ATLANTA ― Curtis Wylde wasn’t expecting to become one of Missouri’s representatives to the Democratic National Committee. But when he showed up 20 minutes late to the state party’s nominating convention last June, he learned the other members of Missouri’s Bernie Sanders contingent had nominated him for one of the four open slots.
Wylde ― known on the Midwest’s weekend pro wrestling circuit as “Volatile” Curtis Wylde ― was surprised, but quickly channeled his wrestling persona to amp up the drama.
A stocky guy with a goatee and a silver-streaked ponytail, Wylde was the last to make his pitch to the voting delegates. The other candidates had delivered their speeches from the middle of the audience, but Wylde strode to the stage at the front of the hall, speaking into the microphone as he walked.
“I’m gonna start this out doing exactly what I plan to do at the DNC,” he said. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is change the dynamic!”
He hopped onstage, raised his fist and delivered a four-minute populist pitch: “We need to start from the bottom, work our way to the top and take back our government!”
It was not unlike the wrestling videos that Wylde ― who’s also known as “Lion of the Lou” and the “Wolf of West County” ― posts on social media, where he melodramatically threatens wrestling rivals, sometimes from the back of a limousine. And it worked. Wylde and the three other representatives running on the Sanders slate swept the race, elected to represent Missouri Democrats for four years.
Which is how, eight months later, this professional wrestler ended up in Atlanta to cast a vote for Keith Ellison to be DNC chair. He crowdfunded his trip, raising over $1,100 ― much of it in $27 increments, an homage to his political idol ― to cover airfare and lodging. And while Ellison, seen as the successor to Sanders’ populist presidential bid, lost to former Labor Secretary Tom Perez in a narrow defeat, Wylde and others from the Sanders/Ellison wing of the party believe they will ultimately be able to take it over from the inside.
Wylde, 36, is new to politics, but not to the stage. Crowds of 350 or so typically show up to watch him clothesline and pile-drive competitors with ringside assistance from his wife Chrissi ― or Wyldefyre, as she is known in the ring ― on the Southern Illinois Championship Wrestling circuit.
In the wrestling ring, I’m a little more Donald Trump, and in politics, I’m a little more Bernie Sanders. Curtis Wylde, Missouri Democratic National Committeeman
“In the wrestling ring, I’m a little more Donald Trump, and in politics, I’m a little more Bernie Sanders,” Wylde said.
Wylde had a hardscrabble childhood: His father left when he was 2, and his mother, a secretary, had an abusive boyfriend for several years. When she could no longer take the beatings, they would move in with his grandparents.
His mother later met and married a truck driver, who become a stabilizing force in Wylde’s life; he calls him “Dad.” The family followed his job opportunities to Mississippi, Illinois and then back to Missouri.
Wylde dropped out of 10th grade to take care of his 2-year-old sister, when financial pressures forced his mother to return to work. As a teen, Wylde bounced from job to job ― he was a server in casual dining chains like Red Lobster and Applebee’s, a bouncer at various clubs and a liquor store clerk. He was invited to join a local biker gang, but he declined.
At 19, he found his passion taking courses at a local wrestling school. He began performing across the Midwest, quickly adopting the role of a wrestling ring villain, or “heel.” His character leads a flamboyant, reckless life punctuated by suspensions and arrests. As part of his outlaw persona, he frequently “cheats” in the staged wrestling matches, using illicit weapons and even attacking the referee.
Heels rarely make it to the major championship titles. But Wylde’s notoriety has earned him an “antihero” following. “A whole lot more people are cheering me than I would prefer,” Wylde joked.
For a while, he supplemented his modest wrestling income by driving the cars that escort oversized loads, and by managing a heavy metal band. Now he has a steady gig as a master of ceremonies at weddings, school dances and other events. With his wife’s earnings as a massage therapist and server at a local restaurant, it’s enough to pay for the double-wide trailer where they live with their 4-year-old daughter, Phoenix.
Prior to Sanders’ presidential run, Wylde’s political involvement didn’t go much further than commenting on Facebook. He voted in a presidential election for the first time in 2008, casting his ballot for Barack Obama. He voted to re-elect Obama in 2012, but says he didn’t vote in congressional or municipal races.
He developed his political views through an interest in futuristic thinkers like Buckminster Fuller, Nikola Tesla and Jacques Fresco, a contemporary theorist who promotes the idea of a “resource-based economy” where money is no longer necessary.
“I didn’t really claim a political standing,” Wylde said. “I didn’t feel there was a place for me, because of these ― not only these left ideas, but these really, really futuristic left ideas.”
He says his political role model is his stepfather, a staunch Republican who died four years ago. While they disagreed on politics, his stepfather instilled in him a philosophy of putting “people first, then profit,” said Wylde.
“If you provide good things, treat people right, then they will treat you right in return and good things will happen,” he said.
In late 2015, Wyde began to notice his Facebook friends discussing Sanders’ campaign. He found himself agreeing with Sanders’ calls for getting money out of politics, providing universal health care, creating jobs and protecting the planet. Most of all, Sanders’ appeals for ordinary citizens to get active in politics made him feel like his voice mattered.
“Bernie Sanders came along and said, ‘Get involved,’” Wylde recalled. “I always had my dad telling me, ‘You can’t make changes from the outside. You’re going to have to get involved. You’re going to have to get in the game if you want to make any plays.’ And so when Bernie came out and said that, I was bound.”
Within weeks, he and Chrissi were organizing a Sanders rally in downtown Saint Charles, Missouri.
When a local party activist suggested Wylde make a bid for for state representative in Missouri’s 107th District, he went for it. Wylde ultimately lost to Republican Nick Schroer, but he got 36 percent of the vote ― and on a campaign budget of just over $6,000, compared to Schroer’s $77,000. He says he hasn’t ruled out another run for office, and his role as a state representative to the DNC is certainly getting him more attention in Missouri.
Wylde’s “got a lot of energy,” said Brian Wahby, one of Missouri’s at-large DNC members. “It’s also good knowing that there are leftist Democrats in the middle of the heartland.”
Wylde’s personal path to political awakening has convinced him that progressive policies like universal health care and free college can appeal to Republicans if they are framed as investments in America’s future. Canvassing for Sanders, he said, he also realized the importance of a credible messenger who understands why so many ordinary Americans have lost faith in institutions.
“I saw a whole lot of people who may have definitely voted Democrat if Bernie was the nominee,” Wylde said. “I heard that at the doors of Republicans.”
But Wylde was no “Bernie or bust” holdout. He says he voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton without reservation. And when a contingent of Sanders supporters stormed out of the Democratic National Convention last July, he urged them not to leave the party. In a fiery speech to Sanders fans gathered outside the convention center, Wylde pointed to Missouri Berniecrats’ successful takeover of the DNC spots as evidence that the party could be changed from within.
“I’m in the Democratic Party, and I’m here to stay, so I have to take it over,” he told the crowd. “All of you have to take it over!”
Wylde has become an informal spokesman for the so-called “#DemEnter” movement, a loose confederation of progressive activists who want to remake the party in Sanders’ image. They hope to turn #DemEnter into a fundraising and recruitment vehicle for progressive candidates.
He’s been using the #DemEnter hashtag to pitch disenchanted voters on the idea that the Democratic Party is their natural political home, if they’re willing to get involved and shape it as they see fit. He spends hours on the phone, in person and on social media trying to convince people to come back to the party. He’s planning a series of social events to build excitement, including a “#DemEnter progressive dance party.”
The work Wylde has been doing “isn’t about Bernie Sanders,” said Chris Reeves, a recently elected DNC member from Kansas. “It’s all about old-school effort.”
But Wylde’s also putting pressure on other DNC members to listen to the grassroots activists in their states. And he is clear about his intention to help progressives nationwide replace the “legacy” Democrats.
Sometimes Wylde’s populist instincts occasionally lead him to go overboard. After Ellison’s loss last month, Wylde fired off an angry message on Facebook. “They may have just destroyed the Democratic Party!!” he wrote. He apologized in a separate post a few hours later, assuring his friends and followers that he had confidence in Perez’s leadership, and saying he was especially pleased to see Ellison named deputy chair.
In fact, Wylde sounds downright optimistic about the future of the DNC.
“The vehicle for improvement of the society is the Democratic Party,” he said. “We just need to get people to see that.”