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“The Electorate Is Already on Board with Socialism”

Paige Kreisman

We spoke with Paige Kreisman, who’s running as the first-ever trans candidate for the Oregon state legislature. She’s a military veteran and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Her message: “We need to engage in the politics that matter to working-class people.”

Paige Kreisman, speaking in support of Amazon workers, July 17, 2019. Paige Kreisman / Twitter

Interview by
Meagan Day

Paige Kreisman is a democratic socialist running for Oregon House of Representatives District 42. The forces arrayed against her are considerable. Her incumbent is the House Majority Whip, and with the backing of the Democratic Party establishment will vastly outspend her. She’s a trans woman, so she’ll be up against prejudice in the electorate. And as a member of both the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Communist Party, she’s vulnerable to red-baiting.

Still, Kreisman is confident she can win in this small, mostly working-class, and very progressive Portland district. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to her about her political views, how she was radicalized by her experience in the military, and the world that working-class people deserve.


What does it mean to you to you to call yourself a democratic socialist?


To call myself a democratic socialist means that I advocate and fight for transformative change in society to rebuild a mode of production characterized by worker-owned and democratically controlled means of production, which means transitioning from capitalism, the mode of production where the means are privately owned, to socialism. But it also means dismantling supporting power structures such as white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy and imperialism and colonialism. Because none of those power structures exist in a vacuum. Capitalism and imperialism and all the others, they interact with one another to build each other’s power and defend each other’s power and hegemony. So we have to dismantle them all, not just one. That’s what being a democratic socialist means to me.


Are you concerned about the potential for red-baiting on the campaign trail?


No, I’m not. I’m a communist. I’m open about that. I’m a member of the Communist Party. My opponent knows that, the voters know that. I’m in a district where the electorate should be totally fine with that and happy to still vote for me.


Can you tell me a little bit about the demographics of the district you’re running in?


Yeah, I guess that’s gonna shed light on why I am so confident at that being an open communist isn’t going to hurt me. District 42 in Oregon is in inner-east Portland, from southeast and then a little sliver of northeast Portland. I live in the north part of the district. It’s the most progressive electorate in the state. And progressive is kind of a vague metric, but what I mean by that is the voting record from this district from the last couple of years, taking in how they voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 in the primary, how they voted for a couple of ballot measures last cycle, this district is the most progressive electorate from their voting record.

The district also has a very low median household income, around $35,000. It has the second-highest density of renters in the state, and also has one of the highest densities of public employees, and one of the highest densities of noncollege educated workers. So, the conditions are really set for us to have a much, much further left representation than the incumbent that we’re running against.


Do you see any difference terminologically between socialist and communist?


It means different things to different people, you know, it varies. I typically don’t lead with “I’m a communist.” I don’t have it in my literature that I’m a communist, though I’m open about it. I call myself a democratic socialist, not just because it has less stigma, but also, I think it’s more accurate.

I’m a Marxist, so in dialectical materialism, communism is a mode of production after socialism, characterized by a classless, stateless, currency-less society. That’s something that in my mind might as well exist only in theory. Maybe it’s possible for us to get there someday, but it’s not something that I think we should be worrying about right now. Right now, we need to get to socialism. I don’t think we’re ever going to be fighting to get from socialism to communism in my lifetime. So I’m only ever talking about socialism, and really a lot of the things I’m talking about are just social democracy, not even socialism. So, I don’t typically talk about communism, but I am a communist. I’m a member of the Communist Party.


What does it mean to be a member of the Communist Party in today’s America?


We’re bouncing back a little bit. The Communist Party used to be a really strong and deeply embedded with the revolutionary movement and the antiwar movement in the seventies. But through the Reagan years, and through the nineties and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the party really took a big hit and our membership dipped, and our tactics shifted very drastically. Now we’re starting to come back.

Just like DSA, we got a huge bump in membership after the Trump election and we’ve been able to do a lot more. We’ve got a lot more resources to do direct action, launch more campaigns, and be a lot more active outside of things like reading groups and academic settings. Which is really important, to actually build a movement to be affecting the material conditions in people’s lives.


You’re a member of DSA too. What’s the relationship between DSA and your campaign so far?


It basically is my campaign. DSA is the engine of my campaign. I’m the electoral chair of Portland DSA. My job there is to identify vulnerable incumbents, or races where there might not be a sitting incumbent running, and recruit people to run for office. So we’re running other campaigns as well, like Albert Lee’s campaign.

The important thing in Portland that we want to do is make sure that DSA is 100 percent the engine of the campaigns. All my staff are DSA members and almost all my volunteers are DSA members. This came out of the Portland DSA membership. They’re the ones that authorize me to run for office. We held a vote among our general membership on whether or not I should run for this race.

Portland DSA were the ones that decided to launch my campaign. And that’s really important, because it keeps me centered and grounded in the will of the membership, which represents the will of working-class people. My power doesn’t come from above, like most of the regular Democrats who run for office here in Oregon. My power doesn’t come from corporate donors or from Tina Kotek, who’s the speaker of the house in Oregon. My power comes from the people who knock on doors for me and the people who donate money to my campaign, which is just regular working-class people. So, it’s important to hold me accountable to the chapter, and that the chapter is my campaign.


Let’s talk about how you got to this moment. You grew up in a pretty right-wing environment, as I understand it. What were the circumstances of your upbringing?


I was born in the rural North Carolina. I grew up in a place called Gaston County, west of Charlotte. It’s like a little farming community, but they don’t do much farming anymore. So it’s just a really poor, rural environment.

My mother and a stepfather raised me. My parents were very right-wing. They were white nationalists. I guess they still are. I don’t know, I haven’t talked to them in awhile. And I’m trans, so of course that was not a very fun environment for me to grow up in. It was very abusive. I knew from a very early age that if I was going to survive, I needed to get out of there.

Sometime around the age of eleven or twelve, I decided that the only way I could get out of North Carolina, the only way that anyone can get out of rural North Carolina, was to join the military. So, I decided I’d join the army. And then at seventeen, I did, I joined the army.

I was the first woman to become an indirect fire infantryman in the army. It was a combat job previously only open to men. I deployed to Kuwait and Qatar, and that really radicalized me a lot. Before that, I was vaguely liberal. I didn’t have any class consciousness. I didn’t know anything about socialism. But I deployed to the Middle East, and in Qatar in particular, I was basically guarding slaves.

They were building stadiums for the World Cup at the time. This was in 2015. They were using a lot of slave labor. My job wasn’t necessarily to stop them from escaping. You know, where would they go anyway? They’re in Qatar. But I was guarding a gate on a base there, and if the workers wanted to fight back against their oppressors, I would’ve been the violence that would have crushed that.

I interacted with them directly. They would come through my gate every day in buses. They would come and clean my guard shack. That’s what really exposed me to US imperialism and how it’s a function of capital, because they were building World Cup stadiums, not for Qataris, but for the companies who were going to own these stadiums, and for Europeans and Americans to come in and watch the World Cup. The companies that were financing this new infrastructure were all owned by white, western Europeans and Americans. So that’s what exposed me to imperialism as a function of capital. And that’s what radicalized me and started that process of learning about socialism.


When did you leave the military, and why?


I left the military in 2017. The Obama administration had lifted the ban on trans service in the military, so I was able to come out and transition on active duty. But shortly after that, Trump was elected and things in the military took a really sharp turn to the right. It became very openly fascist. People who weren’t cishet white men were pulled out of leadership positions and put behind desks. Big portraits of Trump went up on people’s offices walls. It became very openly racist and misogynistic, and transphobic too, of course.

I was being treated very horribly. At that point I was already a socialist and trans. I was just kind of putting my head down and trying to make it to my end of service. But I got sick of pretending to get by. So I started protesting imperialism and the treatment of trans service members by just refusing any orders, refusing to do any work. I stopped wearing the flag on my uniform. Any time an officer told me to do something, I just told them to go fuck themselves.

That didn’t last very long, of course. They ended up imprisoning me. They threw me in their mental health detainment system, which is a cop out. They use it save or retain their “good soldiers.” I’m doing air quotes right now — good soldiers really means white soldiers. It’s a way they can retain the soldiers that they want to retain who commit a crime, by avoiding court marshaling. It’s kind of like a cross between a psych ward and a low-security prison. There are nurses and psychologists there, but there are also armed guards. You’re locked in against your will, and you can’t leave.

Nobody was there because they had mental health issues. Actually, there was one person in there with me who thought he was Jesus. But other than that, they were just all a bunch of white cishet men, soldiers who had beaten their wife or got in a fight with the military police or stolen something from the post exchange. Their chain of command thought they were “good soldiers,” air quotes again, and they wanted to retain them. So they stay in there for a couple months until a psychologist checks off that they’re no longer a threat to themselves or others. And when they’re released, they can go back to their units without getting charged with a crime.

So my company commander did that for me, because I deployed with him back when he was a lieutenant, so I guess he thought he owed me something. I didn’t care what happened to me at that point. But that’s what allowed me to get an honorable discharge. I just stayed in there for two months until my contract ran out and then they discharged me.

I got an honorable discharge, and I came to Oregon and was able to use my GI Bill at Oregon State University. I started organizing with DSA as soon as I hit the ground here in Oregon.


I want to talk a little bit about the theory of change that you’re working with. You have a horizon of a society in which the mode of production is entirely different, the means of production are collectively owned. But your platform, like you said, is largely social democratic. How do these things fit together?


I don’t necessarily think that that fighting for social democracy right now is mutually exclusive with fighting for socialism right now. I think it’s important that we as socialists are also engaged with the struggles that are important to the working class right now in America. We have the rise of fascism, we have the right wing gaining so much power here that if we just ignore the material needs of oppressed people, then we can’t necessarily ask them to come to us to come to us when we do our more radical organizing.

So, for example, I’m a trans woman. When Trump’s starting to revoke what little civil rights protections we have in the federal level, let’s say I’m not already a socialist — I’m just a liberal and I’m very angry about this. I want to get engaged and I go to DSA meeting and I see that they say, “Well, you know, fighting for trans ID laws on passports, that’s not going to change the mode of production. So we’re not gonna do it here.” I’m just going to tell the DSA to go fuck themselves.

That approach is not going to engage people who have real material struggles and real material suffering. I think it’s important that we engage in the politics that matter to people, because they do have real material effects on people’s lives. And in the process we also create space in the discourse for socialism, for mode-of-production change. We build a base of working-class power and also destigmatize socialism.

I’m not an accelerationist. I don’t think that we need to make things a lot worse and then we’ll suddenly have some armed revolution that’s going to kill millions of people. That’s not something that I fantasize about or romanticize, some armed revolution that’s going to happen in America. I think that our path to getting to socialism is through building a truly diverse working-class movement. To do that, we need to engage in the politics that matter to working-class people.


To that point, what are some of the items on your platform that are designed to speak to working-class people on the basis of their material interests?


The Oregon Green New Deal, that one’s pretty obvious. Other issues don’t matter, socialism doesn’t matter, unionizing your workplace doesn’t matter if we don’t have a planet to live on. So that’s pretty easy.

Also campaign finance reform. Oregon is one of the most expensive states to run an election in. Only New Jersey has more expensive elections per capita in the country than Oregon. And one of the reasons for that is that we’re one of the only six states that allow unlimited corporate campaign contributions. We had a state house race last cycle where over a million dollars were spent by a Democrat. Campaign finance reform is desperately needed here in Oregon, and it’s going to make it much easier for socialists to build power.

Then there are housing issues. We have a major housing crisis here in Oregon. Housing justice is incredibly important. Earlier this year, Oregon passed statewide “rent control.” I’m doing air quotes again; it’s more like rent stabilization. It sets the cap at 7 percent plus CPI for annual rent increases. So for 2019, that would be a 10.3 percent cap on annual rent increases. 10.3 percent is already very high. I know I can’t afford a 10 percent increase in rent every year, and I don’t know anyone else who can. There are also a ton of loopholes in that bill, and there’s a lot of work to be done on that front.

We need to defend our public employees and our unions. There’s been a recent shift in the Democratic Party in Oregon to anti-union politics. Just this last session, where we had a Democratic supermajority in our state legislature, they voted to cut public employee pensions by up to 7 percent at the time of retirement for tier-two beneficiaries in our state public employee system. And this is just for PERS [Public Employee Retirement System], by the way. It’s an old system that new public employees are not enrolled in, and it has significantly better benefits than the new public employee retirement system.

What’s gotten the state in trouble is supposedly that they can’t meet their obligations to pay out all of this because of the recession. It was kind of a manufactured crisis that could have been solved by raising revenue, by extending the payback period. There were a lot of other solutions that they could have pursued besides just cutting pensions. But that’s the route they went, and they wouldn’t even come to the table with unions. There was a whole coalition of unions that opposed it and they wouldn’t even meet with them. They were meeting with lobbyists and with Nike and with the Republicans, but they wouldn’t meet with unions. It was a huge betrayal of the entire union movement.


What forces are you up against in this race?


For one, a ton of money. Our opponent is the House majority whip, so he’s in leadership. The corporate Democrat establishment is not going to let him lose without throwing everything behind him. So, we expect to be outspent by a huge margin, probably twenty or thirty to one. He could spend $1 million in this race, if they felt that it was really gonna help him. I don’t know that they will, because he’s too conservative for his electorate, and the district is small enough that we can talk to every single voter. Some money’s not gonna not gonna save him.

I still think we’re going to win because the electorate is only going to be about 15,000 voters. I can talk to 15,000 voters over the course of nine months myself. So I’m going to be canvassing six hours a day. And like I said, we’re going to win on the issues. The electorate is going to like us as long as they’re exposed to us. Beyond money, we’ll be up against the usual red-baiting. But that’s not going to help him either, because the electorate is already on board with socialism to be honest.

And then I’m up against a lot of transphobia too. I’m the first trans woman to run for the state legislature in Oregon. National polling numbers indicate that being trans as a candidate gives you somewhere between a seven- to ten-point disadvantage right off the bat among Democratic voters. That kind of reflects in my anecdotal experience talking with voters. Cis voters just really don’t like the idea of a trans person in any kind of public position of leadership or influencer. It makes people very uncomfortable to see a trans person run for public office. And so that’s something that we’re going to have to overcome.

But it’s important that we do it, because the reason that there is so much animosity towards trans candidates in the eyes of the American electorate is because there is no example of trans people being “functioning” members of society. Trans people are either seen as mentally ill and need to be like contained into the dark regions of sex work and insane asylums, or whatever, or you have liberals who just see trans people as pitiful trauma cases that they need to be saved. They don’t see trans people as being capable of leading ourselves, or representing other people in a state legislature. That’s a big thing that we need to overcome, and the way that we’re doing that is just owning it and putting it out front.


What do working-class people deserve that they’re not getting under capitalism?


Working-class people deserve a democracy that works for working-class people exclusively, without influence from corporations. Working-class people deserve a union. They deserve a workplace that values them. Working-class people deserve to walk down the street without fearing police violence, without fearing white supremacists in their communities. Working-class people deserve to have a roof over their head. Every working-class family deserves to have a doctor. Every working-class child deserves to have a teacher. That’s the world that we’re fighting to build.