The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic is creating a new crop of political candidates: Unemployed workers

Kelly Johnson, single mother of eight and a Democratic candidate for District 65 in the Florida House of Representatives, embraces her twin daughters, Brooke and Esther Powell, in Dunedin, Fla. (Zack Wittman/for The Washington Post)
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For Kelly Johnson, the decision to run for political office came to her suddenly, in April.

The 48-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., had been furloughed from her job as a restaurant manager and after many frustrating weeks waiting for unemployment benefits, she decided to run for a Florida House of Representatives seat, with no political experience, to fix the broken unemployment system she had just experienced firsthand.

Tony Tsonis, 41, made the decision to run for a different Florida House seat around the same time. His father had just died after falling ill from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and Tsonis was suddenly jobless, after being furloughed from a senior position in marketing at Hilton Hotels in Orlando.

Thousands of people are running for office this year, and while most made the decision well before the pandemic struck, a small crop of candidates have more recently jumped into political races after losing their jobs or dealing with other work-related fallout from the pandemic.

These candidates have little political experience but have survived through the devastating economic fallout that caused more than 20 million workers to lose their jobs. There are no numbers on these candidates nor any guarantee of their chances to win, but they show how, increasingly, pandemic unemployment is becoming a major influence on politics.

They are using their inexperience as a boon and focusing on formerly arcane issues raised by the pandemic, like unemployment insurance systems as well as the plight of “essential workers," the retail workers who had been heralded as heroes back in March but who have since lost the extra pay, sick leave flexibility and gratitude of their employers and the public.

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“There are so many people who have been impacted or know somebody impacted personally,” Tsonis said of the new group of candidates like himself. “People are just fed up and looking for an opportunity to upset the status quo and change things.”

For Johnson, politics was always something she looked down on — a loathsome game played by people who were out of touch with the needs of people like her, she said.

A pastor by training, Johnson said she typically voted Republican and was a steadfast Trump defender until recently, even fighting with her parents about the president in December. But her political involvement ended there until the pandemic.

A doer and organizer by nature, the mother of eight suddenly found herself with more time — and frustrations — on her hands after she was furloughed in March from O’Keefe’s Tavern in Clearwater, where she worked.

She started to watch Trump every day, finding herself surprised by his indifference to the pandemic early on. After weeks of delays in receiving unemployment insurance, she started a Facebook group for others like herself, Action Group For Covid-19 Unemployment and helped found another called Fix It Florida. Florida was swamped by an immense backlog of claims that overwhelmed a chronically underfunded state unemployment system.

Through the Facebook group, Johnson helped organize protests against unemployment benefit delays across the state. By talking to other unemployed workers, Johnson says she developed a sense of empathy she lacked before. The unemployed were not the “scum of the earth,” or too lazy to hold jobs, as they had been characterized by political leaders, she said.

She also read about the deep cuts Florida’s Republican legislature and former governor Rick Scott made to the unemployment system after the last recession.

“When the pandemic hit, it’s like I hit the brakes,” said Johnson, who added she doubts she will support Republican candidates in the future. “I had been running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to manage a household and working like a single mom. And then I stopped. I feel like I have grown 20 years in the last six months.”

She decided to run while being interviewed by a local reporter at one of the protests. “We felt like nobody at the top in Florida was listening to us,” she said. “So we’re doing it ourselves.”

Johnson hopes to unseat incumbent Chris Sprowls, a powerful Republican who is slated to become House Speaker in 2021, if he wins and Republicans keep their majority.

Some transformations have been less dramatic. Tsonis has always been a Democrat, but his decision to run for office was the product of similar frustrations, dealing with long delays in receiving Florida jobless benefits after he lost his marketing position at Hilton in Orlando.

Like Johnson, Tsonis had been organizing other unemployed workers in similar circumstances — his former colleagues, who were also dealing with the delays.

He said running for office was a mission that gave him purpose in a moment of immense crisis.

“I could either become depressed or very down, self-pitying — or I could try to take the situation and turn it into a positive for myself,” he said.

Tsonis lost his primary on Aug. 18, but he ran on a platform that revolves heavily around worker issues, with a focus on expanding Medicaid and affordable housing options as well as revamping the state’s unemployment insurance system.

“The people that make the least amount of money were the people who were labeled essential workers. Yet many [employers] didn’t provide their workers with PPE or take all the precautions they should to prevent the spread of the disease,” he said. “There is such a mismatch between employers providing safe working environments and the threat that is still out there.”

It is not just candidates, of course. Others have had their politics supercharged from workplace issues during the pandemic.

Daniel Stone, 28, lost his job as a market analyst for Dollar General in Nashville in April after raising concerns about safety issues and the lack of hazard pay for front line workers at the chain.

Stone has always been interested in politics and interned previously for two political campaigns on the side of the corporate jobs he has been working since he graduated from college in 2014.

But his experience at Dollar General, which is the subject of a complaint he filed with the National Labor Relations Board, helped push him to look for full-time work in politics.

While collecting unemployment benefits, he went to work as unpaid campaign manager for Marquita Bradshaw, who recently won the primary to be the Democratic nominee for the open U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee.

“The pandemic has completely removed the veil that companies will take care of us, because we work for them,” Stone said. “It’s time now to make them take care of us and protect us, through legislation and action.”

Charles Callanan was also spurred into action by how the pandemic upended work for him — and revealed what he said were shortcomings with the government’s response in Rhode Island, where he lives.

As the CEO of a consortium of veterinary facilities in the state, Callanan, who is running as a Republican for a state senate seat, saw how the pandemic created a confusing mix of rules and restrictions for businesses like his.

His business actually boomed for his company in the aftermath of the pandemic, as more people purchased pets. But he said he had trouble working with programs like the state Department of Labor and Training’s work share program, which is meant to subsidize the paychecks of workers on restricted schedules — like those who suddenly needed to stay home to take care of their kids.

“Our business went through the roof but our staffing was in free fall,” said Callanan. “It was quite a juggling act, and it still remains that way.”