Maybe it’s an amazing thing that a sitting Democratic congressman at the forefront of the House’s impeachment process just announced his resignation. The soon-to-be retired politician hails from a solidly blue district and seemingly had little to fear in 2020. But maybe it’s not so amazing. Maybe the conventional wisdom is cracked, and maybe the pundits don’t know what’s happening at all.
Enter Joshua Collins, a 26-year-old democratic socialist and Democratic Party candidate for Washington’s 10th congressional district. As of this week, Collins is the only Democrat who has filed to run in the district.
On Wednesday afternoon, four-term incumbent Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), a centrist increasingly at odds with Washington State’s left-wing electorate, abruptly resigned–citing a lack of civility in politics. Certain elements of Twitter swiftly caught on to the news. Collins has a healthy number of supporters and a handful of very loud detractors. Number-imbibing prognosticators were quick to write the socialist off due to his fundraising. (As of this writing, the campaign has raised upwards of $100,000.) Rose emoji-bearing posters were mostly ecstatic–tempered with quite a bit of caution.
Rebecca Parson, a former educator and current small business owner who is also running as democratic socialist in the neighboring sixth congressional district, outlined the potential challenges facing Collins in his currently (though perhaps not for long) unopposed bid—by way of referencing her centrist opponent’s own political pedigree.
“Like [Rep.] Derek Kilmer’s predecessor Norm Dicks, Heck will probably handpick a corporate Dem to succeed him and retire to the lucrative life of a lobbyist,” Parson told Law&Crime. “I find it pretty rich that one of the reasons he states for quitting is a lack of civility, when the incivility of daily life is something the working class can’t quit: mistreatment by slumlords, unscrupulous bosses, and greedy corporations.”
Hours after Heck’s announcement, I found myself in a New York City Subway car communicating briskly back-and-forth with various members of Collins’s campaign staff about the state of the race, their strategy going forward, and whether the candidate might be able to download WhatsApp for an impromptu interview. We didn’t get to the instant messaging because Collins was up and busy until 3 a.m. huddling over how best to proceed. The following interview was conducted via email on December 5.
COLIN KALMBACHER: Give us some basic demographic information–name, rank, serial number and all that.
JOSHUA COLLINS: My name is Joshua Collins. I’m running for US Congress in Washington’s 10th District. I’m a 26-year-old socialist truck driver, and since my incumbent retired [on Tuesday] I’m currently the front-runner for the Democratic ticket in the primary.
What prompted your congressional run?
I’ve been to Denny Heck’s office (he’s the current Rep) over the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and a few other major issues. He outright said he will “never, ever, ever” support [Medicare for All] or a Green New Deal. He wasn’t planning to do anything to help regular people, and that’s why I’m not surprised he retired, honestly. I was running to make an example out of a bad, corporate career politician. Now I’m running because this district wants something different in its representation, and we can’t trust anyone who appears now that it’s easy. I signed up to challenge someone with $1.5 million in the bank because it was necessary to save the planet, and it was the right thing to do.
Nuts and bolts: where do you stand on endorsements? What’s your relationship with the local party in Olympia and elsewhere in the district?
We are endorsed by the Olympia DSA, Our Revolution Thurston Country, and the state-level Our Revolution: Washington Berniecrats Coalition. We have also co-endorsed a number of candidates, including Jason Call in WA-2 and Lauren Ashcraft in NY-12, and are currently in the process of building coalitions with several more from around the country.
The local party is a mixed bag; we’ve gotten good responses pretty much everywhere, but some spaces have been slower to trust us than others. The Thurston County Democrats have approved our campaign for access to campaign services (which of course prompted a swift denial from the state party). The climate movement in our area, both Climate Strike Olympia and Tacoma, are very close allies, and we’re actively involved with them in climate action. We’ll be speaking [on Friday] in Olympia at the state capitol as a result of those relationships.
Overall, it seems to be a conflict between folks in our community who know us and advocate for us, and folks from further away who don’t know us yet and still need some convincing. We believe we can sway these voters with our values and our actions.
How have individual voters responded to your message? Tell me one of your favorite stories about a voter interaction.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially to our radical stances on climate action, water rights, trans rights, and foreign policy. One of my favorite interactions is one I had at literally dozens of doors with different folks, but it was an identical conversation. I was knocking doors in Lakewood, WA for local races and part of the campaign’s messaging was “clean water for all.”. House after house, when I’d mention clean water, the voters came alive. Their water smells like it comes from a swimming pool, and every single one of them is mad at rich people and the politicians they bribe doing absolutely nothing about it. I didn’t have to tell them whose fault it is; the class character of dirty water is just already apparent to everyone. I was so encouraged to hear that level of class consciousness in one of the poorest places in my district.
Tell me about your campaign style. Are you out there knocking doors? Doing forums? Running any paid media?
Right now we’re in transition. We don’t use paid media, because we’ve built a cross-platform social media program with over 115,000 combined followers that routinely reaches up to 40 million people per 28 days. Forums have been hard to come by, but without an incumbent hiding from me, it will be much easier to have the hard discussions so voters can tell who’s who. As far as field goes, we’ll be utilizing a hybrid strategy of relational organizing (think something like the BERN app that allows decentralized canvasses) and door-knocking. I’ve pledged to knock 25,000 doors with my own hand (10% of our total door goal for the primary) and we’re actively scaling field up to meet that goal by mid-July.
One of our biggest priorities is students. A lot of established politicians sort of write them off, because they’re young and “they don’t vote.” I don’t buy that. We’re going to be on every campus in our district giving college and even high school students a good reason to turn up in 2020.
How has it been, so far, managing your trucking work with your campaign? I’d imagine you’ve been out of the district quite a bit?
Until late September I was driving over-the-road full time, so the campaign has really picked up in the last two months. I’ve stopped driving completely now, and I just campaign full-time. It’s a race to catch up for sure, but that’s another reason we need people like me in Congress. Right now, over-the-road truckers are completely excluded from the political process.
Do you have a good trucking story you’d like to share?
Much like canvassing, my “good trucking story” is something that repeats all over the country, all the time. A lot of people don’t know this, but truck drivers’ only workplace protections are “hours of service,” so our days are limited to 14 hours on duty (with 11 hours driving max). I team-drove with my wife, meaning our day was 28 hours long for years.
It’s not such a compelling narrative to say “we don’t have a Circadian rhythm, as an industry,” but this is something that’s so dangerous to the health and well-being of drivers that I try to mention it every time I’m asked for a cool story from the road. I’m still not on a regular sleep schedule after three years of 28-hour days, and a lot of drivers have crazy sleepwalking stories or “forgot what day it was” tales surrounding this, but it’s honestly a really serious issue.
You identify as a socialist. What else should people know about you? What does socialism mean to you and why is it right for your district and the country?
I do. When I say I’m a socialist, I mean I believe that the working class should own and control the government and the economy. It means I believe there are two classes: the owner class (capitalists) and the working class (everyone else), and there is a direct contradiction between those two groups. It means I believe that until we change our economic and political system, we will be ruled by the owner class and will never experience a truly equitable, democratic society that’s capable of taking on challenges like the climate crisis.
Socialism isn’t just right for my district, or even for the whole country: socialism represents a transition from a predatory, immoral system that’s destroying the planet to one that values human life and social sustainability. Socialism is the only answer to the question of “how do we prevent human extinction?” It’s the only answer to the unending war economy of the American empire, and it’s the only system that will shatter the structural racism and inequity that our economy has created/maintained since before American was founded.
A plurality of Millennials–at the very least–support socialism. How important is it for the largest generation in American history to see themselves represented in art, media, and politics? How important is it that they have adequate representation specifically in Congress?
Our generation has inherited a specific set of social and economic conditions that defined us and also set us back. We came of age during a recession, right after the development of a massive police state. We watched the transition to a tech-saturated society, as it happened, live. Despite this, we’re not represented in popular culture or politics, and I don’t think that’s an accident. We are silenced because what we have to say, from lived experience, threatens the most basic, core structures in our society.
We need Millennial voices in Congress now. The climate crisis has a pretty set timeline, and if we don’t take broad, radical action in the next ten years, we’re done for. Millenials understand that. We are energized by these issues, and we are not afraid to step outside “the rules” if it means saving the world.
A lot of what one might call Election Maps Twitter or Donut Twitter is downright dismissive of your candidacy due to–wait for it–your fundraising so far. What do you say to the haters — or maybe even not critics, but people who are used to seeing money purchase electoral victories?
My first instinct is always to say, “money isn’t everything,” but I want to give you some actual nuance. Money matters for campaigns like mine when it comes to paying for tools and services, compensating staff, and purchasing literature. It’s a fair metric. Before Denny Heck announced his retirement, we were near $70,000 in total fundraising, which means we’d raised enough to pay for all the things a campaign needs. We were already viable; this quarter was already on track to smash previous fundraising milestones.
Since he announced retirement, though, the fundraising situation has changed. The 24 hours since Rep. Heck’s announcement brought just over $12,000 in small, individual donations. [Note: Collins’ campaign manager says that total has swelled to over $20,000 in the past 36 hours.] Today, we’re on track to raise even more. This is no coincidence; when I’ve said “we’re building a national movement,” I wasn’t kidding. People from all over the country are desperate for real, unapologetic socialist representation, and that’s reflected in the incredible upwelling of support in our ActBlue dashboard.
When you decided to run, did you have a plan? Who you wanted to be? Who you wanted to speak for? What issues you wanted to promote?
To call it a “plan” would be stretching the truth; I had an aim. I knew what I had to do, who I wanted to be, but the big learning curve has just been the technical aspects of campaigning and organizing. So I’ve been learning about things like call time, community organizing, and list building, and it’s been a lot to learn really fast.
I always knew what I wanted to say, though. It’s that “rage at injustice” thing again. I am here to fight for people who are mistreated. That means communities of color dealing with violent police, indigenous communities fighting for water rights, trans kids thrown out of their homes, the thousands of folks sleeping in tents in my district right now. That’s my base. That’s who I represent.
Tell us about your ground game and organizing. Your campaign manager attributed Heck’s departure to your army of volunteers.
It’s interesting that whenever people talk about organizing, it’s always about “ground game.” No shade, but this is a really outdated understanding of how elections are won in the modern era. Yes, we’ve got about a hundred folks in or near our district who do anything from button-making to knocking doors every weekend, and they are absolutely critical to our victory. But that’s only part of the picture: we are organizing all over the country because folks can phone/text bank, boost on social media, and send postcards from anywhere. Our Discord server, where we do remote organizing, there are nearly a thousand active volunteers from every corner of the U.S., and that’s a volunteer asset like nobody’s ever seen in grassroots politics.
We’re changing the game on volunteer engagement, because that’s what has to happen. The working class needs to get a win, and it’s only going to come when people from all over come together and share the load, doing whatever they can.
You’ve engaged in a great deal of social media posting. Do you credit your posts for Rep. Heck’s retirement?
Oh absolutely. That little reference in his retirement announcement to civility was absolutely targeted at me, not Donald Trump. I have been actively calling for his retirement since June, and anytime he’d post online his comments fill up completely organically with my supporters telling him to retire. I’m sure it took a toll, although it wasn’t exactly organized.
It wasn’t just social media though. Denny is a consultant by trade (when he’s not in office), and he’s got a staff full of consultants and millions on hand to do polling. I think there’s a really good chance he saw the needle moving with voters and decided not to take a public beating.
In general, how instrumental has Twitter been for your campaign?
Honestly, Twitter has been key. We’ve diversified our social media attack a lot, but it was the first platform where we really enjoyed that nationwide support in material ways. Even before Heck’s retirement, we could ask Twitter alone for money, and $1500 would appear in our ActBlue that day, $4.20 at a time. You just can’t replicate that as a tool for generating popular support nationwide to use for fundraising.
What is your political vision and theory of change? What do you have to say to the cynics?
I believe that those of us who understand the situation, right now, have an individual imperative to go and educate the masses. What we do in the next five years about the climate crisis will define the next 2,000 of human history; anyone who already gets it has a job to do. I believe policy and power are derived from the mass of workers who are asking for help, and that the working class and impacted communities know best what their needs are.
To the cynics: you are actively contributing to the extinction of humankind. I know this may be a stronger statement than people are used to hearing about this, but there’s less than a decade left to save the world and anyone who’s saying it can’t be done is getting in the way. We have no room for cynicism or pessimism. We have a planet to save.
This interview has been edited for length.
[image via Joshua Collins for Congress 2020; used with permission]