THE INTERCEPT: Out of Poverty and Onto the Ballot: The New Wave of Working-Class Candidates Trying to Take Congress

 OUT OF POVERTY AND ONTO THE BALLOT: THE NEW WAVE OF WORKING-CLASS CANDIDATES TRYING TO TAKE CONGRESS

THE FIRST WEDNESDAY in August was a busy one for David Trone. In the morning, Trone, the co-founder of retail chain Total Wine & More, which has made him very wealthy, announced that he would make his second run for Congress.

Trone’s first bid for Congress had come the year before, when he had spent $13 million of his own money and still lost the primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, to the east of his current target.

This time around, he said, he would raise some money from supporters. That would perhaps shed the image that he was trying to buy his way into Congress.

By the end of the day, he and his wife had cut four checks to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for a total of $267,200.

That was never an option on the whiteboard for Roger Manno, Trone’s opponent in the Democratic primary in Maryland’s 6th District.

Manno is now a Maryland state senator and the party’s majority whip, but it’s been a long road that has taken him through extended bouts of homelessness, unemployment, and other economic depredations rarely found in the biographies of members of Congress, who are much more likely to note that they are the sons or daughters — or even grandchildren — of millworkers or the like.

With an explosion of grassroots energy this cycle, however, the new class of candidates has swept in some whose populist anger has been earned honestly.

Like Manno, they’ll have to overcome big money to get where they’re trying to go.

When political parties and outside groups begin to estimate the chances that a congressional candidate has of winning a race, the first thing they look at is fundraising — particularly money raised within the district. Those cash contributions from wealthy donors in the area serve as a proxy for support from the local elite and translate, in the party’s mind, into a high chance of victory.

The process has a culling effect on the field, which has left Congress with a total net worth of at least $2.43 billion, according to the political news outlet Roll Call’s conservative estimates, with nearly 40 percent of all members being millionaires.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t Democrats from poor and working-class backgrounds who run for Congress. It means that they’re often beaten back by wealthier, establishment-backed candidates who’ve been able to forge better connections. A new wave of candidates this cycle is hoping to change that.

Democratic congressional hopefuls Manno, Will Cunningham, and James Thompson all were in and out of homelessness as children. As a little girl, Karen Mallard had taught her father how to read. Other candidates like them slept on friends’ couches, lived in trailers, and worked multiple minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet.

For a party that purports to reflect the regular people of the United States, rather than the top 1 percent, these candidates are seemingly the perfect kind of representatives to have in Washington. Yet in almost every case, they have been met by the national party with either indifference or outright opposition. There are a select few candidates who’ve gotten Democratic Party support — those who’ve fully escaped the grip of poverty and climbed to the top rungs of the economic ladder.

As primary elections wrap up between now and August, these candidates are fighting to stay in the game.

Here are their stories.

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Roger Manno

The contest to succeed outgoing Rep. John Delaney in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District is shaping up to be one of the most expensive House races this year. Multimillionaire businessperson David Trone, who spent a record $13.4 million of his own money in a failed House bid last year, is self-funding his campaign once again — but this time in a different district. The wine store magnate’s deep pockets present a challenge to the other Democrats, who include state Sen. Roger Manno, state Delegate Aruna Miller, physician Nadia Hashimi, and Andrew Duck. Opponents have accused Trone of trying to buy his way into Congress — he has been endorsed by elected officials who have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from his family. (Trone declined to comment for this story.) Manno, for his part, has picked up an endorsement from Maryland Working Families, along with nearly 20 labor unions.

Manno, who was elected to the state Senate in 2010 and is now the majority whip, said he’s running for Congress because “it’s important to have people who understand struggles that the people they represent are going through.” When he was 6 years old, his family was thrust into an economic nightmare when his father, who couldn’t afford health insurance and had been unable to obtain the preventative care he needed, died from heart failure. The loss unraveled Manno’s childhood, which he spent homeless and then in a group home.

“We had the economic rug pulled out from under us,” he said. Further complicating matters, it was soon discovered that Manno had a heart condition requiring medical attention, so his mother took him to a teaching hospital, where they suggested an operation, he said. Someone in the community had heard of their situation and suggested a doctor who might have been able to treat him.

“They never sent us a bill because they knew that we were poor and had no money, and that was a call that the doctor made,” Manno said. “To treat me knowing that my mom was recently widowed, knowing that I had just lost my dad, knowing that we had no money, knowing that my family was going through a terrible health care tragedy, and he never sent us a bill. And so, I made it through that period without having open heart surgery and being treated noninvasively because I had a wonderful doctor who was kind of like an angel in our lives.”

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Roger Manno and his father in California, circa 1968.

Photo: Courtesy of Roger Manno

From the death of his father to his own heart condition and later cancer, Manno’s fixation on health care policy stems from his own formative experiences with the system. But it wasn’t until he attended his first political science class at Hunter College class that he “opened his eyes” to political organization as the “vocabulary of how to fix the problems” that had happened in his life, and that he had seen happen in so many other lives, he said.

“I never had a lot of stability in my life during junior high and high school, so I didn’t go directly into college,” he added. “In fact, it took me many, many attempts to get through college. I went to community college several times, and I dropped out and worked odd jobs, restaurants, drove a taxi cab, worked in all kinds of jobs.”

Because he couldn’t receive a proper, structured education, Manno had to take remedial classes in community college, “which is why I kept dropping out.” But before finally making it out of community college, Manno went to the Salvation Army, bought a suit, cut his hair, and knocked on his state senator’s door to say that he wanted to get involved in fixing health care, so the senator’s office put him to work doing casework.

“That was sort of a calling that I had early on because I was almost haunted by it,” he said. “Because of that health care nightmare that we had been through, that just gnawed at me.”

With the help of Pell Grants, he made it through community college and went onto a four-year college. After graduating law school, Manno worked as senior counsel to Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of the House Judiciary Committee, and as legislative director to Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop of the House Appropriations Committee and the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2006, Manno was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates. He served a full four-year term in the House and then was elected to state Senate.

But 2 1/2 years ago, Manno had what he called “a real eye-opening experience” — he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “An ugly form of prostate cancer at 49 years old and I had two surgeries at Hopkins, you know, I almost didn’t make it out of that hospital because of the complications I had.” He said it was probably the first time in his life that he ever had to sit still. He couldn’t buzz around; he was “literally in a bed with tubes and got a chance to kind of reflect on my life and the work that I was doing.” Because he didn’t know whether he was going to make it out of the hospital, Manno said, he wants to make use of the opportunity he’s been given.

“I don’t take it lightly that I’m now in a position to make a difference in people’s lives, like my family,” he said. “I try to be the kind of state senator who I wish I had when I was a little kid.”