In July 2015, Lee Carter was completing the installation of a lighting control panel on a work site in Peoria, Illinois, when he felt a wave of electricity shoot across his chest. The electrician had incorrectly wired the panel, and when Carter touched it, it zapped him with 245 volts.
“It’s like a static electricity shock, but happening 60 times a second throughout half of your body,” he recalled.
Carter, a former Marine with fire-truck-red hair, instinctively recoiled from the panel, breaking his fall on his back. He ended up hurting his back so badly that he could not walk more than 50 feet at a time for the next three months.
The injury was more than just painful and demoralizing: After Virginia rejected Carter’s application for workers’ compensation benefits, and his employer cut down his hours after he recovered, the situation inspired Carter to get involved in politics.
“Coming from that position of working a blue-collar job and being wronged by an employer, it was a very natural transition to say that an economic strategy that puts working people first, ahead of corporate interests, is the way to go to make life better for people,” Carter said.
He became a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America and ran for a seat in Virginia’s state House of Delegates ― and on Tuesday, with help from fellow DSA members but virtually none from the state’s Democratic Party, Carter won his race by nearly 9 percentage points.
The 30-year-old political newcomer had managed to easily unseat Del. Jackson Miller, the GOP state House Whip, who had outspent him more than 2-to-1.
Carter’s unexpectedly big win has been the subject of endless fascination in the press ― and praise from progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) eager to highlight the outcome as a sign that unabashed economic populism can be a winning formula in swing districts.
At least equally intriguing, however, is the story of how Carter got involved in politics and embraced democratic socialism. Carter did not learn about socialism from an eccentric family member or through membership in a labor union. He did not get hip to Karl Marx thanks to a charismatic college professor.
Instead, he simply had an experience on the job that shattered his faith in unbridled capitalism. Then Sanders’ presidential run as a self-described democratic socialist sealed the deal.
Carter is a political novice, but he sounds like a natural. In a phone interview, he spelled out his message with a fluent, polished delivery.
But Carter is a rarity among elected officials in that he lacks a college degree. In 2016, one-third of Americans aged 25 or older had a four-year college degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the U.S. Congress, however, all senators and 95 percent of House members have at least a four-year diploma.
“There is an ever-growing sector of our economy that’s made up of people in precarious work, people who are living paycheck to paycheck and aren’t 100 percent sure if the next one’s gonna come in ― and I’m one of them.”
Carter is one of just 14 members of the Virginia legislature without a 4-year college degree, according to data collected by the Virginia Public Access Project. And a review of the campaign websites of the 16 new Democratic members who were elected Tuesday shows Carter is the only one who lacks a bachelor’s degree.
“There is an ever-growing sector of our economy that’s made up of people in precarious work, people who are living paycheck to paycheck and aren’t 100 percent sure if the next one’s gonna come in ― and I’m one of them,” Carter said.
What’s more, Carter, who now makes a living as a project-based information technology consultant, has gone without health insurance for nearly a year.
His wife, who is currently the household’s main breadwinner, gets coverage for herself and their daughter through her job managing a small auto repair chain. Carter initially bought coverage on the individual insurance market created by the Affordable Care Act, but found the monthly premiums cost-prohibitive and let his coverage lapse at the end of 2016.
At Carter’s election night watch party, he mused to his wife about one of the personal benefits of his win. “You know what I won? Health insurance,” he recalled telling her.
Carter grew up in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a suburb of Norfolk, Virginia. His father was a career officer in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, so when Carter finished high school, he saw enlisting in the Marine Corps as a natural path forward.
Carter served in the Marines from 2006 to 2011 in a division that was special operations-equipped. He was deployed to Haiti in 2010 to assist with the post-earthquake rescue and recovery efforts.
After his service as a Marine, he moved to Northern Virginia to look for work. Carter quickly met the woman who would become his wife, and they had a daughter who is now 6 years old.
Initially, Carter earned money fixing cancer therapy equipment. But the work was sporadic and labor-intensive, regularly requiring him to toil 80 hours a week.
When the Bella Rose Group, a small Georgia-based company, hired Carter to install lighting control panels, it was a major relief. The company paid him a flat salary for 40 hours of work every week, enabling him to spend more time with his family.
Then he got injured on the job ― and his dream turned into a nightmare.
Carter’s electric shock and fall on his back resulted in the swelling of two vertebrae that pinched key nerves. His employer-provided insurance covered the pain medications and cortisol regimen he needed, but he had to pay a $2,000 deductible. He was also out of work for three months as his back recovered.
Every state in the country has a workers’ compensation program in place specifically to provide people like Carter recourse if they sustain an injury or medical condition on the job. Although benefits and eligibility standards vary, employees file claims to the state workers’ compensation body in pursuit of payments from their employer to cover out-of-pocket medical costs and a portion of their lost income. Employers with the means to do so typically purchase insurance plans that adjudicate these claims and pay the workers if the state board rules it is necessary.
The most common place to apply for workers’ compensation benefits is in the state where the injury occurred, according to multiple experts in workers’ compensation law.
Carter sustained the injury in Illinois and his employer was based in Georgia. But in September 2015, bedridden and on pain medications, Carter decided to file a workers’ compensation claim against the company with the state of Virginia. He reasoned that while Illinois was a resolutely pro-worker state and Georgia was equally pro-business, Virginia was the “Goldilocks” option ― the perfect balance that might make the Bella Rose Group likely to strike a deal with him.
“I figured let’s go with the least contentious state,” Carter said.
It ended up being a major mistake. For one thing, Carter was not dealing with the Bella Rose Group; he was dealing with the company’s insurer, Hanover Insurance Group. And like any profit-driven private insurance company, Hanover worked diligently within the bounds of the law to avoid paying out claims.
Carter called at least four Virginia-based lawyers in search of representation but they all refused, citing the complicated question of whether his claim was even in Virginia’s jurisdiction. He said none advised him to file in another state.
Representing himself before the state’s workers’ compensation commission in March 2016, Carter struggled to navigate the complexities of the law. Hanover argued the employer could not be held responsible for claims made in Virginia, where it had no place of business.
The commission ruled against Carter’s claim in a May 2016 decision, noting his contract was “consummated” in Georgia, and Virginia therefore had no jurisdiction over Carter’s injury.
To make matters worse, Carter believes the Bella Rose Group retaliated against him for filing the workers’ compensation claim by drastically diminishing his role with the company after he was healthy enough to return to the job.
The company moved him to a part-time schedule, where he would no longer receive employer-sponsored health insurance. He quickly realized he was not getting enough work to make ends meet, and quit after a few weeks.
Stefaney Caro, principal of the Bella Rose Group, denies the company retaliated against him.
“Regarding him working part time, we only had one customer that he could do work for and it wasn’t full time,” Caro said in an email.
“I was doing a dangerous job to make their business successful, and when the dangers of that job caught up with me they threw me under the bus.”
Several attorneys and policy experts that specialize in workers’ compensation law believe Virginia’s decision against Carter was a reasonable interpretation of the law. But they acknowledged his experience reflects some inadequacies of the workers’ compensation system.
The system was originally envisioned as a “grand bargain” between workers and employers that would give injured workers financial recourse while protecting companies from multimillion-dollar lawsuits, according to Michael Duff, a labor law professor at the University of Wyoming College of Law.
Now it’s so complex from state to state that workers need attorneys to represent them. And the lack of potential profitability of certain cases can make it hard for workers to find an attorney, said Duff, who went to law school following a stint as a unionized airline industry worker.
“There’s been this gradual erosion of workers’ compensation benefits, workers’ compensation coverage,” Duff said. “And the problem is, how can it be, that at the end of the day, a person has no remedy for an injury in which somebody certainly must be responsible?”
Regardless of the legal details, the experience made Carter furious ― at the law for failing workers, at the insurance company for overpowering him with legal arguments he struggled to understand, and at his employer for treating him like a “liability” rather than a “human.”
“It was just this deep-seated rage,” Carter recalled. “I was doing a dangerous job to make their business successful, and when the dangers of that job caught up with me they threw me under the bus.”
Carter’s trauma quickly turned into a political wake-up call. He had always voted for Democrats, albeit ambivalently at times. But he decided he needed to get active in progressive politics. He wanted to live in a country where no one ever had to go through what he experienced. He wanted workers to have more power in their workplace. He wanted single-payer health care and an end to corporate influence in politics.
As a resident of Manassas, a city in the Washington, D.C. exurbs, Carter realized he was smack-dab in the middle of a state legislative swing district. In February 2016, he announced he would run for the House of Delegates.
Around the same time, Carter caught the Bernie Sanders bug, volunteering for his presidential campaign and serving as a Sanders delegate at the Virginia Democratic Party convention and the Democratic convention of Virginia’s 10th congressional district.
Sanders’ decision to ignore the stigma on what Carter calls “the s-word” set off another light bulb in the nascent legislative candidate’s head.
“Seeing how corporations will try to subvert the political process on both sides and seeing Bernie Sanders come out there and say, ‘I’m a democratic socialist and this is what I’m fighting for,’ those two things together, really made me take a look at exactly what democratic socialism is, and I found it very, very appealing,” Carter said.
“Democratic socialism” refers to an array of left-wing economic worldviews that exist within the confines of a liberal democratic political system. Its adherents range from supporters of single-payer health care systems and more generous social welfare states common in other wealthy nations, to backers of more radical economic reforms like granting workers an ownership stake in the means of production.
For Carter, democratic socialism is “really just working people having more power in the workplace,” he said. “When you have a workplace that’s run democratically by the people who work there, they’re not gonna vote to ship their own jobs to China, they’re not gonna downsize because of a new piece of technology.”
On the campaign trail, Carter was open about his political views and frequently shared the story of the electrical shock that inspired them.
His DSA membership proved to be a benefit, rather than a liability: His fellow rank-and-file members of the Metro D.C. DSA chapter provided crucial ground-game support. Carter credits them for knocking on half of the 20,000 doors his campaign reached in the final four days before the election.
In addition, Our Revolution, the legacy organization from Sanders’ presidential campaign, sent get-out-the-vote text messages to 3,750 Carter supporters in the district and raised nearly $1,500 for Carter.
Forward Majority, a Democratic super PAC devoted to electing state legislative candidates, played a role with digital advertisements and a website slamming Miller. The group’s contributions were worth over $71,000, making it the single-largest donor to his campaign. Carter claimed his victory “would not have been possible” without Forward Majority.
For the most part though, Carter won by framing his ambitious progressive platform ― support for statewide single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, an end to the state’s right-to-work status, a ban on all corporate money in state politics, and opposition to two natural gas pipelines ― as a message to his district’s voters that he would always be on their side.
Carter believes that his success in turning out working-class voters from his district’s large and growing Latino community was a key element of his win. Some of the Spanish-speaking old-timers in his district affectionately referred to the ginger-haired Carter as “El Rojo” ― the redhead.
“We were able to go out there and tell people that you’re finally going to have a voice in Richmond that will work to make life better for you and your family, day in and day out,” he said.
Now Carter is focused on advancing his policy agenda when the state legislature reconvenes in January. As a start on the road to single-payer, Carter hopes Democrats can expand Medicaid to another 400,000 low-income Virginians. Thanks to Tuesday’s electoral wave, the party is due to have a tie in the House of Delegates, which Democratic leaders believe puts expansion within their grasp.
But the first bill Carter plans to introduce in Richmond is a measure to strengthen protections for workers against employer retaliation for filing workers’ compensation claims.
“It’s kind of messed up that it was easier to run a two-year election and get 11,000 people to vote for me than it was to figure out the workers’ compensation system,” he said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Manassas, Virginia, is part of Prince William County. In fact, it is an independent city. Additionally, a previous version of this story mistakenly indicated there are no public records of the educational attainment of members of Virginia’s legislature.