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Representative Pat Ryan: The Backlash after Dobbs

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Representative Pat Ryan: The Backlash after Dobbs

Pat Ryan discusses his successful special election campaign, and the nationwide surge in support Democrats have seen in response to the Dobbs decision.

Pat is a West Point grad and army vet who just won a hotly contested special election in New York's 19th congressional district. He’ll be up for reelection in November.

To learn more about Pat, and to support his November campaign, visit patryanforcongress.com.

You can also follow him on Twitter @PatRyanUC.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.

Pat Ryan:

That dark moment unleashed a whole lot of people and invigorated, reinvigorated, a whole lot of people who really believe in our country and said, "No freaking way are we going to let this happen to America." And so, I think we're on the right side of that clearly and we'll win that battle in the long run.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Pat Ryan, a West Point grad and army vet who just won a hotly contested special election in New York's 19th congressional district.

Pat, congrats on the win and welcome to the show.

Pat Ryan:

Thanks Ken. Good to see you. It's been a journey the last few years for both of us.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's been a while. I know. That 2018 class... I don't know if anyone's going to write the book, but they should. There was just this feeling in that group of congressional candidates in 2018, that we were stepping up for historical reasons. I'm so far off script here, but it's great talking to a friend of some years, because I feel like we can reminisce a little, but did you have that same feeling? Because most of us, I don't think, had running for Congress on our bucket list or on our dance card or whatever, but that 2016 election just was a gut punch for the vets who served, who saw this new commander in chief coming in with no moral claim to that position, and we stood up and that I think began the pushback, the resistance, if you will. Take us back to that moment for you in I'm guessing 2017 or maybe it was the day after the Trump election, when you thought, "I'm going to do something about this."

Pat Ryan:

Yeah, we had actually just… We were scheduled to close on a new house that we had bought and I remember being so excited about that with my wife and also really depressed about what had happened with the November 2016 election and having this pretty hard conversation with her of like, "I think I need to do something more here, and I think that might mean that our lives are going to get upended a little bit," and little did I realize that a little bit was a lot, but I think looking back and I hope that this proves to bear out over the longer period, that dark moment unleashed a whole lot of people and invigorated, reinvigorated, a whole lot of people who really believe in our country and said, "No freaking way are we going to let this happen to America." And so, I think we're on the right side of that clearly and we'll win that battle in the long run.

Ken Harbaugh:

We seem to have a history of that as a country. Dark moments that, as you put it, unleash something about our better natures, and I think history will look at the Dobbs decision as another one of those dark moments. In your very brief campaign and a lot of the press you've done afterwards, you said that your race, your message, your campaign was about choice. It was a referendum on choice, but it was also a referendum on freedom more broadly. I am sure that your constituents, when you're out on doors, understood the threat to reproductive freedom, but how did you talk about the larger assault on our freedoms more broadly?

Pat Ryan:

So we talked about an awful lot, of course, about the clear and very present threat to abortion rights, reproductive freedom, which people felt so viscerally. We talked about what Justice Thomas and a lot of other far right folks are saying about what comes next in terms of other foundational rights and freedoms, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, even the Supreme court decision to further weaken the EPA is very resonant here where we've had major water contamination issues in a lot of our communities, especially our communities of color. So all this cumulatively plus the January 6th hearings that are continuing to really show even more clearly what happened have all come together.

The other thing that has not gotten as much national or whatever press coverage is the other half of this campaign was really talking about the economic pain that people are feeling. And our other campaign ad was me in actually a bucket truck hammering our local power utility that's been ripping off customers for the last year at one of the worst points for people to have to pay more for anything. We were seeing people getting 10, 20, 30 times higher utility bills than they were supposed to because the company, their billing system failed, and rather than owning it, they passed that all on to customers. So we call them out. We've been open this whole investigation and I had more of those conversations talking to people at doors and at events about cost of utilities, cost of food, cost of housing, cost of prescription drugs, and so, I think that also is under the umbrella of freedom though. The idea that people are so worried about making ends meet and the economic pressure that they feel like they have no slack or no freedom to just take a breath or be able to have some choices in their personal lives and their family lives. I do think it's all linked together and we've been clear that the accumulation of monopoly corporate power is a big, big part of why we've gotten to where we are.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Pete Buttigieg does a great job talking about the economic components of that freedom and there's, of course, that great phrase, "Freedom from fear, freedom from want." You said you felt the ground shift in your district in just the last week or so of the campaign. When you're out on doors, having those conversations, how did you pick up on that shift? Was it just a sixth sense or were there a couple of conversations that hit you that you took back to the staff?

Pat Ryan:

So there's definitely some conversations that really stuck with me. Some of them were really early. So our whole campaign coincided with… The leak of the Dobbs decision happened right at the time that we learned that there was going to be a special election, which was only in early May, even though it feels like it's been years. And so, some of the very first conversations I had as the campaign was forming were at rallies and protests across the district and in our communities here where people were openly weeping, people were pissed. People were feeling not just that they were personally impacted, but that fellow Americans and certainly family members and people they loved and cared about would be profoundly impacted by this decision and that energy and that righteous indignation is how I've thought about it, and I've heard others talk about it, really fueled ultimately a huge turnout in our special election of a lot of Democrats, but a lot of other non-Democrats who also felt that this had crossed a line and really hit and broke through a guardrail of shared American values. And so, throughout the campaign, there were a bunch of those kinds of moments.

Another story that really sticks with me is I walked into a little retail store in one of our most rural areas in Sullivan County and Kauneonga Lake and main street clothing retail business, and the gentleman who's the owner, once I told him who I was and I was running for Congress in front of a bunch of customers in the middle of his store, he just started crying and telling me how he and his husband- This gentleman was white, his husband's black- Have struggled not just with being openly gay, but also racial discrimination and how this Dobbs decision to them really shook them to the core to point that they felt like everything that they had had finally some... A little bit of security and feeling that they could just live their lives, and that was now under threat, and you think about that ripple effect for millions, tens of millions of people, that is what ultimately I think fueled people to stand up and say, "This is not who we are as a country."

Ken Harbaugh:

We just had Jim Obergefell on who shared that same sentiment in just the most gutting way. He talked about standing on the steps of the Supreme Court in 2015, having felt that sense of history and the victory that his lawsuit brought about for millions of couples who just wanted the same rights as everyone else. And now, with a radically different Supreme Court, seeing that right and other rights under threat, it is characteristically American though how these creeping encroachments on rights tend to be ignored until they affect you or someone you love, and finally the dam breaks. And it doesn't say the best things about our instincts as a country, but the guardrails do eventually go back up and you've described your win as an example of the democratic guardrails checking maybe, and I'm putting your words in your mouth here, but judicial overreach.

Pat Ryan:

Oh, a hundred percent. I think the Kansas referendum is even more telling, I think here, of how out of step the Supreme Court now is on certainly abortion rights, but clearly more broadly other rights when you see that result. But it is clearly judicial overreach and the irony of that being done by a group of people that have railed against judicial overreach for decades now is I also don't think lost on people who pay attention.

And Americans feel this in their gut. That's what I think, and they're willing to tolerate some degree of the back and forth, but then you hit a certain point and it does, as you're alluding to, it's a little messier than we'd probably all prefer democracy, but it works.

Ken Harbaugh:

It works, I'd like to believe, in the long run.

What do you make of the case made by some legal academics that these decisions should be left to voters and legislatures and that the Supreme Court is simply returning the decisions to where they belong. I have a pretty strong bias against that, but I won't prejudice your answer. How do you respond to that?

Pat Ryan:

I think I agree with you from what you're saying that returning something where we know what the outcome is going to be and it's going to result in less rights for Americans is not what I think our system is intended to do. The history of the court has almost exclusively been about expanding and protecting rights, not taking them away. There's obviously a few very notable exceptions, but that usually gets corrected in the long arc of the court's history, but I also just think that the very cynical use of states rights when it is convenient is just such a tired play.

My opponent in this special election for months tried to just dodge the issue of abortion rights and reproductive freedom. He was totally silent after the Dobbs decision came out and then when we finally forced the case in a few debates, he just did that typical, "Well, the court is now returned this to the states," and what I pointed out to people was, "Yes, and when you were a state legislator, which you were, you voted against these rights," so at the end of the day, the procedural dodges are not going to work, I think, because the extreme side of this has shown where they want to go and I don't think you can put that back in the bottle at this point.

Ken Harbaugh:

And the cynicism of this court is just palpable. When they talk on one hand about returning decisions to the states, and I'll just focus on Clarence Thomas for a minute, Justice Thomas, in arguing that those substantive due process decisions should be reviewed, he of course leaves out Loving v. Virginia, the one case that-

Pat Ryan:

Would personally affect him-

Ken Harbaugh:

That is foundational to the legality of his own marriage. Exactly. And I think when it comes to fundamental rights, they trump the democratic impulses that sometimes have cultural components that blow at the winds. You have fundamental rights that are sacrosanct and this court is threatening those.

Pat Ryan:

Mm-hmm (Affirmative). I think the result in this special election makes me much more hopeful about Americans stepping up at a critical moment. This is one race. It's one district. It's a special election. There's all the caveats, but this is my community that I... My family's been here five generations. We're raising our kids here. To see my community step up to the plate in such a big way at such a pivotal moment, I am so damn proud that we sent this message, and I do think that will inspire other people, just like Kansas inspired us. After Kansas, we saw a huge boost in our volunteers and grassroots financial support to the campaign in a very skeptical, cynical press saying, "Oh, maybe you were right to center this thing, even though we've told you for months that that's a third rail that you shouldn't touch."

Ken Harbaugh:

You've talked a lot about Americans stepping up, not just voters in the New York 19th. I take it that you do see your win as portentous. What advice do you have for democratic candidates and the D-Triple-C who, if I'm not mistaken, didn't invest in your race, what words of wisdom would you share for Dems running in November?

Pat Ryan:

So the D-Triple-C did invest in the race so I just want to put that out there and we appreciate that. VoteVets, who I know you know and love were huge, and we're the cavalry that arrived to help us in a big, big way down the home stretch and I'm forever grateful to them, but I think it's important to say every… Like I am... Bring great humility to what we did here and don't think that I'm one to be giving advice to people that have been doing this a lot longer and better than me. The issues and the positions we took obviously matter, but the way in which we took them, the willingness to just stand up and plant the flag and say, "This is so important that we are willing to explicitly put it out there, to ignore all the pundit advice that we shouldn't center a campaign around this, because it's just too important. It's too foundational to our country." To ignore that would miss really what's happening. And I think that is the essence of leadership really, is to be willing to do that and take on that risk, knowing that all the data and the numbers said that probably wouldn't have worked for us. But that willingness to fight and be clear about what we stand for, and clear that we believe that we're on the moral high ground, I think that's what actually energized people to come out, is me showing that fight.

Ken Harbaugh:

I love this quote from you in the immediate wake of the win.

You said,

"We are at a moment where people are needing to see the fight in us. This is what we believe and we're going to stand up and go all in. Not poll test it, not triangulate."

I got to imagine that having a very compressed congressional campaign was in a way a huge advantage. You didn't have time to poll test. You didn't have time for the consultants to come in and tell you to go against your instincts and focus group everything. You were just Pat Ryan with the Babybjörn, walking around the New York 19th making your case.

Pat Ryan:

Yeah, it was liberating actually to just, crazy idea, say what you believe. But obviously, to have that informed by what you're hearing on the ground. Yeah. I think certainly for people that have been in these campaigns, you understand how all the forces that come in and try to dull down the humanity in you as a candidate and what you believe, and seeing that selectively ignoring that works out is also encouraging for the future of our politics.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you worry about losing some of that humanity in the swamp? For context, those who don't know you, you're going from being an Ulster county executive where you get to make decisions, people do what you tell them to, you get to make a real difference. On the day you decide to fill that pothole or whatever it is, to the US Congress, where you're going to be butting heads with people who, let's just be honest, you don't even respect, much less want to work with.

Pat Ryan:

Yeah. When this all happened out of the blue a few months ago, I really debated, and it probably doesn't translate in all states, but in New York, County Executive is basically a mayor of about, in my case, 200,000 constituents in an upstate New York county. So it is an awesome job and we've been able to really turn projects, do things, guide the community through the pandemic. I am as "eyes open" as I can be in terms of how different things in Washington will be, but I just think it's too damn important. The existential nature of where trust is in our federal government in Congress... I'm sure you've seen this, the Pew polling every year, they test Americans' trust in different institutions and the latest numbers are just brutal to read. They list about 80 different groups, and the groups you'd expect are at the top of first responders and nurses, and so on. The second to last is a member of Congress. 9%. And the only job below it is a used car salesman. For real. I'm not making that up. They're at 8% trust. What's encouraging to me is local elected officials in that same poll are at 22%. And that needs to come up too, but there is an ability where if you're more rooted at the ground level and you can actually show tangible help and connection to people, you can start to rebuild that trust gap and I've seen that in the last few years in local government, and it's obviously harder to do in Washington as a legislator versus an executive, but that's the work we have to do. That is the literal essence of the non-shortcut path to fixing our democracy of just rebuilding that trust from the bottom up.

Ken Harbaugh:

I take it you've also seen the poll that showed that for the first time since these kinds of polls have been taken, threats to democracy are at the top of the list of Americans' concerns over the economy, over the possibility of war with Russia, even its threats to democracy that are at the top of that list. What do you make of that?

Pat Ryan:

So I saw that come out I think on one of the Sunday shows the week before my special basically, and I turned to my wife, I was like, "That is validating what I'm hearing on the ground, actually," that people are feeling this deeper sense that something is just really awry and more deeply foundationally at stake right now. And I think being able to bring words to it as a threat to democracy is really important that a lot of people have been working, you included, I think to put it in that context because that then becomes a unifying umbrella under which a lot of people who might have different reasons to not be unified politically and otherwise can say, "No, we believe in democracy and we see what's happening here and we want to be on the right side of that," and so, I don't think that has actually happened by accident is what I'm trying to say.

I think it requires reminding people that all of these issues... Like in that poll, abortion rights I think was below that, but I think what that poll misses is that taking away reproductive freedom is a threat to democracy, I believe, and I think that people understand that the threat to democracy to me is the umbrella layer and a lot of these other single issues... Which you can't really poll it this way... But these single issues all tie to that overarching set of threats. And that's what I think has really shifted the political ground, because now, you can go on the offensive and say, "We've seen what the other side is going to do. We have to go on offense and fight now to restore these rights and to protect democracy."

Ken Harbaugh:

Is that why it's taken so long for this issue to come to the fore? The insurrection attempt was 20 months ago and people like you and me have been beating this drum since then and even before that democracy is at risk, but I guess it's just taken the aggregate effect of all of these smaller assaults on our freedoms to wake people up.

Pat Ryan:

I think so. I think that there's so much going on in people's lives, the economic pressure and insecurity that people are feeling... It's really hard and unfair to ask people to worry about a more ethereal theoretical thing when they literally can't put food on the table and keep a roof over the head. So much of what we talked about in the campaign here was that really, it has to be a one-two combo of economic relief and fighting for fundamental rights, and they're both necessary. Neither are sufficient alone because one without the other just gets you in real deep trouble and gets you on the path to authoritarianism if you've studied history.

Ken Harbaugh:

How did your military background inform your campaigning and how is it going to affect your job, your day-to-day in Congress?

Pat Ryan:

Well, on the messaging and connecting with people front, I think talking about something like abortion rights from the frame of, "I fought for these rights," really opened the aperture for people that might be not always instinctually voting for me to do so. I got this awesome email yesterday or two days ago from someone who said their 80 year old dad had voted Democrat for the first time ever in my special election because of my position on abortion rights, and that surprised me very pleasantly because I think it shows that that 80 year old gentleman's not personally affected by this decision, but he's got family that probably are or could be, he's got friends that could be, and he understands that that's our responsibility really as Americans to think about others. And we haven't seen that a lot in a while here, and that is what actually makes me most optimistic.

And then to actually answer your question more specifically, I think just the high pressure nature of a campaign, there's a lot of moments where I've reminded our staff that once you've been shot at, everything else is relatively easy. I know that's cliche and a little bit crude, but just reminding people that we can get through it. There are a lot of folks in much more difficult situations than us at this very moment and just keeping that perspective. I got to say being a dad is the thing that most grounded me throughout this though. I wasn't a dad in 2018 and now I've got two and that has kept all this in perspective throughout a bunch of tough parts of the campaign.

Ken Harbaugh:

You have said that it is a really scary time to be a dad. I think one of recent tweets talked about the toughest part of your day now isn't getting a tough question at a town hall. It's dropping your kids off at school.

Pat Ryan:

Yeah. It's a sad statement. In my closing of my stump speech throughout... Especially towards the end of the special election, I'd asked people to remember how they felt at a few key moments over the last year or so. One of which is seeing the pictures for the first time of the third and fourth graders in Uvalde, and just really ask people to take a second and not skip past that and remember that and think about how outrageous that is and that if we can't solve a problem like that and find some political and moral courage to find a problem like that, we don't deserve to be in office at any level, and those things... Gun violence is another issue that really connects with a broad set of people who feel that as parents or teachers or just people worried as they go about their day.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to believe that as a veteran, you have a special moral authority to talk about something like that, and I'll go back to how we started this conversation. That whole class of veterans in 2018 who stepped up and are now leading in Congress and speaking on issues like that from a place of authority and experience. And while that gives me incredible hope, and I look at your potential to lead on issues like that, I'm also really alarmed at the number of our fellow veterans who have taken the other path. Who, either believing the lies, have taken on that ultra MAGA persona and are all in, like the Navy vet who shot up the FBI office in Cincinnati after the raid at Mar-a-Lago, or even worse in my opinion, and this is what I want to put to you, the veterans who cynically prey on folks like that, the J.D. Vances, and the Eric Greitens, and the Doug Mastrianos, who should know better. We're talking about Rhodes scholars and Yale grads here, but who, in the pursuit of power, do and say whatever they have to, and I think we're beginning to see a surge of them on the right. Kind of the opposite thing that we saw in 2018. What do you make of that?

Pat Ryan:

Yeah, I think that is an extremely dangerous force in our politics because, it's done very deliberately, very cynically and purely for personal political gain and gain of power. And there's nothing more antithetical and dangerous to democracy than that. And so, we have to call that out. I'll come back to the veteran thing, but my opponent in the special election, just in a recent interview, he painted himself as a moderate, just in a recent interview, put out assertions that our special election was somehow rigged in the way that it was called by our Governor, which is obviously just not what happened, and those are the things that we can't just swallow. Every time something like that is put out, we have to directly confront it because those are the seeds of real danger and threat.

But yeah, guys like Greitens and Vance are... I know you've been doing some work there and I've done some work there effectively in calling that out, and I appreciate that, and I hope all Americans do, especially on the Greitens race. I think we have to just continue to assert the critical difference between... It's a little wonky, but nationalism and patriotism, where this very dangerous divisive use of pride and belief, in a lot of their hearts, and I think in a well-intended way, that, "I'm proud of our country," and it turns into this dangerous, often violent, nationalism.

And again, we've seen that throughout history versus patriotism, which to me, I think is inherently unifying and recognizes our imperfection, but that we have to work to improve it and bring people together as we do. And one of the things that I have been obsessed with and continue to be obsessed with is, as Democrats, reclaiming at least equal, if not disproportionate share of owning patriotism, because I think so many of the core values of the democratic party are about that broader set of patriotic American values of E pluribus unum, taking care of vulnerable, leaving no one behind. I know I'm preaching the choir with you, Ken, but we have to remind people of that in a way that broadly connects.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think that is really well said, and a great note to end on. It's why I have this flag behind me, because the side that flies it right next to the Confederate flag, they don't get to claim patriotism. That's as much our right as, iIn fact more our right as folks who truly believe in democracy and elections as anybody's.

Well, Pat, thank you so much for coming on. You are one of the guardrails of democracy and you've got another election right around the corner, right? You've got to hold this seat, don't you?

Pat Ryan:

Yeah. In 69 days, but who's counting. We have another election in... It's a slightly different district because of redistricting here, but it's going to be one of the top 10 or 15 house races and now a hold priority at the national level, so we get right back into the fight. The good thing is we built an awesome team. We're not going to change at all our message and our intensity and our conviction, and so, we can just hopefully keep building and build on the momentum here.

And my opponent in the November race, some of his greatest hits include cheering on and sending off two buses of protestors to the January 6th 'Stop the Steal' rally on that day from our community. He's taken multiple donations from Rudy Giuliani who's clearly just a traitor at this point, I believe, and has pandered to and refused to condemn active chapters of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers here in our community that support his campaign, so true threat to democracy, and again, we have to just call that out and not pull our punches in terms of what's at stake and what the other side is trying to do.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, we do. We'll keep it up, Pat. Let's stay closely connected. I'll be following the next 69 days. Good luck.

Pat Ryan:

Thanks Ken. And thanks for all your work too. It's good to be with you.

Ken Harbaugh:

You got it.

Thanks again to Pat for joining me. To learn more about Pat, and to support his November campaign, visit patryanforcongress.com.

You can also follow him on Twitter @PatRyanUC.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected] We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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