Joshua Collins was driving through Kentucky when the hives broke out.
He didn’t know if it was something he ate, or an insect bite, but the itch was agonizing. An independent truck driver based at the time in California, he had a limited insurance policy with a high deductible. He called the emergency room of the closest hospital to see if it accepted his insurance. It didn’t.
“They were going to charge me an astronomical amount,” Collins said. “I ended up just waiting it out to see if it got worse. It lasted for a few weeks.”
Collins is one of 3.7 million heavy-duty truck drivers in the United States who work dangerous jobs and suffer disproportionate health problems, and yet are often underinsured. At the same time, they are driving vehicles that churn out climate-changing emissions, and their bosses are investing in technology that would seek to do away with human drivers altogether. At 25, Collins saw the intersection of those trends as a direct threat to his future.
That’s what led him to launch a long-shot primary challenge against Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) in the Evergreen State’s 10th Congressional District, which stretches in a U-shape along the shoreline from Shelton through Olympia to Tacoma. Heck, a three-term incumbent, is a loyal Democrat who dependably votes with his party. His votes in favor of LGBTQ and reproductive rights earned him 100% scores from the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood. He boasts a 94% ranking from the League of Conservation Voters.
But Heck’s centrist policy positions and corporate fundraising have made him a foe of the progressive movement. He repeatedly voted last year to weaken financial regulations, bolster military spending and ease restrictions on payday lenders. His record includes votes to ax rules protecting forests from logging, maintain fossil fuels’ advantage over renewables in federal research funding and speed up natural gas exports. He opposes “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.
Since entering Congress in 2013, he’s received $494,650 from the health care industry, $118,175 from agribusiness and $104,124 from the energy and natural resource sectors that include oil and gas companies, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. He’s aligned with Blue Dog Democrats in a political moment when Gilded Age inequality and surging greenhouse gas emissions equate ideological compromise with catching fleas.
“I watched the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign, and what she did was impressive,” Collins told HuffPost. “I was hopeful maybe someday I could do that.”
As it was for the freshman congresswoman from the Bronx, it’s a long-shot bid. The primary is a little less than a year away. In the 2018 election, Heck amassed a $1.6 million war chest and trounced Tamborine Borrelli, a progressive who ran against him as an independent in the primary, and easily beat his Republican opponent, Joseph Brumbles, in the general election. Heck, 66, served in Washington’s House of Representatives from 1976 to 1986 and has enjoyed the name recognition that comes from decades in public office.
Heck’s congressional spokesman declined an interview request, and his reelection campaign did not return requests for comment.
Collins, by contrast, would be the youngest member of Congress, four years Ocasio-Cortez’s junior. He’s rejecting all donations from corporations and lobbyists. So far, he’s raised nearly $7,000 from small donors since officially launching his campaign a few weeks ago.
He’s a prolific tweeter, fluent in the online vernacular of the resurgent left. He rebuts union skeptics with memes. He dunks on right-wing trolls. And he vows to “go further” than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose 2016 presidential campaign compelled him to embrace socialism.
Trial By Fired
Collins grew up poor, first in Kansas with his father, whom he described as abusive. Around the time he became a teenager, Collins’ mother gained custody of him, and he moved to Las Vegas to live with her. Money was tight, but his mom, a nurse, worked enough hours by 2008 to afford some creature comforts.
His working-class bona fides could have appeal, said Jeff Hauser, a veteran Democratic operative.
“Progressives need to have candidates who do not look like Mayor Pete in terms of their background,” Hauser said, referring to Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, the Indiana mayor who graduated from Harvard and Oxford universities and worked for the elite consultancy McKinsey & Co. “That means diversity of all kinds, racial as well as socio-educational.”
The financial crisis hit Collins’ family hard, his mother lost their house in 2009 and the family moved across town.
“We had one good year before the housing market took a dive,” he said. “I had new clothes for the first time.”
He worked a part-time job for minimum wage while going to high school. Around the same time, he started interning for Democratic state Sen. Steven Horsford, during which he was tasked with organizing students to protest a Republican bill that would divert funding from public education to private prisons. They rallied 1,100 students and got kind words from legislators, but the bill passed anyway.
“A lot of politicians can’t be pushed,” he said. “They’re going to vote with their donors no matter what the constituents say.”
The experiences were formative. But it was what happened a few years later that cemented his left-wing views. After high school, he started taking computer science classes and working part time at a glass product factory in Las Vegas. The work paid above minimum wage and offered flexible hours, allowing him to continue with school.
Then a family emergency struck. About four years ago, Collins’ grandmother in Virginia fell ill, and the family planned to fly across the country to say goodbye. Airline prices soared before Collins could find a ticket he could afford, so he opted instead to drive the 34 hours east. Halfway through the journey, he said he got a call from his boss, saying that the previously approved time off would no longer work. He had to be back before his next shift or he’d lose his job. He turned around, but before he made it back, Collins said, his boss called and fired him. His grandmother died two days later.
“There was no real explanation, no recourse, nothing for me to do about it,” he said. “So I spent all the money I had on gas to go there, and now I also didn’t have a job.”
He couldn’t find anything that paid above minimum wage, and his bills were piling up. The trucking industry became what he called “the last refuge” for workers without college degrees whose employers had outsourced jobs overseas as international trade liberalized in the 1990s. It remains one of the most popular jobs in the country, with demand so high lobbyists for the freight industry earlier this year lobbied Congress to lower the driving age. At 21, Collins made the cut. So he dropped out of college to get a commercial driver’s license.
“Our biggest priority shouldn’t be replacing the workers driving the trucks or unloading the trucks. The biggest priority should be getting diesel trucks off the road and getting clean trucks on the road.”
It’s been his job ever since, and now owns his own truck and manages an independent freight business with his wife, Zelzah. But with the threat of self-driving trucks looming, he fears that security, too, is tenuous, and that the social effects of automation could prove more devastating than the job losses that came from offshoring.
“A lot of those workers went into trucking because their jobs were outsourced,” he said. “Without those jobs, we’ll see spikes in suicide rates, we’ll see homelessness increase ― real genuine societal problems.”
Green New Appeal
Enter the Green New Deal.
The proposal, which Ocasio-Cortez is spearheading in the House, is the centerpiece of Collins’ platform. It calls for a near-complete shift to renewable electricity over the next decade, a national industrial plan to bolster clean energy and transportation, and guaranteed health care and high-wage jobs to all Americans whose careers are sidetracked by that transition.
The movement for the Green New Deal has obvious appeal for truckers, Collins said.
The heavy-duty trucking industry’s on-the-job deaths hit a 29-year high in 2017, making it one of the most dangerous lines of work. Long hauls, fueled by nicotine, junk food and sleep deprivation, leave drivers sicker than the average American worker: 61% of truckers suffer from hypertension, obesity or high cholesterol, and they get fewer than six hours of nightly rest, according to a 2010 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey. There’s also a global health effect. The industry currently has a voracious appetite for diesel, accounting for a third of the transportation sector’s carbon dioxide emissions. That’s expected to grow by 5 million barrels per day by 2050, sucking up 40% of the global increase in oil demand. Major manufacturers are starting to invest in zero-emission trucks, including a $3.2 billion research project at Daimler and a $1.7 billion investment at Volkswagen. The electric truck market is projected to rise to a 30% annual growth rate by 2026.
But the innovation focus in the industry has disproportionately centered on automating potentially millions of trucking jobs. Self-driving technology attracted more than $1 billion in venture capital in a single month this year.
“We’re prioritizing the wrong things around the trucking industry,” Collins said. “Our biggest priority shouldn’t be replacing the workers driving the trucks or unloading the trucks. The biggest priority should be getting diesel trucks off the road and getting clean trucks on the road.”
A Green New Deal resolution Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced in February, which called for federal incentives to boost electric vehicle manufacturing, could help. But should the policy become law, it would need to include funding for zero-interest federal loans to buy hydrogen-powered trucks for long hauls and battery-electric vehicles for short hauls, Collins said, to truly reinvent an industry that relies so much on independent truckers. It should also support national infrastructure for those vehicles, such as charging stations.
The Green New Deal resolution’s inclusion of a job guarantee and single-payer health care drew scorn from some Democrats and climate activists who said the proposal should narrow its focus to reducing planet-warming emissions. But Collins said those provisions are key to making the plan truly revolutionary. He likes the idea of a Medicare for All policy, for example, because navigating the complex rules of health insurance is difficult for drivers who spend weeks on the road.
Polling suggests Collins’ focus on populist climate change policy could forge a viable path forward. Of the 914 surveyed voters who said they support the Green New Deal in a February poll from Morning Consult/Politico, 46% said it should include social justice elements, while 37% said it should focus specifically on climate change. At 49%, one in two voters overall said it should include workers’ rights and union job creation, compared with 28% of voters who opposed it and 24% who were unsure or without an opinion, the poll found.
A January survey from the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress, which released its own blueprint of a Green New Deal last year, found 46% of likely Democratic primary voters in a dozen districts held by moderate Democrats would disapprove of an incumbent who opposed a Green New Deal.
“Democrats have made fools of themselves and even been parodied on ‘Saturday Night Live’ for opposing the Green New Deal,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal strategies at Data for Progress (and a HuffPost contributor). “The momentum is really incredible. At this point, it’s get on the train or we’re going to leave you behind at the station.”
More generally, climate change, long a backburner issue for voters, is emerging as a top concern in the 2020 election cycle. In a Gallup poll released in March, 81% of self-described liberals, 77% of Democrats and 53% of independents reported feeling “highly worried” about global warming. A CNN poll last month found climate change was a top issue for 82% of registered Democrats planning to vote in the 2020 presidential primary.
The effects of climate change are becoming more apparent to voters in Washington’s 10th District, according to the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.
Compared with the first half of the 20th century, average temperatures are a degree and a half Fahrenheit hotter in the Pacific Northwest. The coldest day of the year is nearly 5 degrees warmer. Sea levels increased 8.6 inches between 1900 and 2008. Sockeye salmon are dying off in the Columbia River. The biggest wildfire in Washington history burned over 1 million acres in 2015, the state’s hottest year on record. Last summer, smoke from wildfires in the Cascades and British Columbia choked Seattle with an air quality equivalent of inhaling seven cigarettes.
“There are the long-term trends that sometimes we look up and notice,” said Amy Snover, a climate scientist and director at the Climate Impacts Group who’s lived in the region her entire life. “But the big wake-up calls are when there are these events that are really noticeable and out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, they won’t be out of the ordinary for long.”
It’s that reality that weighs on Collins as he wades into politics. But he said he and Zelzah would like to have kids someday, and he sees dethroning political representatives who don’t support radical action to curb climate change as the only hope those children will have to inherit a world recognizable to today’s inhabitants.
“I’m not just running for office; I’m attacking an empire,” Collins said. “But I think at this point we don’t have a choice. Climate change is an imminent threat.”
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version suggested Heck was a member of the Blue Dog Caucus. He is not an official member of the group.