Rebecca Parson—DSA member, activist, and substitute teacher—is one of these exciting young DSA insurgent candidates you’ve been hearing so much about. The U.S. Congressional seat she’s running for, Washington’s 6th, fits the bill for a reliably “blue” district, having been represented by Democrats for the past 55 years. Derek Kilmer, the Democratic incumbent, sailed to reelection in 2016 with over 63 percent of the vote. Republican candidates have only broken 40 percent of the vote in two elections since 2000.
The district, which includes Tacoma stretching west up through the Olympic Peninsula, and the surrounding area has a radical history of labor organization. Nearby Everett was the site of the infamous Everett Massacre, during which some members of the IWW were killed or wounded by a posse led by the sheriff of Snohomish County. That history may be a small contributor to a curious footnote in the district’s history: In 1933, its first Representative, Democrat Wesley Lloyd, proposed a Constitutional amendment imposing caps on individual income at $1 million dollars (in modern dollars, that’s just shy of $20 million.) The area is still home to a substantial contingent of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a powerful, historically communist-led union that originated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Take Appalachia and replace coal with timber: you would have Washington’s 6th district. It’s a blue collar area, one in which extractive industries, especially the timber industry, made their profit and usually left, leaving workers and communities behind. Certain economically devastated parts voted for Donald Trump—Trump was the first Republican to win Grays Harbor County since 1928—but the memory of the New Deal is still strong. When Parson canvasses in Grays Harbor County, the reverence for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s memory is clear; a local hotel, the Lake Quinault Lodge, commemorates FDR’s visit to the area, and his memory is popular in no small part due to extensive Civilian Conservation Corp. operations in the area. According to Rebecca, “their favorite politician, period, is FDR, because people got jobs. They want jobs, and they want union jobs.” Progressive ideas like the Green New Deal play well there; when asked during canvasses what parts of the Green New Deal matter most to them—such as union jobs, free universal school lunches, a federal jobs guarantee, affordable housing, and high-speed internet access—Parson says voters can’t pick because they want them all.
In talking to Parson about the area and its history—especially its radical history—her enthusiasm is clear. “It’s such an exciting district.”
Parson, however, is vying for the nomination against a powerful incumbent. Kilmer is chair of the right-wing “New Democrat Coalition”—a deficit hawk “pro-growth” group within Congress that backs, among other things, balanced budget measures like “[maintaining and strengthening] pay-as-you-go budget rules” (aka keeping social benefits as impoverished as possible while never challenging our country’s bloated military spending). And yet Parson is running against him on one of the most ambitious, pro-labor platforms of any Congressional candidate, including Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and a suite of other progressive proposals.
What makes Parson think she can win? For starters, she’s a different sort of candidate, lacking the resume of someone who’s harbored political ambitions their whole life. Her dad was in the Foreign Service, so she bounced around overseas before finally settling in Virginia. She went to the University of Mary Washington, a public university in Virginia an hour outside D.C., for her undergraduate degree instead of an Ivy League (Kilmer attended Princeton). Parson’s later graduate degree at John Hopkins was in poetry, rather than political science or international relations.
For thousands of aspiring Washington lanyards and would-be candidates who fantasize about living inside The West Wing, electoral politics is a passion akin to sports fandom. Parson didn’t share this interest, but that isn’t to say she wasn’t political. Along with studying poetry, she took an influential undergraduate class from professor Gregory H. Stanton, a descendent of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a noted expert on genocide who helped advise criminal tribunals in Rwanda. This awakened Parson’s interest in justice, leading her to learn Spanish through a language school in Southern Mexico run by the Chiapas-based leftist Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or “Zapatistas,” an anti-globalization pro-democracy group known for their advocacy work on behalf of deep democracy, fair trade agreements, and the rights of the indigenous population. While there, Parson worked as a human rights observer requested by indigenous communities facing state repression from the Mexican government.
After this stint as a human rights observer, Parson spent time in AmeriCorps, which she described as stretches of financial insecurity and hardship. She also moved to Tacoma in 2015 and fell in love with the “unpretentious, working class, and [vibrant]” city, saying it’s the “first place I ever felt I was home.” Like many precarious workers, something as simple as car trouble could decide whether she had enough to pay her bills or not.
What she saw in Washington classrooms left her with an enduring respect for educators and a frontline view of social inequities. “Many teachers are smart and creative and passionate,” she says. “My first grade teacher was incredible, and I really loved her…there’s a really special bond between a good teacher and their kids. It can impact their entire lives.” But what she saw in the Americorps was different: “I got to see the disparities in facilities, bussing, schools where students receive free breakfast and where they don’t.”
So what brought her to the decision to run for Congress? She’d been involved in nonprofit, government, and organizing work, but 2016 changed her view of politics, as it did for many Americans. In addition to the local activist issues that had been her primary focus, she began to see the deep importance of electoral action. George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics also had an important effect on her perceptions: “I started to see electoral politics as a way to change the root causes of so much suffering in our country.” She got involved, quickly becoming a co-leader of Tacoma’s chapter of Indivisible, a grassroots progressive organization created shortly after Trump’s election and the publisher of the “Indivisible Guide.” Soon after, she joined the Tacoma Democratic Socialists of America. As part of the community, she’s done significant work in tenant organizing—especially with the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee—and serves on the Tacoma Area Commission for Disabilities. She’s been part of winning some major victories, including the passage of expansive tenant protections in the Tacoma City Council. But through her work in Indivisible and her other organizing work, Parson says she realized quickly that there were limits to what could be accomplished when politicians weren’t responsive to their constituents.
Derek Kilmer couldn’t be more different. On top of the austerity-focused “New Democrat Coalition, the four-term Representative is a member of the corporate-backed “Problem Solvers Caucus” which may sound good except that their solutions are generally to support free trade agreements like the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement negotiated by the Trump administration. The caucus’ backer, No Labels, spent $2.5 million against House Democrats in 2018. On top of being the aforementioned chair of the right-leaning New Democrat Coalition, Kilmer is a former McKinsey consultant, the same notorious firm that Pete Buttigieg worked for, though it’s unclear if he also spent his time there fixing bread prices and otherwise gouging workers. Kilmer’s official Congressional biography touts his McKinsey work as “[helping] businesses, non-profits, and government agencies run more efficiently,” which I hope we all know is thinly veiled code for corporate “belt tightening” and slash-and-burn austerity measures.
As a Congressman, he hasn’t endeared himself to workers. Zack Pattin, a rank-and-file union longshoreman and member of Tacoma DSA—and now a backer of Parson’s campaign—assessed Kilmer bluntly based on a one-to-one conversation the two had at a fundraiser about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, or TPP, in 2016: “He didn’t seem to give a shit,” said Pattin, “at all.” According to Pattin, Kilmer listened politely but ultimately dismissed Pattin’s concerns, concerns shared by many unionists about the TPP like lack of corporate accountability, insufficient protections for workers’ rights, off-shoring of union jobs, and ensuring that the well-being of workers are front and center in trade deals rather than corporate profits. The experience “made it so clear [that Kilmer was saying] ‘I don’t represent you.’” Kilmer happily voted for the anti-worker TPP in line with the Obama administration over organized labor’s objections. His office boosted a Politico profile claiming he and other “pro-trade Democrats” had called labor’s bluff.
Kilmer’s record on organized labor—which, according to the AFL-CIO, is well below average for a Congressional Democrat—is just the start of Kilmer’s laundry list of misdeeds. According to both Parson and Pattin, the opioid epidemic is a major issue for constituents. Reports have indicated that counties in the Olympic Peninsula have some of the largest opioid problems in Washington state. The problem is so severe that the Attorney General of Washington brought suit against Johnson & Johnson, a major pharmaceutical manufacturer, in January. But while the opioid epidemic devastates his constituents, Kilmer continues to accept campaign contributions from pharmaceutical industry groups. Recently, he even made the bizarre claim that “Medicare for All” would threaten rural hospitals, advancing a talking point popular with insurance lobbyists. In reality, rural advocates argue that for-profit insurance has ravaged rural healthcare and that “Medicare for All ” is a solution, not a threat.
If you thought taking money from the pharmaceutical industry was bad, wait until you hear about Kilmer’s relationship with the defense sector. He’s received significant campaign funding from Raytheon—one of the major weapons developers in the American defense industry—and advertised a visit with them on social media in 2019. He’s attended multiple AIPAC-funded trips to Israel, and he also cosponsored legislation funding an Israeli missile defense system co-developed, conveniently, by Raytheon. (In addition, Kilmer backed a bill in Congress banning the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divest, and Sanction, or “BDS,” movement.) When the Democrats retook control of the House in 2018, they named Kilmer to the Defense Appropriations committee, ensuring companies like Raytheon a direct line to the Congressional representatives shaping defense spending.
According to Pattin, that’s the critical contrast. “Stuff like [my conversation with Kilmer] is the big difference between him and Rebecca [Parson], who actually does listen to constituents, talks to people, and isn’t here to root for the Party and Wall Street.” Parson notes that her approach is very different than Kilmer’s; according to her, Kilmer preaches about bringing all “stakeholders” to the table—but inevitably leaves out the people who are directly impacted. The contrast is illustrated in their approaches to funding their campaigns; while Kilmer takes money from industry lobbyists, Parson refuses to take corporate contributions.
In other words, Derek Kilmer embodies the polar opposite of the new energy in the Democratic Party—energy represented by firebrand insurgents like Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar. According to Parson campaign consultant Peter Daou, this matters a lot, especially in a year dominated by a contentious Presidential election. He says that voters “tend to focus a lot of attention on presidential races, but as we’ve seen from AOC and others, our movement is strengthened when we elect strong progressives to Congress.” Grassroots populism—not the usual cynical greed and pay-to-play realpolitik—is the mood of the electorate.
As for Kilmer, enthusiasm and energy isn’t something he offers. If anything, candidates like him suck it out of the room. According to Pattin, “[Kilmer] always gets [union] endorsements, but nobody seems to actually like him.” Parson’s campaign is banking on that, and banking on the belief that with a campaign driven by the progressive base, they can break through against a powerful incumbent and win.
What Parson offers—and what other Congressional insurgents like Melanie D’Arrigo and Lindsay Boylan offer—is clear: Not only are they willing to break with the ideas of the past, they’re ready and willing to break with the way politics are done. Kilmer and representatives like him spend their time in D.C. with lobbyists and consultants; they’re more likely found in a Chamber of Commerce than a union hall. Their response to Trump winning in places like Grays Harbor County, has been so far to embrace moderation, to become even more centrist and risk-averse. Even occasional populist gestures are usually undercut by clear signs that the gestures are disingenuous.
In contrast, movement candidates like Parson are more comfortable talking to displaced tenants than defense sector lobbyists, more at home with teachers’ unions than McKinsey consultants. This isn’t what constituents are used to, and they may view it as a selling point.
The Left needs Parson and her class of progressive challengers to win. Although Bernie Sanders is the clear frontrunner in the presidential race, an insurgency is needed up and down the ticket. Legislation isn’t passed by the will of the president alone; if elected, Sanders will need allies—allies like Parson. Even in the event that Democrats take control of Congress, centrists like the corporate-friendly suits populating the “New Democrat Coalition” will be unlikely to support an agenda that provides health insurance to all Americans, not while the health insurance lobby directly funds their re-election campaigns. Kilmer and the New Democratic Coalition may be a shade less vociferously hostile to working people than Mitch McConnell, but a difference of degrees isn’t enough. Workers need, as Sanders puts it, a political revolution.
Parson—and any challenger to a corporate-funded entrenched incumbent—faces an uphill battle. Joe Crowley, the former Chair of the House Democratic Caucus and Nancy Pelosi’s heir apparent, was surprised by a stunning primary upset victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; during the campaign he even sent a surrogate to debate Ocasio-Cortez rather than appearing himself. That mistake won’t be made again. The Democratic establishment is well aware that progressives and the Left are a threat, and have been taking steps to ensure that incumbents are protected from challenges, such as the blacklist created by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to bar consultants from working with primary candidates who challenge incumbents. But the Left, and candidates like Parson, have two things the establishment doesn’t: enthusiasm, and policy ideas that tangibly solve the problems facing working people. Sympathetic words and means-tested half-measures won’t solve the despair felt in Aberdeen, Washington, but a federal jobs guarantee and universal healthcare might.
Parson knows the fight will be hard. “I didn’t want to run as a symbolic statement or just to push him left,” Parson says. She’s getting donations of time and money from working people that are trusting her to fight for them, and she doesn’t want to let them down. Running for Congress without corporate money or backing is a serious challenge; but she says the fight, however difficult, is worth it to her.
The question it’ll come down to is this: Are there enough people in Washington’s 6th who want to return to the glory days of FDR and the beloved New Deal?
Corrections: An earlier version of this article included a number of factual inaccuracies, which have subsequently been corrected. Parson did not grow up in a military family, her father was in the Foreign service. Her family did not spend time in Germany as the article originally noted. She lived in Germany later as an adult. Parson never “returned” to Southern Mexico. The language school and volunteering happened on the same trip. Parson did not substitute in Tacoma schools as initially noted. We deeply regret these errors.