginia, you know, these Republican-held but very culturally pro-union areas, and they all went around the Pocahontas building, which is our legislative office building. And they talked to their delegates and senators and they said, “We’re out here. We’re energized. We’re paying attention to the next elections and we’re paying attention to Lee Carter’s bills.” And then the very interesting thing that happened as a result was after they left that same afternoon, the speaker called a meeting of the rules committee, and referred those bills to the regular committees that they would have gone to. He referred the Right-to Work-Repeal to Commerce and Labor, and he referred the Public Sector Right to Strike to General Laws. And what do you know? Neither one of them ever got a hearing. Nobody ever voted on either of those bills.

John Nichols: But you’ll keep talking about ’em

Lee Carter: Oh, absolutely. And they’re both coming back next year.

John Nichols: You’re doing this as a working person. And I think one of the most fascinating things about you is that you serve in a legislature, like many around the country, that doesn’t pay its members a fortune. You work as a… do you work as a Lyft driver?

Lee Carter: Yeah, that’s right. My professional background, I had two categories of work that I did. One was in the medical field, repairing biomedical devices. So, you know, some cancer therapy equipments, some ophthalmology testing devices, and the other category of work that I’d done before was very high travel. And neither of those are conducive to a schedule where I have to be in Richmond for two months out of every year and I have to be down here to campaign for reelection and do constituent services work and all that. So, you know, it sort of precludes me from doing work in my field. And the combination of that very strange and very demanding schedule and part-time pay serves as a structural barrier to keep working class people out of political conversations. So I’m doing whatever it takes to make ends meet, and what that means for me is driving for Lyft on the side just to get me that extra little bit, so that I can pay the bills and keep the lights on. Because I’m not going to be stopped from fighting to make life better for working people. I don’t care what challenges there are. I don’t care what structural hurdles there are. Through essentially sheer force of will, I’m going to be here and you’re going to have to deal with me and my bills and the people who support those bills, and that’s the most important one, the people who support those bills. Because we have people throughout this Commonwealth that are gonna benefit immensely from policies that empower working class people and they’re in every legislative district. And we gotta go out there, we’ve gotta talk to them, we got to tell them, “These are the policies that are on the table. This is how it’s gonna impact your day-to-day life. This is how it’s gonna make your life better. And your elected representative is part of the problem. He’s part of the reason we can’t pass this.”

John Nichols: When Lyft went on strike, when some Lyft drivers and Uber drivers struck, you joined them. You have an incredibly active Twitter feed, and you talked about supporting that strike. And I have to tell you, when I think about legislatures across the country, I don’t think there are that many members of legislatures who participate in a strike.

Lee Carter: Yeah. You know, when I tweeted about it, I didn’t expect it to be as big of a deal as it was. This is just my life. For me it’s normal. I’m doing what I gotta do to pay the bills, but I guess it resonated with a lot of people, because I said, “Hey, I’m participating in this strike. I’m not turning on the Lyft driver app tomorrow. I’m out here. I’m supporting my, my fellow rideshare drivers because we’re fighting for a better life.” And I guess it resonated with people, because it just went wild on Twitter.

John Nichols: Well, a lot of what you do goes wild on Twitter. You did something that, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any other politician do. You went on Twitter and you basically tried to speculate about everything you’d done that your opponents would attack, ah, or everything they might bring up about your past. Why did you do that?

Lee Carter: Yeah, I mean, I think we’re entering a time in politics that’s sort of post-privacy. Folks my age, I’m 31 about to be 32, folks my age and younger, we grew up with social media, right? So we had our awkward transitional years online in a searchable format. And so, every mistake that you can possibly imagine that that you’ve made in your own life could potentially come back. Gone are the days of politicians with a perfectly manicured public perception, right? You can’t alter your own personal history and you can’t hide it from people anymore. And so I just, I talked about all the things in my life that could potentially come up because I realized, looking around at some of the other socialists that were running for office throughout the country in 2018, when I was not up for reelection, I saw that attacking those folks on the issues was failing, and the right was starting to attack them on their personal histories. And so I said, “Let’s just head that off at the pass. I’m going to tell everybody everything about my life. I have nothing to hide.” These are the parts that I’m embarrassed about. These are the parts that I’m proud of. This is my life. I am a person and I’m fighting for people. I’m not a brand. I’m a human being with a history. And if you like that, you’ll like it. If you don’t like it, I’ll try to do this without you. I got a lot of concerned phone calls from my older colleagues the day after, saying, “What are you doing? You’re giving the Republicans all this ammo.” But there was a generational divide. My younger colleagues understood exactly what I was doing. My older colleagues were freaking out, and there was sort of a generational divide in how it was received by the public too, especially where I talked about the fact that, I’m someone who, my entire dating life has been in the smartphone era. So, you know, I don’t know what my ex-girlfriends did with certain pictures of me. I don’t know if they deleted them. I don’t know if they still exist. That’s a thing that might come out. And older folks that are involved in politics saw that and said, “Oh my goodness, this guy is talking about how there may be nude photos of him somewhere.” And folks my age and younger are just like, “Oh yeah, yeah. That’s something I think about too.” But I tell you, it’s just radical honesty, going out there and not trying to cover up any part of my past, not trying to have, as Hillary Clinton said, “public positions and private positions,” just talking about who I am, where I came from and what I’m fighting for in the same exact language behind closed doors as I do in front of the public. It’s tremendously liberating.

John Nichols: Before we finish up, I want to ask you: On your election night you sang “Solidarity Forever,” do you have a favorite political song?

Lee Carter: Yeah, “The Internationale,” I’m partial to the Billy Bragg version, I know that’s a controversial choice on the left, but you know I feel that the lyrics to that version are approachable. It’s in modern language, and it starts off, “Stand up all victims of oppression for the tyrants fear your might / Don’t cling so hard to your possessions, you have nothing if you have no rights.” Yeah I mean that really sums it up, we’re fighting for a society where working people are not oppressed in our political life, we’re not oppressed in our economic lives. This is about making sure that working people have control over our own destiny. It’s socialism that’s gonna make us truly free.

John Nichols: The Internationale shall be the human race. Lee Carter, thank you so much for joining us on Next Left.

Lee Carter: Of course, thank you so much for having me.

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