Who are you, and where are you coming from, and where are you going?
I’m Brian “Wing-ber-mule-y.” I never thought I would really go into politics when I was a kid – I always wanted to do plants. When I was in high school, I got my start working in gun violence prevention after the Parkland shooting with other kids around the US. What started out as a literal GroupMe full of kids from St. Louis high schools turned into a 600 person group. We had walkouts at 30 area schools around the National Day of Recognition.
We got a lot of media attention. I will never forget sitting in my senior photography class when we all got collectively screamed at for being on our phones. The darkroom was dead silent when I got a call. I felt the walk of shame going up to the teacher’s desk and asking, “I know you just yelled at me for this, but can I take this phone call? It's The Washington Post.” She was like, “Yeah…. You should take that.”
Then I got picked up in Teen Vogue, wrote there. That summer, I jumped into a congressional campaign for Democrat Cort VanOstran, who came the closest ever to flipping Missouri's second district, which is suburban St. Louis. I also started working at what is now Abortion Action Missouri and have been there ever since. I took a brief break to work as a part-time publicist at a friend’s firm–chaos! Chaos is what happens when you put a 19 year old in charge of something.
I also got involved with CORA PAC, the Committee to Organize and Remove Abusers. Backstory: In 2016, two incoming Missouri state representatives went to court. Representative Cora Faith Walker of Ferguson accused state representative Steve Roberts of rape. She asked the Speaker of the House not to seat him. There was a brief investigation. It was thrown out. Cora Faith was a huge mentor of mine. I had known her since I was in high school, and she recently tragically passed away at age 37. About a month after her death, Steve Roberts announced he was running for Congress to run against incumbent Cori Bush. So we opened the CORA PAC and kicked his ass– he lost 75 to 25.
A lot of people disliked us for our strong tactics. In one of the suburban Republican neighborhoods here in St. Louis, they sent out an HOA letter blocking us from this private gated community (though we were guests of someone), because we were plastering stop signs with “Stop Rapist Roberts.” My attorney has helped me a lot…
Damn. That's a lot. And you just wanted to do plants.
Big plant collector. I've got probably around like a thousand plants. It's a bad habit. I have a huge soft spot for the genus Monstera, like the ever-trendy Monstera. I have probably a dozen species of Monstera now. I tend to get into a genus then start a little collection. Like I love hardy bananas. St. Louis is hot and humid and wet in the summer. Bananas do great here… so like, why wouldn't you need six species of bananas? Now I've got Musa Balbisiana var. balbsiana, Musa coccinea, Musa itinerans subspecies xishuangbannaensis, Musa basjoo, Musa sikkimensis, Musa yunnanensis, and Musella lasiocarpa, most of which comes from Southeast Asia.
Where are all of these plants that you have?
They are all unbelievably growing in suburban St. Louis. Most of them have had very long journeys and many are protected by the Endangered Species Act – knowingly destroying or moving them is a crime. I had a cactus, a Opuntia polyacantha var. erinacaea, which was bought online and shipped from Nevada. They come with these scary Desert Flora collection tags saying “It is unlawful to remove this tag” zip-tied to them.
Yesterday I got a box from Ecuagenera, which is an online Ecuadorian export company that is pretty well known among global plant collectors. The box of plants I got yesterday had no soil to comply with international customs and phytosanitary certification. They came wrapped in plastic and they looked horrible and they're so sad. They’ll be good soon but currently are jet-lagged.
Tell me about your daily rituals.
Ooh, joint before bed every time. Missouri has newly legalized recreational marijuana and it rocks. I think that has always been an important every night hangout: take the dog outside, throw the tennis ball around.
I'm very lucky that our workspace is also hybrid. So typically in the mornings I always start with a Diet Coke, probably too much Diet Coke, but that is my caffeination of choice. I’m lucky we have a flexible office schedule, which politics requires.
Anything else that keeps your head on?
No, most of my rituals are like taking my head and cracking it open. It's like reading Missouri Scout which is like this gossip column-esque newspaper. I am very lucky that I'm off Twitter now. I've deleted it. I'm not doing X or whatever that is now. But I still check social media, see campaign updates, see what's going on in politics. St. Louis is a wild place, and so usually somebody's posting and talking about someone or something…
Do you think you have a craft? And if so, what medium is it?
When I hear craft, I immediately jump to “skill.” And I don't know how much skill is involved in politics because a lot of the time in advocacy organizations and candidate races, it feels like we're just throwing things at the wall. Often in Missouri, it feels like we don’t have politics down to a science.
Sometimes I want to say that the state doesn’t function. Missouri is currently sitting on a six billion dollar surplus and the governor's vetoing extra spending! There are 51 Democrats in the state house and 111 Republicans – a supermajority. They can run every aspect of the state government without a single democratic vote… but I would hesitate to say that they “run” anything because the state doesn’t work.
As a minority party member, you’ve done these very bold, confrontational actions. Do you ever feel like you need to persuade people of your ideas differently?
My style has always been through confrontation because it has to be here. Think about Steve Roberts who had been credibly accused not by one but multiple women of sexual assault and harassment. Despite our work on CORA PAC, he has an even bigger office, more constituents, and he won his recent election. I think of that quote used too often: “Power is never given, it's always taken.” If people are unwilling to listen, then you might have to force them to.
Often I find people are too busy guarding each others feelings in cases of sexual harassment. Perpetrators and survivors are usually people you know in your life – friends, relatives. These are all things that unfold in everyday people's lives, but in this Roberts case it unfolded incredibly publicly with lawmakers.
Yet making change comes down to relationships. There is a common talking point that rape is the most under-reported crime in America. Everyone knows somebody who has been impacted by sexual assault. There is a lot of power in showing people’s humanity, to make things real for them. They always say Missouri is the “Show-Me State.” Sometimes you have to show people how challenging certain situations are that they haven't experienced firsthand. This is not exclusive to politics– showing people that these things are real works.
It's easy to get kind of tied up in policy or politics and call them all semantics –everything is a tactic in politics. But the reality is that this is about real people who have feelings and they are often really hurt by what’s going on. When sexual assault comes up in politics, survivors have to endure listening to televised interview with perpetrators or news about the topic. Activists may share their stories of what it means to be sexually assaulted. It’s not just semantics or rhetoric! It’s lived reality.
What is your calling? You're very young. Do you think you have a calling?
I tentatively say, “No.” It's so hard to sit there and think, “What is my purpose? Why am I here? What am I doing?” I don't need to plan 10 years ahead. I mean, I contribute to my retirement – that's an aspect of forethought, thank God. I feel very proud of myself for figuring that out and setting that up when I was 22... Getting in on the ground floor so I'll be set to not receive social security!
But I think that I've always just found things in the moment. When I felt called to do something or drawn to do something, I've always just gone with it.
How initially did you go from plant man to gun control activist? What changed?
The gun rights issue felt personal–kids my age were murdered in their school. I had two incredible high school social studies teachers who instilled this idea that government was supposed to work for the people. Yet it wasn’t, it didn’t, it was failing – not in a singular event– but in an ongoing way. It fails because people live in poverty, because they experience healthcare bankruptcies, because of the cost of living crisis. The intersection of good old fashioned rage and teenage angst mixed with this big national moment that was happening made me jump in and learn a lot really quickly. That kind of excitement has never really gone away. I find myself stuck in politics.
And where are you from in St. Louis?
I'm from St. Louis, St. Louis County. It’s a suburb called Fenton. There's like 6,000 people in it, but that's very misleading because St. Louis County has 1.1 million residents in it, but it has 84 municipalities that range in population from like 55,000 to 200 or less – all more or less self-governing. It's very fragmented. The city of St. Louis is its own city and its own county, much like Baltimore.
It means that each has a city hall and government body, as well as their own separate contracts to maintain streets, parks, police, and all the other things. It's just a giant waste of money. And they call it the great divorce between St. Louis City and St. Louis County, which happened in the 1800s. It's such a duplicative and wasteful way to set up a city!
Are your neighbors worthy of your love?
Yes, point blank period. It is challenging. I grew up in a pretty conservative outer-ring suburb. In high school, I had a great relationship with my Republican state representative. And by that, I mean I terrorized him and he hates me but that's what your Republican state representative is for!
But I think all of those people are absolutely deserving of your love and your advocacy, specifically. It can be really hard in a place like Missouri – and as a gay person. To know that the love you hold for your community and those around you may not always be reciprocal is an interesting paradox.
I do take a lot of solace and comfort in believing in just people, everyday people, who are sometimes dicks and drive their lifted trucks too fast and cut you off in traffic and flip you off sometimes when they see your bumper stickers. But, other times those people are stopping to make sure that a turtle crosses the road.
You said love and advocacy for your Republican reps. What does that mean?
I see advocacy as the collective idea that we’re believing in people and their well-being as a whole. It can manifest in many ways. Sometimes it’s little things like driving people to the polls or giving someone a lift to their doctor’s appointment. Other times it can be big systemic issues like Medicaid expansion. We just passed that here in Missouri and now thousands of people have access to that. We may advocate for different people differently – like a love language.
It has been important for me to know the difference between people and elected officials. You have to be careful being a thorn, because regular people don’t deserve that. There is an idea in the Twitter-verse that because the South votes for something terrible, that they deserve that something terrible. That is not fair to people in the South! And I do think that Missouri is the Upper South.
For example Missouri ranks 48th in teacher pay. It is not the citizens’ job to be involved to that level of politics and governance – and plenty of people resisted those decision makers! People should be involved in politics but it is not their job to be policy experts and know what is best for the state. That is the job of your elected officials and people are not their governments. We say at work that Missourians are not the problem, they're the solution.
What is your favorite culture war battleground?
Some culture wars are objectively hilarious, like when Tucker Carlson showed Chelsea Handler's TikTok “a day in the life of a single woman” – that's just objectively bullshit and funny.
I think that culture wars in Missouri are not as much of a joke because they are real for people here. We were the first state to enact our trigger law after the fall of Roe v. Wade. This last legislative session – which is only January to May – we passed two different pieces of legislation restricting both access to gender affirming care for transgender people, specifically minors, and also limiting participation of transgender athletes.
The joke that was always made was that there were more bills in Missouri filed to regulate transgender athletes then there were transgender athletes in the entire state. It is hard for me to laugh when we spend so many weeks of a short legislative session in a part-time legislature on this.
One of my best friends from high school is transgender and now works at a facility that used to provide gender affirming care. There's a grandfather clause in one piece of legislation that says people who've been accessing gender affirming care don't have to stop. Despite this loophole, we had one prominent university announce they weren’t going to provide any gender affirming care anymore because of the legal risk. It was too much risking of medical licenses and SLAPP lawsuits or funding for the other cutting edge research and care.
Why do you think that Missouri was so obsessed with trans or abortion issues, as opposed to all the other litany of things that need attention?
I think it's been a really, really carefully calculated goal by the Republicans. If you've seen Mrs. America on Hulu or are familiar with the idea of the Reaganites and Paul Weirich and Phyllis Schlafly: We have a St. Louis Public Library “Schlafly Branch” named after Phyllis Schlafly. She's from a very affluent St. Louis suburb. She went to Washington University in St. Louis. The history of the Religious Right is Missouri history. We're dealing with 40 plus years of religious indoctrination and propaganda introduced with surgical, strategic precision.
Are Republicans happy with what's happening?
They aren’t happy. Living in West St. Louis County, you end up talking to a lot of Republicans – my father is one! There were only 43 bills passed in the last legislative cycle–the fewest number of bills passed in state history, pandemic aside. The state just doesn't work anymore.
There is a growing idea that Republicans are chasing issues that don’t impact people’s daily lives. Most people in Missouri frankly don't know a trans athlete. Conversely, we know that abortion is really common – like ⅓, ¼ women will have one in their lifetime. We know as advocates that everyone loves somebody who's had an abortion. But when you grow up in an incredibly Catholic, incredibly conservative religious environment like Missouri, you're probably not going to talk about that.
Similarly, you're probably not going to connect the dots of “my kid only goes to school Monday through Thursday now, and now I have to find ever increasingly expensive childcare an extra day a week.” Like the frog in the pot that got boiled slowly, people are realizing that the state is doing things out of line with voters.
We do have the initiative petition process in Missouri. We're one of only a handful of states where citizens can bring forth initiative petitions to amend state statute or the state constitution via the ballot. Over the last couple of election cycles, we have repeatedly won progressive policies at the ballot box. We got medical and then recreational marijuana. We raised the minimum wage to $12 from $7.25. We voted against “Right to Work.” This year in Missouri, there are numerous abortion policies filed with the Secretary of State. They're going to try and raise the minimum wage again and then guarantee earned sick leave for hourly employees.
Does removing partisan ID help that happen? Like, “We can’t have minimum wage raises because it's progressive” but when it's on a ballot divorced from the party, it’s palatable.
It very much is that. This is Schlafly’s hometown so people have been fed a lot of partisan misinformation. However, talking about who is working minimum wage jobs and who would be seeing those wage increases makes it real. You have to talk to people. You just have to be fucking for real.
You have to show me in the “Show Me” state!
Exactly! And then I think it clicks for people. We've always been a very strong state when it comes to labor. We've had our friends at UAW striking in Wentzville, Missouri, about an hour outside of the city right now. We've always believed in some pretty progressive stuff. We've really just let the Religious Right and politicians throw the train off the rails.
Is there something you know that you wish everyone knew?
I wish people knew that politics is like a double-sided coin– both human but not superhuman. I wish people knew that local electeds are real people trying to live their lives. In that sense, I wish people were more forgiving sometimes.
But I also wish we didn’t assume that politicians are always good people. We should not inherently trust them or think they are more special because they go to Jefferson City or Washignton… but then do objectively bad things.
Why do you wish people knew this?
I think it would change people's idea of how they vote. I think it would change the way people interact with lawmakers – as people they can approach. I think that it would potentially bring people into more civic engagement, be more involved in what that process looks like, and use their elected officials as the resource that they were intended to be. And maybe if they realized that lawmakers are currently not that resource that they are in fact supposed to be, people would run against them, do something, vote them out.
How do we capture the flag?
I wish I knew. If you find somebody in one of these inventories who has the answer, you should call me immediately. It probably begins with interpersonal relationships though… but new question?
Ok. What are some false idols America needs to kill?
Oh my god. I struggle with this one personally, because I'm a fan boy, but I think Americans often think celebrities -- like politicans-- are inherently good, smart, and/or trustworthy. Just because a person is a public figure, we trust them to some degree. I think that is a big false idol. For example Mila Kunis and her co-star Ashton Kutcher – their show was before my time but– wrote letters of affirmation for an accused rapist in a court trial. People see these headlines and feel betrayed! They are somehow shocked in a way that perplexes me. It’s time that we let go of this idea that just because people are in a position of power or fame they are therefore a good person, or even obliged to be.
The theme of this inventory has been “we need to have interpersonal relationships and forgiveness.” But you also say, “we got to stop trusting these powerful people.” How do you balance seeing both the victim and the perpetrator as human?
I truly don't think you ever stop navigating this. Whether the guilty person is your creepy uncle or your state representative. People's feelings are complicated and nuanced and not everything fits in a box and that's the point! I really prefer that everything doesn’t fit in a box.
I’m going to abridge this story but I was talking to a friend about how I was sexually assaulted as a teenager. I was discussing my lack of forgiveness for people who aid and abet assailants. It was very black and white for me. I put it blankly to a this friend: if the person who perpetrated my sexual assault was running for Congress and you were on his host committee and you were supporting him, like love you but I would probably never speak to you again.
In return, he posed a question and a perspective that I had never thought through. My friend was talking about someone very close in his life who was a perpetrator. He framed maintaining contact with this person was maybe an act of mercy, a little bit of forgiveness. He understood that I would never speak to him again in this hypothetical scenario – my black and white anger would be justified because of my experience.
But he described that when you believe that someone you love acted out of character, but admitted wrongdoing, there is some good in maintaining contact. He was saying, “If I make his day just a little bit easier talking to him after he atoned for this heinous crime, maybe that is mercy, maybe that is advocacy or care or love, and maybe it's okay that we're just in two different positions of a very similar coin, and maybe I will throw judgment your way and you can throw judgment my way, and it doesn't have to be confrontational. We don't always get to decide how the battle lines are drawn and sometimes we just fall on opposite sides.”
The hills that I will die on, which are probably too many, are different from what other people will die on. The battle lines have been drawn and we don't get to choose where they fall, but we can choose the battles we fight– we must remember that we can choose if and how to engage.
What symbolizes you and your people?
Politically in Missouri, things are very fragmented like our 84 municipalities. The way that those coalitions break or join together is incredibly complex and often it seems like there's not a lot of strategy or things behind it, but I don't know if there's something that is unifying us other than our shared humanity. I wish we could let our guards down and just let things be without assigning them morality or meaning or purpose. Maybe we arne’t there yet though.
I guess the symbol would actually be the map of St. Louis municipalities. They cross county lines, they cross boundaries. Some of them are big and some of them are small. We also don’t fit in the Midwest. We don’t fit in the South.
You're Southern, but you're Midwestern, but you're Missouri. You're religious, but you're also into labor. It's literally the dead center of the country. Missouri confuses me, especially as I've been talking to more and more of the “Missouri mafia,” and I'm simultaneously inspired by it, and completely like, “How is this place not just always like up in arms?”
It is. It is always up in arms. In a good way.