In the days after Darren Staley dropped out of school, a smart but bored high school kid could walk into a well paid manufacturing job in Wilkes and turn it into a career and a middle-class existence. Staley did that, left school and got a good job at Golden Needles, a textile company, which was not unlike other textile companies in following cheap labor to Asia or Mexico. Out of a job, sick with a recurring debilitative illness, the social safety net, SSI and food stamps, literally saved Staley's life. What's wrong with people who mock the safety net and want to end it? Staley asks.
Plus for a candidate running in rural America, Staley toughed it out. He began to get a new, belated education, first at Wilkes Community College and then eventually at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, where he earned a Master's in legal studies. He's currently the Director of Operations for a small business that provides services to people with disabilities, and he sits on several committees that advocate for people across the behavioral health spectrum. Nevertheless, "I am literally just a guy in a mobile home typing this from my kitchen table."
His web presence is still birthing, so at the moment he has no photographs and certainly no videos on his website, though he's written a very compelling biography of American hard work and upward motion against terrible odds created by other people. His Twitter feed is lively. Disclosure: I've contributed to his campaign.
I interviewed Staley via email:
Can you fill in a little detail about your political journey.
It’s not any kind of new awakening. I got interested in politics when I got laid off from the factory. We were all looking for people to blame. It was the government. It was the Mexicans. The whole “they took our jobs” thinking that was later parodied in a South Park episode.
My thinking started to change when I went to Mexico to be a part of the training team, training the people there on how to run the [textile] machines. In a maquiladora, which is basically a town where a US company sends manufacturing just barely across the border.
So that really opened my mind as far as realizing, you know, we’re all the same. And I’ll probably get tagged with “open borders” here, but I realized that things are universal. People want good jobs. They want to raise their kids and hope they do better. All racial and cultural differences melted away from me during that trip.
Of course this was during the layoff. After, when I was utilizing NAFTA Transition Assistance to go to school, and this is a much longer story, the assistance was linked to unemployment benefits. So if the state cut UI benefits, it also screwed over people on TAA.
My friends and I who went to school after the closure started following politics heavily. We would watch C-SPAN to see the votes, because that $300 a week -- I think it was -- it was crucial. For people who were previously making $35,000 plus a year.
And I saw every Republican walk on the floor of the House and Senate and call me a moocher, a loser, that I should just get off my ass and go get a job. I was like, I HAD A JOB. Legislation took this job away from me, and provided this assistance, and now you want to pass legislation that takes the assistance away?
I saw every Democrat stand up and say, if you cut off these benefits it will hurt a lot of people. Vulnerable people. Who lost their job through no fault of their own. I knew right then, I see who is on my side.
When I became disabled a couple years after that it was amplified. And I did get engaged in politics, at a limited level. I was unable to leave the house a lot. But I could get online. That’s how I got my degree. I got active in politics online.
So, yeah it’s a long story. But the reason I decided to do this right now is because I don’t think the Republican party cares about active legislation anymore. It’s one thing to be on the other side of an issue. It is a whole other thing to not even care about the issues. They gerrymander themselves into a district where they can’t lose, and so they can pass legislation about participation trophies and trans people.
This has so skewed our public discourse. You pick your side, and the other side is not the opposition but the enemy. I think there is a balance, between individual rights and the societal good, between management and labor. The people elect representatives to help find that balance, not to feed into the shit that divides us.
Always a Democrat?
Growing up, it’s a little complicated, because my Mom and Dad divorced when I was very young. My maternal family was and remains evangelical Christian Republican, for the most part. My paternal side were Democrats, again, for the most part. Neither side came up easy.
What distinctions will you draw between Darren Staley and Eddie Settle, the first-term Republican incumbent in Senate District 36?
When I got into this thing, I said to people that I had no intention of doing some ugly campaign that attacks my opponent. I don’t know Eddie Settle and have never met him. I have met people who say good things about him and people who say bad things about him, and I am sure he has heard the same about me.
Highlighting specific votes, you know it’s more about what he didn’t do than what he did. I mean, banning participation trophies and the gender stuff and safe havens for guns and the unborn. I’m just not sure how any of this helps the laid off factory worker, or the disabled person, or the person with no health care.
He seems like a decent person to me. I just disagree with him on most if not all policy issues. I have no doubt he is a very good speaker, a better politician, but I’m just not sure he gives a lot of nuanced thoughts on the issues. His website talks about how he will NEVER raise taxes. Now I’m not looking to raise taxes on people willy nilly, but “NEVER” is just, it’s all about context. We don’t live in a one size fits all world.
In my day job, I try to be proactive and not reactive. I try to consider all possibilities and come up with the best solutions, knowing that sometimes I get it wrong. Being able to admit, yeah, I got this one wrong. But talking points and slogans and bold statements of certainty without nuance shouldn’t cut it for a legislator.
It’s a big district. It’s a big state. Everyone has their own unique experience, and I’ve experienced a lot. Good times, bad times, and hard times. I want to make the hard times easier on the people of the district.
You made a joke on your Twitter feed, about the comedian Corey Forrester's being your campaign manager. How do you know him?
I think what Corey and the WellRed comedy group, which includes Trae Crowder (aka The Liberal Redneck) and Drew Morgan have done to show that there is a progressive south is so very important. I’ve met them all but I feel like I have a special kinship with Corey.