Cathy Myers — IronStache’s Democratic challenger in Paul Ryan’s district — makes the case for why she can win

In the race for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin’s First Congressional district, one Democratic candidate has gotten a lot of national attention. But there’s another Democrat in the race: Cathy Myers, though lower profile, is running a serious campaign.

Myers is a school board member and part-time teacher from House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. She’s running a tough race against fellow Democratic candidate Randy Bryce, the ironworker and union organizer who goes by “IronStache.”

Bryce has taken up most of the political oxygen in the Democratic race so far; he received an early round of endorsements from Bernie Sanders and other progressive groups, and national Democrats followed — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently added Bryce to its Red to Blue list. And he’s fundraised millions so far, putting him in a good position to take over whichever Republican emerges from the primary to replace Ryan, who announced Wednesday he’s retiring at the end of his term.

But Myers is undeterred.

“I feel my chances are good,” she told me as she drove to Milwaukee after finishing a day of teaching. “My goodness, I went up against Paul Ryan with a guy that had $10 to $11 million sitting in the bank, he could write a check for it at any given time. That didn’t phase me, so why should any of Randy’s fundraising phase me?”

The fact that Ryan is leaving the race could pose a new opportunity for Myers. Bryce has spent much of campaign attacking Ryan as the leader of the GOP’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pass massive tax cuts. With Ryan retiring and Republicans scrambling to replace him, it could give Myers more of a chance to get her own message out.

She has already fundraised about $800,000 and says she’s building a strong grassroots campaign to take on Bryce in Wisconsin’s Democratic primary in August.

There isn’t a lot of daylight between Myers and Bryce on the issues; both are staunch progressives. Myers is highlighting her local political experience; she won multiple races for the Janesville School Board. When I asked her about making the leap from school board to Congress, Myers said she sees a move to the US House as a natural next step for public service.

“I’ve won the privilege of serving my community on the Janesville School Board, but I really see that Congress is an extension of my ability to make a positive impact on people’s lives,” she said. “I knew it was going to be hard. We still must work every day.”

I spoke to Myers about the challenges of balancing work and campaigning, why she got into the race in the first place, and how Democrats can win over Wisconsin Trump voters in 2018.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

What are your thoughts on Ryan’s retirement?

Cathy Myers

I heard it this morning as I was having my coffee and reading the paper, and I started to get messages on my phone about it. I guess my first thought is: What a wonderful opportunity this is for the constituents and the people who live in the First Congressional District to finally get some representation that they have been denied for a very long time.

Ella Nilsen

You live in Janesville, right? That’s where the speaker lives.

Cathy Myers

I do.

Ella Nilsen

How often is he around the area?

Cathy Myers

I have run into him on occasion. I think he comes in on weekends. I guess I don’t know how to judge it, whether it’s often given whatever he’s doing. But you’d usually see a bit of a larger presence of Secret Service outside of his house on the weekends that he was home.

Ella Nilsen

So, backing up, why did you decide to run this year?

Cathy Myers

I announced back in June, and I decided to run because I think I’m the best person to represent the people of the first Congressional district. I am a high school English teacher, and I understand the obstacles and the challenges that working-class and middle-class people face. I think that I can address them fully. There were things that happened that really made me consider running and were things that I think I could address very specifically.

One of those things was the selection of Betsy DeVos as education secretary. I’m a high school English teacher, I have 24 years of experience in the classroom. And I’m still teaching, by the way. I’m teaching part-time this year.

Ella Nilsen

How have you been balancing that?

Cathy Myers

I’m used to working like this. When I was a new mom, I quit my job and opened a state-run daycare out of my home so that I could be with my kids more. And also because I couldn’t afford daycare with what I was being paid. When my daughter was 1 year old, while I’m still running this daycare center and I had a son who was 2, and I worked from 5 am to 5 pm.

I started back to graduate school. I worked 12 hours at least a day on my job and of course, I had my family and my children to take care of. I’m very good at using and squeezing every minute I can out of the day to get things done.

But getting back to Betsy DeVos, she is the enemy of public education. I truly believe that. She is going to defund public education and deny a quality education for our kids. I felt especially attuned to that issue and felt as though my experience will be very important in Congress to counter the things that she’s trying to do.

Ella Nilsen

Paul Ryan has represented your district since 1998. His retirement changes the calculation of the race, but how winnable do you think this district is for Democrats?

Cathy Myers

Well, I thought the district was winnable even when Paul Ryan was still in office. When we still thought he was running, I truly believe that people have gotten to a point where they have become distraught and distressed by Paul Ryan’s service and his lack of leadership. They have been incredibly upset by the fact that he doesn’t come back to the district to talk to them about what’s going on and how he can help them.

Indeed, it seems that the only people he really cared to talk to were people that were writing him big checks. I knew it was going to be hard. And by the way, even if he is not in the race, it’s still going to be hard. We still must work every day. So I’m not taking anything for granted even if he is not there.

I believe that people want a public servant. They want someone who listens to them, who will actually go and look them in the eye and talk about their qualifications and their vision to help them, and will listen to the concerns that they have. That’s why I think I will be an excellent representative for the first district.

Ella Nilsen

Do you think Democrats can win back Trump voters in the district? Or people that are disillusioned with the Democratic Party?

Cathy Myers

I do, because the district at one point went for Obama. It went for Trump [in 2016], but it didn’t go for Trump by all that much. I honestly believe that people in the district were simply feeling ignored. So a vote for Trump was just to see if it could get something different. Now, they have buyer’s remorse because they see that what they got was somebody who wants to shake things up, this is a guy who wants to burn things down. They are appalled by the behavior that they see in the White House, the corruption and the chaos.

We are going to have the strongest grassroots campaign in the country. I have members on my team that are experts in grassroots organizing. And we are going to bring service back to this district because we are going out to talk with people like they are our neighbors, because they are. We are going to hear from them and listen to them. They’re not going to be ignored anymore.

That’s how we’re going to win this district, and that’s how we’re going to bring back some of those people that voted for Trump, because they want to be heard and they should be heard.

Ella Nilsen

How do you feel about your chances against Randy Bryce in the primary? He has an incredible amount endorsements from progressive groups, he’s on the DCCC’s red to blue list, he’s fundraised millions at this point.

Cathy Myers

I feel my chances are good. My goodness, I went up against Paul Ryan with a guy that had $10 to $11 million sitting in the bank, he could write a check for it at any given time. That didn’t phase me, so why should any of Randy’s fundraising phase me?

I really don’t think that this is going to be a race that is going to be about money, I think the race is going to be about whose qualifications are better. That’s me, frankly. I have been elected twice to the Janesville School Board, I was top vote-getter each time. I doubled my vote the second time I ran, and I did that by going out and talking to people, by being visible, by being responsive to the things that they care about.

And so, I really think that’s going to win it for us. I think that the fundraising … money is important, of course. But money is not a sign of quality candidates.

Ella Nilsen

So would you say you’re going to try to draw the comparison more on your experience than issues? Because it does seem that you and Randy are both fairly progressive.

Cathy Myers

Right. I think that my qualifications exceed his. He’s lost three times, and has never cleared 40 percent. I don’t know why he didn’t win, I just know why I do win, and that’s by going out and talking with people and showing them I care about the challenges that they face.

Ella Nilsen

There’s been a lot of talk following the Pennsylvania special election that the Democrat Conor Lamb made it clear he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker if Democrats win. Have you given any thought to whether you would, if you are elected?

Cathy Myers

I haven’t really given it a whole lot of thought because I’ve got so many things on my plate at the moment. But, I certainly respect Mrs. Pelosi, and I respect people that step up. I also believe in competition. That’s why I’m not afraid of a primary. When I get there, if there are other people that want the job, I will listen to them, and I will do my best to determine who has the best vision for the Democratic party and for this country.

Ella Nilsen

What do you think the Democratic party needs to do in order to take back the House in 2018?

Cathy Myers

I think the party needs to offer voters a framework for a very strong grassroots campaign. I think that we have not done a very good job of making our case to the people. We’ve allowed other people to change the conversation. I think we need to get back to good, old-fashioned grassroots campaigning. It’s not just about campaigning, what about good old grassroots service? We need to be of service to the people of this country.

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