Full episode
Transcript

649: It's My Party and I'll Try If I Want To

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue

Ira Glass

In the midterm elections, Democrats, of course, are gunning to retake the House of Representatives. And the 19th congressional district in New York is one of the spots they think they've got a great shot at. Demographically, it's one of the rare districts in the country that is actually a true tossup. It went for Donald Trump by seven points but before that it went for Barack Obama. It's pretty much evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

And to make it even more attractive to Democrats, the Republican on the seat right now-- his name is John Faso. He's the kind of opponent the Democrats dream of getting. He's only been in office for one term. He's a former lobbyist. His clients include payday loan companies and energy companies.

Supporting Faso you've got all the right wing funders the Democrats love to hate-- the Koch brothers, the Mercers, Paul Singer. Add to that, Faso's done a decent job of spending his first term in Congress handing out ammunition to Democrats.

One of our producers, Ben Calhoun, has spent months visiting the district covering this race. Ben?

Ben Calhoun

Yeah. So, the best example of what you're talking about is this video. And I'll say, I was so surprised at how often this video has come up when I've been reporting in the district over the last three months. People just mention this thing all the time. So in this video, Faso's completely surrounded by these protesters who are all opposing the Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act-- the repeal of Obamacare. And this woman comes up to him.

Andrea Mitchell

I grew up right down the road.

John Faso

What's your name?

Ben Calhoun

The woman's name here is Andrea Mitchell. And she explains to Faso, she's not just like any constituent. She went to school with Faso's kids. Like, Faso's wife was her school nurse. And she tells Faso that she has a brain tumor and Obamacare saved her health insurance. And then she pleads with Faso for him not to support the Republican repeal of Obamacare.

Andrea Mitchell

I need you, as a human being, to say I promise that we will not take this away from you.

Ben Calhoun

I can tell you this--

Andrea Mitchell

Until--

John Faso

I promise. I promise.

Ben Calhoun

It's hard to hear in there, but Faso says to Andrea Mitchell, I can tell you that. I promise, I promise, I promise. He promises her three times. And then in the video he hugs her. And he seems kind of moved.

So Faso promises he's not going to support the Republican bill that's going to kill Obamacare. And then we can just cut to Faso on the floor of the House a few months later voting for the bill to kill Obamacare.

John Faso

Mr. Speaker, my colleagues, I urge support for the bill. It is something that is long overdue.

Ira Glass

And then he voted for the bill?

Ben Calhoun

Yeah. Faso's spokesperson said later that Andrea Mitchell wouldn't have lost her coverage because of the vote but that's unclear. So that vote, the one to gut Obamacare, it's one of the votes that puts Republicans at greater risk when they're trying to get elected this year. And Democrats are totally coming after him.

Man

Greetings from the Resistance in front of John Faso's Kingston office.

Ira Glass

OK, where are we now?

Ben Calhoun

This is sound from protests that have been happening outside of Faso's district offices every Friday. They call them Faso Fridays. And this one is from Kingston, New York. And it has a house band, called the Tin Horn Uprising.

[MUSIC - "GET UP, STAND UP" BY TIN HORN UPRISING]

Ira Glass

That is not a good version of that song.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah. It was actually kind of hard to pick which song to play for you.

[MUSIC - BY TIN HORN UPRISING]

Ira Glass

I feel like the band from the Star Wars cantina is trying to overturn this Congressman.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, no. Let me do one more. We're going to go Seasonal.

[MUSIC - "SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN' BY TIN HORN UPRISING]

Ira Glass

No comment.

Ben Calhoun

So these kinds of protests have been kind of a genre for democratic activists all around the country. You've got Tuesdays with Toomey, Fridays with Frelinghuysen.

Ira Glass

These are just in different districts around the country?

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, all over the place. So all of that means, New York 19, it's just like one of the hottest targets for Democrats across the whole country. It's one of the seats that Democrats really believe they can flip, and that they need to flip if they're going to retake the House-- like top 15 easily. That's according to somebody who I talked to at the Democratic Party.

Ira Glass

OK, so the Democrats are dying to take the House and they're full of energy, they're full of enthusiasm. But at the same time, they don't agree how to take the House. And there's this big messy fight over ideas and strategy between different groups in the party. And Ben, you've reported on this before here on our show.

Ben Calhoun

Mm-hm.

Ira Glass

And one of the reasons it's so contentious is that each faction thinks that the other faction could totally blow the Democrat's chances to win this fall. And New York 19, this congressional district we've been talking about, this is a district where that kind of fight is going on. And Ben, you've been following one of the candidates in that race.

Ben Calhoun

Yeah, his name is Jeff Beals.

Jeff Beals

Hi, how are you doing? Just wanted to say hi. I'm Jeff Beals. Don't be alarmed. I'm running for Congress.

Ben Calhoun

That's Beals knocking on doors right there. And I got interested in him because he's emblematic of this whole political moment. The way he became politically active, some of the things that he believes, but also, maybe most important he was just willing to talk in this super honest way about things that were going on behind the scenes as Democrats are fighting with each other. And he just told me about conversations that you don't normally get to hear about in politics until maybe after an election is over. You know I've been covering people running for Congress for maybe 15 years and I've just never had somebody talk to me this way.

Ira Glass

OK, so that is our show today. We're going to watch this big soupy fight that's going on at the Democratic Party play out, through the experience that this one candidate, Jeff Beals, has had. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And Ben Calhoun takes a story from here.

Act One: Act One

Ben Calhoun

Jeff Beals remembers the day that he decided to run for Congress. He was a high school teacher. He teaches history and civics and he was killing time between classes.

Jeff Beals

I'm sitting in-- we have a little room, kind of a break room they'll let us use off the library where you could grab a cup of coffee. And I'm sitting there reading the news. And I see a blog post that people have declared their run for Congress in New York 19. And I say, oh, OK. Who's that? That's good. We got to beat-- got to beat Faso. And then I read about who it is. And one of them is an attorney from the largest lobbying law firm in the United States. Another one of them is a medical devices CEO who, off a link in that very article, is running a factory that's off shored American jobs.

Ben Calhoun

Beals is like, whoa, hold up. Wait a minute.

Jeff Beals

This isn't matching what I think needs to happen right now.

Ben Calhoun

In 2016, he watched Hillary Clinton deploy the strategy Democrats have used for years. She raised tons of money from big donors and lobbyists and pushed moderate positions designed to offend as few people as possible. Beals and other Democrats, the ones on the Bernie side of things, thought that the party had lost its credibility with Americans. It was too cozy with Wall Street, too corporate, too insider, and out of touch. They saw Clinton as the pinnacle of what had become a losing strategy.

Jeff Beals

I have total contempt for it because they're-- we just lost the presidency and outraised Donald Trump. So I'm just totally-- I've totally fed up with the concept that money is the answer to how you win an election because it self-evidently didn't win an election. It lost an election.

Ben Calhoun

After Clinton's defeat, Beals was upset and worried. And like a lot of Democrats, he started signing up for all kinds of stuff-- protest, voter registration stuff. He became a member of his local Democratic Committee. And he noticed how excited Democrats were to stand up to the new President. Beals signed up with a group to host a house party.

Tons of strangers RSVP'd-- over 100 people, too many for his little apartment. He ended up having to hold it in a coffee shop. It shaped his view of what's possible this year and of what the party should be doing. So Beals is in the teacher's lounge, sipping coffee, reading about these candidates.

One is a corporate executive whose company does its manufacturing overseas. Another is a lawyer from a big lobbying firm, a lawyer whose job is defending Wall Street guys. And he thought, you've got to be joking. We cannot seriously be doing this again especially in New York 19.

Beals thought that New York 19 was the kind of place that was ripe for a different kind of campaign because Bernie Sanders had won big there-- crushed Clinton 58% to 41%. This is in her home state. Beals thought he understood why. New York 19 is an enormous district, about an hour north of New York City. It's speckled with second homes of well-heeled New Yorkers.

But it's also rural and working class with big swaths of poverty. Beals thought, this place has a populist streak which is partly why Trump took it in the general election, he thought. It's the kind of place where you can win back some of those Trump voters with a kind of surly, stick up for the little guy, drain the swamp sort of pitch, and drive up democratic turnout with loud progressive ideas to get Democrats pumped. Beals thought that's the right plan, especially right now.

Jeff Beals

It's not all stupid naivety. It's an awareness of the extraordinary moment we're at. If I, in 2016, OK? If in 2016 I had ventured to run for Congress all off of volunteer energy it wouldn't have materialized, period. There's not volunteer energy of sufficient magnitude. 100 people are not going to show up outside the Ulster County Courthouse to see you give some speech about the moral of American history and your life in it.

Ben Calhoun

That's a speech he actually gave.

Jeff Beals

But all that's possible right now.

Ben Calhoun

Beals was about to spend the next 12 months betting everything he had on that idea. Like dozens of progressive candidates all over the country, Beals felt certain. Democrats could win with a progressive message, a call to overhaul their own party. He wanted to put that vision head-to-head up against the old strategy he hated so much. He was about to discover just how much the Democratic Party's current philosophy, fundraising, and strategy is stacked against a plan like his.

Man

Come on up here, Jeff Beals.

Ben Calhoun

Beals declared his candidacy on June 16th, 2017 on the steps of this old courthouse. In front of him, he had a podium he just bought on the internet and a crowd of what looks like 100 people spilling out into the street, cheering for all the progressive stuff-- free college tuition, break up the big banks, green New Deal, income inequality.

Jeff Beals

We're not just protesting anymore. We're not just asking for our congressman's ear. We want his seat! My name is Jeff Beals. I'm running for Congress to win back our voice in this district. And give yourselves a round of applause because we just started! Thank you.

Ben Calhoun

Before Beals taught high school history and civics, he had the kind of biography that'd make you think, that guy could run for Congress. He graduated Harvard, where he studied Arabic and political science. Then he became an analyst at the CIA. After that he was a diplomat at the State Department. He went to Iraq where he worked on the transitional government and the Iraqi constitution.

When he was in training at the State Department, his colleagues voted him most likely to write a dissent cable, which is a kind of memo where someone essentially pulls the fire alarm to say something is terribly wrong. He's not shy about taking a contrary position. And by the time Beals left Iraq and the State Department, he was really disillusioned with how it had gone. He wanted to get away from government. Tried grad school and academia, drifted a little, and then started substitute teaching high school.

He found that he loved it. He took a job at a private school, the job he has now. One thing about running for Congress-- you don't actually have to ask anyone for permission. You just start saying you're running for Congress and people are like, oh, that person is running for Congress. And then something like this happens.

Jeff Beals

Very quickly I got a phone call from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, can we talk? And I'm like, so who is this? OK.

Ben Calhoun

For people outside Washington, the Democratic Party is the Democratic Party, right? But it's made up of smaller subgroups. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is the political arm of Democrats in the House of Representatives. In Washington it goes by the acronym DCCC , or just The D Trip. They help Democrats win seats in Congress by recruiting candidates, training people, helping with strategy and fundraising.

And last spring, when the DCCC reached out to Jeff Beals he thought, maybe it was to talk about how they might help him. So they planned a phone call, 4:00 PM, after Beals finishes teaching. So the day arrives, Jeff's ready. But before the clock hits 4:00 PM--

Jeff Beals

My phone rings at about 3:50?

Ben Calhoun

It's a woman he knows. She's like, answer your next call. So they hang up, and then that call comes in.

Jeff Beals

And it's a political guy I've never met on the phone. And he says, you're about to have a conversation with the DCCC at 4:00. I think you're a strong candidate. But you have to be ready for this conversation. They're going to ask you two questions.

And I said, what? He said, they're going to ask you two questions. Question number one is, how much money can you raise in the first quarter? And I said, oh, OK, that's the first question? He said, yes.

So I go, what's the answer? He goes, $300,000. And I said, so what's question number two? He goes, question number two is, how much do you think you need to raise overall to win this race? What's the answer to that? He said, $2 million.

Ben Calhoun

The guy tells Beals, give those answers, let's talk later.

Jeff Beals

4:00, bing! Like, OK, I've got to get off the phone. I've got to take that 4:00 phone call. I hopped in my car.

Ben Calhoun

Jeff dials up the guy from The D Trip.

Jeff Beals

And he says, hi, Jeff. I have a couple questions for you. How much money do you think you can raise in the first quarter? And I said, $300,000? He goes, sounds good. How much do you think you will need to raise in order to win this race? And I'm like, two-- two million? Is that-- good answer. Well, sounds like things are off to a good start there. Keep in touch. We'll be in touch. Conversation basically ends.

Ben Calhoun

A DCCC spokesperson told me there was more to this conversation but Beals maintains it was very, very focused on money. When he hung up, he was surprised by what wasn't in the conversation. What kind of organization have you set up? What activists and groups are connected to? Or even more just, what do you stand for? But so, Beals gets back on the phone with the democratic insider advisor guy. That guy did want to talk about what Jeff stood for.

Jeff Beals

And said, you know, so what is your platform? You're probably not going to want to go single payer. It's not a winner. OK, not a winning issue. There's a lot of problems there.

Ben Calhoun

Single payer, government run nationalized health care-- everyone gets health insurance from the government. Back when the Republicans were trying to repeal Obamacare, Bernie Sanders launched a big push for this under the label Medicare For All. He chose that name because polls show that people love Medicare. And when he did this, Sanders sort of put a dividing line in the Democratic Party.

On one side, you had the moderate and establishment wing of the party that was all, single payer health care? Hold your horses there, Che Guevara. Do you remember the epic political beating we took over Obamacare for crying out loud?

And then on the Sanders side of the line, you had the progressive wing of the party who were all, radical. Most Americans support it. Right now it's like 60%-- plus, it's exciting. You want to make a comeback, how about we run on something people are excited about, you timid bastards. Jeff's on that side of the line.

Jeff Beals

And I said, but I do support single payer. That's one of the crucial, crucial elements of my candidacy. I don't have health insurance through my job. It is one of the most awful parts of my life. Not to mention how much more awful it is for people that are worse off than me in our district.

Ben Calhoun

So you said that in that conversation?

Jeff Beals

Yeah, I said absolutely I'm for single payer. That's the whole campaign. I mean, look there's a lot of issues. But if there is one thing we could do right now to make life better in America for the vast majority of Americans, it would be passing Medicare for All now and enacting it.

Ben Calhoun

At some point, the guy on the phone turned to fundraising, how to hit the DCCC fundraising numbers. He said, I know it sounds like a lot but you can do it. Make a list of everyone you know and how much money you can get from each of them. I should say, this is conventional advice for new candidates. People call it rolodexing.

It's often done by political operatives to test whether candidates can raise the kind of money that politics often requires these days. Consider that in 2016, the average winning congressional campaign had to raise $1.5 million. Party operatives like to figure out if people can do that, and this is a shortcut. But it's a shortcut that ignores other things that are often tougher to measure-- grassroots involvement, activism. Even more, it's obviously a screening process that discriminates heavily in favor of rich candidates with rich friends and rich colleagues and against, well, most Americans.

Ben Calhoun

How did you feel when you got off of that second phone call?

Jeff Beals

I think that, I just felt like I was talking to people who didn't have any idea what I was doing or what I cared about. And it was disconcerting. And it made me sad, momentarily. But I was surrounded in real life by so many people who were excited about the things that I was excited about and doing it for the reason that I was doing it that I just decided those people were irrelevant. And if they weren't irrelevant then I'd have to make them irrelevant.

Ben Calhoun

The DCCC usually is less relevant during a primary. In the general election, though, if they think you're a winner they'll tell people to give you money. They'll supply polling data, introduce you to consultants. They'll buy TV commercials for you.

So Beals got to work. With or without the DCCC, he knew he was going to need money. Hopefully, he thought, not as much money as the DCCC had told him on that call. But he was sure he was going to need some. So he set out to raise it.

And when Beals started, he was optimistic. Sure, he knew, progressive politics aren't every Democrats' bag. But he thought surely there's some deep pocketed progressive types out there-- you know, Warren Buffett types who are all, I'm crazy rich! Tax me more. It's going to be good for America. People started trying to hook Beals up.

Jeff Beals

A friend of mine, who was with the Clinton campaign, had a birthday party.

Ben Calhoun

This was a buddy from the State Department, politically connected, and he wanted to help Beals. He was like, come to my birthday. There's going to be influential people there. You can give a speech and you can raise some money. It's going to be great.

Jeff Beals

So I come. This is a swank party-- private room in a nice restaurant where the meal is already paid for and you just choose your entree.

Ben Calhoun

It's a couple of dozen people at this long wooden table. And at one point, the friend introduces Beals. And Beals does the stump speech, just lets it rip. He's feeling it.

Jeff Beals

Why am I running? I'm running because we've lost control over the economy, income inequality has reached a terrible point where it threatens the basis of our democracy. We failed to take action sufficient to after the 2008 financial crisis and it's only gotten worse. We need Medicare for All now.

Ben Calhoun

It's a medley of progressive politics in the backroom of a fancy New York restaurant. And you know, he's giving a political speech at a birthday party, which feels weird.

Jeff Beals

Hard to read a room in a dinner party in a nice restaurant. Like, it's not the break into applause kind of crowd. So when they're silent, you're not necessarily thinking I'm flopping.

Ben Calhoun

But Jeff wraps it up. Dessert comes, and then his friend flags him down.

Jeff Beals

And my friend says to me, he goes, what the heck are you doing, man? You gotta tone that down. Do you understand who's in this room? You just alienated everybody here. He goes, that guy is the head of-- and he had some bizarre name, Xanthum Atlas Capitol-- you know, something Capitol. You know, he's like, that's head of it! You know, and he's pointing at this guy and that guy. He's like, this is not going to work. You should have talked about LGBT. That's what he told me.

Ben Calhoun

Did it surprise you when he came up to you and said that?

Jeff Beals

Yes. I mean, it did. I love him for it. Only your friends will be that straight to you, you know?

Ben Calhoun

But Jeff was also kind of shaken up. He respected his friend, respected his friend's political savvy. So Beals called another buddy from the State Department, somebody who knew them both.

Jeff Beals

It did cause me confusion. What am I supposed to be doing here? Because he was really upset. He thought, you really blew a chance. You have no idea how much money was in that room.

There was a lot of money in that room and you left it on the table. And I called a friend of mine who knows a lot about politics and is on this campaign. And I said to him, this is what our buddy said, that I should have talked LGBT or I shouldn't have addressed those things. And he said, that way lieth the Goldman Sachs speech, Jeff. That way leith the Goldman Sachs speech. Don't. Don't.

Ben Calhoun

This was a reference to these private events Hillary Clinton got paid to do with Goldman Sachs, saying one thing to them and something different to the public-- catering to rich people, which was one of the very things Beals was running against. So he steeled himself and he continued calling up major democratic donors to find the progressive ones. He says, often these conversations started out friendly enough. People liked Beals' resume, his background qualifications.

But often things would take a turn. One major democratic donor, a former Goldman Sachs guy actually, he told Beals Medicare for All is a handout. And it's a political loser. Lots of big donors saw it as this lefty thing that could sandbag the party in general elections. They remember the backlash to Obamacare. Another guy, an investment banker type, he says, sure. I'll contribute.

Jeff Beals

I'll contribute to your campaign. But you have to change your website because it says "rigged economy." And you need to change, "rigged economy" on your website. I don't like that. And it's just a distortion. And I said, well, I can't change that.

Ben Calhoun

He couldn't change that because that would mean giving up the main argument he thinks Democrats should be making right now.

Jeff Beals

I think that a lot of democratic politics has been about trying to find the least offensive cause to the donor class to rally people around while stepping on the fewest toes. And there are worthy causes you can rally people around. Guns-- you can rally people around that. And you could maybe get to 51-49 and win.

Ben Calhoun

Abortion rights, he says, same thing.

Jeff Beals

You could also there, too, get to 51-49 or better, and win. But I do believe that there is a way bigger axis out there that people with a lot of money don't want us organizing on, and it's the economic axis. That's in axis where you got 1% on one side, and you've got more than 90% on the other side. And you really change politics in America because you're built on the axis against income inequality in a rigged economy. Then you build a very big movement.

Ben Calhoun

The more major democratic donors Beals called, the more amazed he became and how explicit the conversations got, how direct they were in telling him to change what he was saying and campaigning on. Of course, like anybody, Beals figured politics was like this. But it was different to see it in real life, to be in the conversations, to be the person getting his arm twisted. He came to the conclusion that most of the Democratic Party's major donors are against progressive ideas. Research published by the Washington Post backs this up-- major donors do skew moderate.

Beals felt confident that there were people out there who agreed with him. He just had to connect with them. His plan was to run out and shout this progressive battle cry and hope than an army filled in behind him. And for Beals, the battle cry was Medicare for All.

This was June of last year, exactly when Bernie Sanders was stumping for Medicare for All, pressuring Democrats into picking a side. Everyone had to declare which team they were on or they had to dodge. It became the national border between progressives and establishment Democrats. It was exactly the thing Beals would talk about to try to find voters.

Jeff Beals

Good evening everyone.

Ben Calhoun

One of the races first candidate forums was on August 23rd, 2017 at an old church. Around 6:00 PM, Beals walked in the front with about half a dozen other candidates past pews of people fanning themselves. He walked in with a plan that night.

Jeff Beals

I wanted to be extremely specific.

Ben Calhoun

Beals plan, as he sat down on his stool up front, was to declare his support for what Sanders was doing as forcefully as he possibly could. Like, he didn't want to just say Medicare for All. He was like, I don't want to leave any room for doubt. I want to pledge support for the Medicare for All bill that's sitting in the house right now, House Bill 676. So health care comes up.

Jeff Beals

And I said, we have a health crisis in the district.

We have a health care crisis in this country.

The solution of the crisis Medicare for All, and I support House Resolution 676. And I hear this scream in the audience.

Ben Calhoun

You can actually hear this on the recording of the forum.

Jeff Beals

When I get to Congress, it's called House Resolution 676--

Anique D'angelo

Woo!

Jeff Beals

Medicare for All. And a vote for--

Anique D'angelo

I have been going to concerts for a very long time. So I'm a very skilled woo-er. So I wooed as loud as I possibly can.

Ben Calhoun

You've got a veteran woo?

Anique D'angelo

Yes. Well practiced.

Ben Calhoun

This is Anique D'Angelo. She's a community organizer. She'd gone to the forum that day with her best friend. Both were Sanders supporters and they were both looking at candidates in New York 19. And they weren't liking what they saw.

Anique D'angelo

We were like, oh, you know, maybe we would get behind him if we had to.

Ben Calhoun

You mean, because you were hearing the things that they were proposing and you were like, these don't sound like what? Like what?

Anique D'angelo

So we had decided after the last election, after the last primary, that this is the moment that things are going to happen and we need someone who is for universalist programs, supports Medicare for All, and like--

Ben Calhoun

You were like, we need to get a real progressive in this race.

Anique D'angelo

Yeah. Before Bernie I had always thought a moderate is as good as we're going to get.

Ben Calhoun

This is why Anique yelled, because when Beals said what he said she felt like she had found her candidate. She felt like she wanted a firm commitment on single payer, Medicare for All. And she was hearing Democrats talk about fixing the Affordable Care Act and working towards universal coverage. And if Medicare for All and universal coverage sound like the same thing, here's the difference.

Medicare for All is national health care. The government takes over the system, gives everyone insurance. Universal coverage is more general. I'd like to get everyone covered somehow. Maybe some people will keep their current insurance. Maybe some people will pay to get Medicare.

Maybe we leave the system mostly how it is. Maybe we change all of this gradually. Anique isn't looking for this kind of incrementalism. She thinks that's what Democrats always say and then they wuss out. She's fed up.

Anique D'angelo

You know, I am a professional person in my early 30s and can't use my health insurance because I have a $4,000 deductible, right? I mean, I think if you start from a place of, we have to be incremental, you never get to the end goal because there's corporate interests that get in the way, right? If we said, we're doing this, we'll figure it out. How did we get social security, right? We [BLEEP] did it. I don't know if I'm allowed to curse, but--

Ben Calhoun

From that day forward, August 23rd, 2017, Anique D'Angelo was a Beals supporter. She phone banked in the evening, drove to events all across the district. Soon supporters like Anique were fanning out for Beals. The campaign was crystallizing around a plan. Sanders had gotten 35,000 votes in the primary, which Beals saw as 35,000 Aniques scattered all across the district.

So Beals' campaign looked at the map of where those votes had come from, the precincts where Sanders support was the densest. They targeted their efforts there. If they could just get a third of those people, 12,000 votes, they figured they'd have a serious shot because, not to overwhelm you with numbers here, only 19,000 people voted in the last democratic primary. So 12,000-- that could win this one.

Before long came the first real test for Beale's theory that he could run a campaign that didn't rely on big donors and money, that would be fueled by a flood of volunteers and enthusiasm for brash progressive stuff. The test was something that seems kind of basic, getting his name on the ballot. Like I said, it's easy to say you're running for Congress. It's actually hard to get your name on the ballot.

Jeff Beals

I was told that it would cost $200,000 to get yourself on the ballot.

Ben Calhoun

How much were you told it would cost?

Jeff Beals

I was told $200,000. That was an interesting moment, because that would be an obstacle because I don't got that money, period.

Ben Calhoun

Here's why it costs so much money. Beale's was told, you're going to need a lawyer on retainer. And you're going to need an army of paid canvassers. And you're going to need those things because getting signatures is harder than it sounds. To get on the ballot in New York 19 requires 1,250 signatures but there are rules. Only registered Democrats can sign. The signature has to be witnessed by another registered Democrat. And people can only sign for one candidate. So if another campaign got there first, you're out of luck. You mess up any of that, the signature can get tossed out. So 1,250-- you can't just get 1,250.

Jeff Beals

So all they got to do is find three people who put their middle initial wrong and you're done.

Ben Calhoun

Generally, the thing you do is collect way more than the requirement to send a message to other campaigns not to mess with you. And you hire that lawyer to defend your signatures. All of this for a traditional campaign needs a boatload of money. Beals' staff knew this was a moment to prove themselves.

Jeff Beals

We're not going to be on the ballot unless volunteers are willing to carry the campaign forward. And we put out the call and people gathered hundreds of signatures for the campaign. And we wound up with over 3,200 signatures all off this volunteer spirit. And they just did it on their own.

Ben Calhoun

For Beals, this was vindication, proof that the thing he thought was possible actually might be possible. Proof that the conventional wisdom might be wrong. A campaign like his, it could work.

Jeff Beals

I mean, I didn't even know all the people that were doing it. And you realize that a campaign is not a thing you run. It's a thing you unleash. And it either is picked up and carried forward by people or it isn't. And that started to happen. And that's-- you know, calling it inspiring is an understatement. That was incredible. And frankly, my whole candidacy has been a gamble on the existence of that. If it's there, then there's a campaign. And if there isn't, then there's no campaign.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun. Coming up, Democrats who are not Jeff Beals. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Act Two

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, It's My Party and I'll Try If I Want To, about a candidate who's running for Congress for the very first time and what his race tells us about what is happening inside the Democratic Party this year. The candidate we're following, Jeff Beals, is a Bernie Sanders style progressive. And around the country this past year, the climate between the party apparatus and progressives has been pretty toxic at times because of a handful of incidents that progressives have taken as signs of the party's hostility.

The most notorious one was in Texas. The DCCC released opposition research on a progressive candidate named Laura Moser for her primary. Progressives kind of freaked out. There've been a few other blow ups in Pennsylvania, Nebraska, New York, Minnesota, Colorado. Party officials say that they have nothing against progressive congressional candidates or their ideas. In Jeff Beals' race, in New York's 19th congressional district, election day is this coming Tuesday and there's a whole array of candidates. Ben Calhoun picks up our story from here.

Ben Calhoun

By early 2018, seven Democrats had officially declared in the race for New York 19. Seven, I know-- so many. I've gone out with about half of them knocking doors. The most common thing that voters do is they make a joke, some form of holy crap there's a lot of you people!

So let's just spin through the cast. There's an economist and triathlete who jumped in late. As the only woman in the race, got the backing of Emily's List. She's making a fairly bald play for women voters.

Woman

I'm not going to let those boys beat me.

Ben Calhoun

There's a community activist who's also a personal injury lawyer. There's a young staffer for New York governor Andrew Cuomo who's got the money and connections that come with that. He's driving a 1999 Ford Winnebago to every town in the district.

Man

I'm going to visit all 163 in this RV.

Ben Calhoun

Somebody must have pointed out how much pollution those old RVs pump out, because now he tells audiences he's buying carbon offsets. And then there are three candidates who have raised the most money. Each has raised over a million dollars. There's Antonio Delgado, the lawyer from the lobbying firm, Brian Flynn, the medical devices executive, and an Iraq veteran named Pat Ryan.

Beals has targeted these three. For him they represent the big money politics he's waging war against. Inconveniently for Beals, all three of these candidates sell themselves as progressives, identify themselves that way in opening remarks in ads. And I got to imagine, all seven candidates would be pretty dependable votes against the president.

They talk in samey ways about immigration. They all believe in climate change. They all support public education. But on the big dividing line issue for Democrats, the one that's supposed to separate the progressive team from the establishment team, Medicare for All, there's division.

Of the three big money candidates, Flynn the medical devices CEO, he's for it. The other two, Ryan and Delgado, they are not for Medicare for All, which we know because there was a candidate forum in a town called Oneonta. They got to asked flat out, Medicare for All, are you for that? Yes or no. Here's their answers.

Man

No.

Man 2

No.

Ben Calhoun

But Ryan and Delgado, they do this interesting thing you see in a lot of races around the country this year. While progressives are trying to draw this line in the sand, Ryan and Delgado are trying to blur the line out of existence. They're like, line? I don't see a line. Oh, look, Donald Trump! Get him!

If you go to their websites or you watch their commercials, you might really think Ryan and Delgado agree with Beals on health care. Delgado's website, for instance, says, I will fight for universal affordable quality health care for everyone. He's running TV ads with that kind of language.

Antonio Delgado

Let's go. That's awesome people. Love to get engaged and take this democracy back. We have to fight for universal, affordable, quality health care for everyone.

Ben Calhoun

I went to a fundraiser for Delgado at somebody's house. After he left, some people said they thought Delgado was for Medicare for All from the way that he talked but they weren't totally sure. They asked me, do you know? I said, well, I was just at this forum and he said no. Several felt misled. I told Delgado about it later.

Antonio Delgado

I would say, well, I'm sorry for the confusion first and foremost. What I've stated, and how I've stated my position has been abundantly clear. And then to the extent there were folks who were confused by that, I would certainly sit down with them and make sure they understood where I was coming from.

Ben Calhoun

Delgado's attitude is, let's just get everyone covered somehow. Saying, let's have government pay for everybody, Medicare for All, that narrows your options, alienates some voters, and it ignores specific realities.

Antonio Delgado

Oh, well, some of the specific realities include the fact that currently 153 million folks right now are relying on employer-based insurance. That's a lot of people. And a good number of those folks actually like their insurance. On top of that, we do not have an administrative apparatus yet developed across the nation that can meaningfully and responsibly and effectively transition to a completely government controlled system.

Ben Calhoun

This can either seem like a totally reasonable and realistic way to think about the politics of health care in this country, or it can sound the way that it sounds to Beals and his supporters-- like a sellout, like Delgado doesn't stand with them at all. Here's Beals.

Jeff Beals

That's not a minor point of difference. That's a chasm. Everybody knows that's just a fig leaf for accepting corporate influence over the issue and refusing to take on a very powerful lobby and industry. That's all that that is.

Ben Calhoun

Beals finds it galling that anyone could think he and Delgado want the same thing on health care. He's really frustrated by it. And he sees his role in this race to call this out, and to call it the role of money in the race, and to go after the mainstream big money candidates. In Beals' eyes, they embody everything that's wrong with the party. And there's plenty in their bios to set him off.

Last week he sent me this ad. Brian Flynn, the medical devices guy who financed his campaign with $700,000 of his own money, whose company manufactures overseas, he put out an ad where he says quote, "billionaires and corporations have rigged the system against us." In the ad there's a picture of Flynn. He's wearing a $9,000 watch, a Rolex. Like he didn't even know enough to take it off.

At every candidate forum I've seen, Beals has gone after those guys, accusing them of being bought and sold, tied to all the big donations they've taken.

Jeff Beals

We have to stop these practices. We have to stop selling our seat. We have to stop selling our representation.

Ben Calhoun

Here he is in November, in a packed middle school auditorium.

Jeff Beals

--corporate power has bought out our own representative. And it has bought out our own ability to take control of our economy and have the jobs we need to have. Unfortunately, three of the candidates here are working for those large corporations. One of them shut down a factory in New York State, in Buffalo, moving jobs to the Dominican Republic. Another one of them works for one of the largest lobbying law firms in the United States and does white collar criminal defense for those companies when they--

Jeff Beals

I didn't realize that it was going to be shocking for anybody that I would say it. But you could feel it. I mean, I don't know if I believe in ESP. But I do believe that when a human being beside you is rising into rage there is some sort of black cloud emerging, and I felt it.

Ben Calhoun

You felt sort of like the room go cold?

Jeff Beals

I felt the candidate go cold.

Ben Calhoun

Beals says he was surprised by how strong the reaction was, onstage but then also afterwards.

Jeff Beals

Afterwards, one of the county chairs came up to my chief of staff and said, he can't do that. She said, no one likes Dem on Dem violence. And the county chair said the same thing to me personally-- stop this. No one likes Dem on Dem violence. And I said, I don't-- Dem on Dem violence? You know, that's a conversation. Nobody was hit.

Ben Calhoun

His opponents respond with an argument you hear from lots of Democrats right now. This is Gareth Rhodes, the former gubernatorial staffer.

Gareth Rhodes

The way we don't win is by attacking each other and bringing each other down. We need--

Ben Calhoun

Here's Pat Ryan, veteran.

Pat Ryan

I got to say something after what was just said, all the Democrats in this room have to stand together, period. That is how we--

Jeff Beals

And I was told, don't do it. It gives ammunition for John Faso.

Ben Calhoun

That is, Beals attacks will make it easier for Faso to beat whoever wins the primary.

Jeff Beals

Which is to me, ridiculous. The idea that it provides ammunition to Faso, give me a break. These people will invent all the ammunition they want and everything I'm talking about is there, is simply people's resumes. And I mean, what is a primary? A primary is about the party and about what the party stands for.

So if you were to show me, persuasively, another place where this conversation is going to happen, well then maybe you'll convince me. Oh, no, no, Jeff, we're doing that over there, on this day, with the DCCC at our platform conference. OK, maybe. I don't know. I can't imagine what the scenario would be. But if you're not going to show me a place where it's going to happen then it damn well better happen here.

Ben Calhoun

It's typical for the party, the DCCC, to check in with candidates and for campaigns to let them know how things are going. And every three months, the DCCC sends Beals fundraising goals-- $450,000, $500,000, what he's supposed to raise that quarter. The kind of money they believe is necessary to compete against a Republican in a district like this. Beals missed all those fundraising goals. He's raised about $316,000, which might have been respectable a decade ago, but these days is near the bottom rung of viability.

He thinks they don't get what he's doing or the kind of campaign he's trying to run. He says the fundraising goals aren't just this neutral practical bar to get over. They come with ideology.

Jeff Beals

When the DCCC was saying, raise x dollars by this date, what they were really saying was, adopt these positions and call the following people who are well known, who will contribute to a campaign if you have those positions. And you'll have this much money by that date. There was an ideological message there but the fake of it was just asking for the money.

Ben Calhoun

Party officials insist that the fundraising goals, they're not ideological. They're practical. It's reality. Ian Russell used to be the political director for the DCCC. He says a campaign like Beals is imagining can win, but it's a lot harder and would require a huge grassroots organization.

And he says in a district like New York 19, because it's so spread out, a lot of the fight happens on TV. If you're not running ads in the general election you let your Republican opponent control the conversation. In Russell's experience, if a campaign like Beals' does make it through the primary, the party can end up in a tough spot. They've got a limited amount of money. They don't want to pull money away from other races so that they can prop up an underfunded campaign like Beals.

Ian Russell

The DCCC isn't the Salvation Army and shouldn't be the Salvation Army. Their job is to help democratic nominees who are viable get elected. They have to make tough calls about who to fund. Those calls are not made based on ideology. They're not made on anything except viability.

That's been the case. It's always the case. It's not without controversy. But it's an unfortunate symptom of our political system right now that candidates have to be able to raise the money to compete. The Republicans have tens of millions of dollars in dark money at their disposal.

Democrats have to fight back. It's selfish and irresponsible if a nominee in a must win seat isn't pulling his or her weight and doing what they need to do to raise the money. If candidates aren't able to raise at least some of those resources on their own and show that they're willing to put in the work, it A, substantially decreases the chance they'll get elected in the first place. But B, it requires the DCCC to move money in from other districts. Or, even worse, can result in a district coming off the board because the Democratic candidate just gets buried.

Ben Calhoun

I put to him Beals case, that the donors the party steers him toward have a moderate agenda. And so what he says is, de facto, the fundraising goals you're giving for me are an ideological agenda.

Ian Russell

That's a cop out. That's a cop out. That's just not the case. I'm sure there are many moderate donors who are writing checks. But there's also an excited progressive wing in the party that's helping candidates raise millions and millions of dollars. Again, in this district Zephyr Teachout's an example of that.

Ben Calhoun

Zephyr Teachout's a person. She's a progressive who ran against Faso in 2016. Russell points out that Teachout raised about $5 million with politics a lot like Beals. She did that by making herself a little famous with progressives. She did things like get on MSNBC so then she could get small donations from progressives all over the country. Russell says that's what candidates like Beals have to do.

Ian Russell

I've worked for Howard Dean in 2003, 2004, who helped create this idea, invent this idea of asking people for money on the internet. You can give people the chance to come in and help your campaign if it's a cause that excites them and inspires them. But you have to put the work out to make it happen. You can't just sit back and expect somebody else to come and do the work for you, or for the DCCC to come in and bail you out. That's just not how it works.

Ben Calhoun

Beals relationship with the party went steadily downhill. And by February he says, it was nothing but arguments about him missing fundraising goals. And then came this phone call. Beals and two people from the campaign, with the DCCC's northeast political director.

Jeff Beals

You know, we get on the phone and the conversation turns to money instantly.

Ben Calhoun

Then, according to Beals, someone on his end confronts the DCCC about this polling data that they'd given to two of the big money candidates, Brian and Delgado. They ask, could we get that too? The DCCC says, we can share that with you. But it doesn't get resolved before the conversation turns back to money.

Jeff Beals

And they just say, you don't have enough money to run for Congress.

Ben Calhoun

That's sort of flat out?

Jeff Beals

Yeah. And I say, we're running a thriving campaign. There's tons of volunteers. People are rallying to the message. You know, I see every reason to believe that we're putting this together and we're building something real.

We're going to keep running. And then he says to me, don't think if you win the primary people will help you. There will be lots of other choices out there. And--

Ben Calhoun

Meaning what, like people will put money into different races? Or like--

Jeff Beals

Yes. Yeah, exactly, as in people will just skip New York 19 if Jeff Beals is the nominee.

Ben Calhoun

A DCCC spokesperson wouldn't discuss the specifics of what happened on that call but told me the party would work with Beals if he became the nominee. At the same time, the former DCCC political director, Ian Russell, he told me if a candidate gets through the primary that the party doesn't think is strong, they will sometimes write off districts they think are a lost cause. Since that phone call, Beals says, his campaign has not spoken with the DCCC.

Democrats are so desperate to win this year. I heard it over and over. And though Beals has this theory on why a campaign like his can beat a Republican in the fall, even some progressives are nervous to go along with him.

One progressive group got into a particularly bitter fight over all this. The group's Citizen Action. It's a branch of a national group. There's lots of chapters. Very active chapter in New York. Their volunteers run Faso Fridays.

Oriana Mayorga was in charge of Citizen Action's endorsement committee in New York 19. She moved to the district to work for Citizen Action as an organizer. She's a Beals supporter. In January, Mayorga gathered in an endorsement committee of 12 who interviewed the candidates. They discussed, then they voted.

Oriana Mayorga

There were seven votes for Jeff Beals and five for Antonio Delgado. People wanted Jeff Beals. That was--

Ben Calhoun

Not a huge shocker. Citizen Action is progressive. They hold events and rallies for single payer health care.

Oriana Mayorga

We're like, Citizen Action is this grassroots organization that fights corporate power. So in no way would I think that they would want to endorse somebody who is from Wall Street, has all these corporate donors backing them and isn't for Medicare for All.

Ben Calhoun

Mayorga sent word to the state leadership of Citizen Action, here was our vote. But what happened next surprised her. State leaders said the vote had been too close, closer than they wanted. Essentially, look at this some more and try again. Mayorga says following that first vote, state leaders called members of the committee. They told people they thought Delgado was the stronger candidate.

Oriana Mayorga

The deputy director spoke very frankly. I mean, it was not-- it wasn't really behind the scenes. She spoke frankly about it with me and while there were volunteers in the office, saying that the organization really felt that Delgado was the most viable candidate. He had the money and he had the support, but that he would have to be for Medicare for All for us to get behind him.

Ben Calhoun

They brought Delgado in and they told them that. But he refused to back Medicare for All. What followed was a series of tough meetings, circular arguments, turning over the coin of idealism and pragmatism. The same tortured question from the Sanders versus Clinton race.

This time around though it was, should we back Beals? He's more progressive. He's like us. Others were like, Delgado has more money. We worry Beals can't compete.

Mayorga says the whole thing was kind of awful. At one point, someone ran out of the room with a nosebleed. But eventually another vote was taken-- seven for Delgado, five for Beals. People in charge were like, OK, if that's our endorsement can you Beals folks live with that?

Oriana Mayorga

And the Beals supporters were in an uproar, right?

Ben Calhoun

They were like, we voted with the same split for Beals and were told it was too close.

Oriana Mayorga

The numbers were now 7-5. We were in the same place, just a different candidate. So technically speaking, both times one would assume that means that it's too close.

Ben Calhoun

A few things happened after that meeting. There was another meeting. A bunch of Beals supporters couldn't be there, and one last Beals supporter caved. Then Mayorga told her bosses she was upset about how this whole thing went. The following week she was fired.

Man

After a careful and deliberative process of our local endorsement committee and our--

Ben Calhoun

In May, Citizen Action officially endorsed Antonio Delgado.

Man

That candidate is Antonio Delgado.

Ben Calhoun

Delgado tweeted out the endorsement calling it quote, "the progressive stamp of approval."

Oriana Mayorga

It's like not even-- I mean, it's kind of funny. I mean, Antonio Delgado is Hillary Clinton. I mean, like, that's just the truth. Like he is the Hillary Clinton of the race and Jeff Beals is the Bernie Sanders.

Ben Calhoun

When I talk to the DCCC and progressives, one of the things they all said was that they were worried about how Democrats were going to handle the whole influx of enthusiasm this year. Essentially, if Democrats didn't handle the situation right people could get alienated. The opportunity could get squandered. I couldn't help but think of that when I was talking to Mayorga.

Oriana Mayorga

To be fair, after this November I'm no longer a Democrat. I'm 100% a Working Families Party person. So this will be my last Democratic primary I'll be voting in.

Ben Calhoun

Oh, wow, you feel-- you're just like, I'm done.

Oriana Mayorga

Oh, I'm done. Yeah, I'm done. I really am. I think that we have to make the decision. Do we want to support progressive candidates? Or do we want to go with the safe bets, you know, these Hillary Clintons, these Antonio Delgado candidates?

Jeff Beals

Hi, how are you doing? I'm Jeff Beals. I saw beware of dog kisses, but--

Woman

Yeah.

Jeff Beals

Those are kisses.

Woman

He's a good dog. He gets very excited when--

Ben Calhoun

Recently I follow Beals as he canvassed in Oneonta, a beautiful town up in the mountains of New York.

Jeff Beals

I'm running for Congress.

Ben Calhoun

He moved quickly from one port to another with a keen eye out for Bernie Sanders stickers on bumpers and in windows.

Jeff Beals

That's a telltale sign.

Ben Calhoun

Though Beals says his relationship with the national party went cold, progressive groups have jumped in to help him. A group of former Sanders staffers, the Justice Democrats, and a group of former Sanders activists, the People for Bernie Sanders, they both endorse Beals. And those endorsements, they serve as this kind of shorthand for progressive voters. At one house this sweet guy named Dana came to the door. He had a Sanders sticker outside.

Dana

I'm a Democrat, I'm a progressive.

Jeff Beals

OK, well me too. Me too. I've been-- I've been looking for you.

Ben Calhoun

Beals gave his pitch. He's a teacher, thinks the economy is working against most people, Medicare for All-- then he mentioned the Justice Democrats, the endorsement by the former Sanders staffers.

Dana

If you're a Justice Democrat then you've already got my vote.

Jeff Beals

Well, that's who I am. That's who I am.

Dana

You don't need to spend a lot of time here. You can move on.

Ben Calhoun

This happened a number of times that day. As for the army of volunteers Beals knew he would need to win this kind of campaign, did he enlist them? Beals wouldn't say how many he has. But he did say they've knocked on over 40,000 doors. That's the same number Pat Ryan, the veteran, says his campaign has done. Antonio Delgado's campaign says they've knocked on 50,000. So at least by one measure he's keeping up, though Ryan and Delgado are both running TV ads and Beals is not. So far nobody has released an objective poll on the race. With seven candidates, the vote could split in some really weird ways. Everybody agrees someone could win without getting all that much of the vote.

Jeff Beals

Are you registered Democrats? Are any of you registered Democrats? Who's a registered Democrat?

Ben Calhoun

One of the things that probably will happen, even if Beals doesn't win, some candidates like him probably will. Meaning if Democrats get a majority in the House, all these disagreements about who they are and what they should be are not going to go away. Their majority will be riddled with people who feel like the party is doing things wrong and who have spent the past year like Beals has, finding each other. That's what Beals is left to do these days. Now that school's out he starts canvassing around 8:00 AM. He keeps going until 9:00 at night. And every day, he tells me, he finds more people who feel the way that he does.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun is one of the producers on our show.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Zoe Chace. The people who put together our show today includes Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Alvin Melathe, Catherine Maymondo, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

Special thanks today to Jeremy McCarter, Lucy Flores, Dustin Reidy, Tim Mynett, and Jonathan Smucker. Our website, Thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. We also have a slide show this week of Jeff Beals out talking to voters. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I was driving him home this week and he pointed out this opening in the woods near his house I had never seen before, looked pretty creepy. He explained--

Jeff Beals

That way lieth of the Goldman Sachs speech. That way lieth the Goldman Sachs speech. Don't. Don't.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Serial Season Three: Hear Every Episode