Zak Ringelstein brings game to the debate about the economy and what it means to be free

Zak Ringelstein is the Democratic candidate proudly running for U.S. Senate in Maine on a “Democratic Socialist” agenda. His relationship to capitalism? It’s complicated.

Ringelstein’s campaign raises interesting questions about the meaning of the American Dream in today’s economy and the basis on which he brings beliefs about capitalism to the table -- as opposed to the Republican candidate, Eric Brakey, and some in his own party -- is worth noting.

Ringelstein is not your everyday Democratic Socialist. Six years before denouncing capitalism as a candidate, he and his talented wife gave birth to an idea and raised their vision to be an educational software company others wanted a piece of and were willing to pay for -- the exact price tag unknown. We know they made enough off the sale to pay off $150,000 of Ringelstein student debt, at least.

Before Ringelstein’s company, UClass, was gobbled up by a bigger fish called Renaissance Learning, Inc., he and his wife raised $1 million in venture capital -- no easy task for young teachers from small New England towns without powerful networks or donors. At one point, according to him, the couple lived off a CVS gift card from a family member and washed their clothes using coins Leah Ringelstein earned busking in New York City with her fiddle.

UClass was in business to “enable school districts to distribute core curriculum to teachers, facilitate collaboration across school, and measure the efficacy of school district resources.” Ironically the idea that was capitalized on by venture capitalists was to “democratize access to education by making lesson plans and other resources available online to school districts,” according to court documents.

By 2015, UClass had a database of 16 million pieces of educational content, including lesson plans, instructional videos, and learning games, and was being used in more than five thousand households, according to a complaint filed on Ringelstein’s behalf in federal court in California against the company that acquired UClass.  The case settled in March 2017, the terms of which are confidential, according to Ringelstein in an interview.

Ringelstein survived the test of being rejected over and over again by investors until the test was over and his fledgling company received the big checks to invest in his dream. It was after he sold the company and received some serious cash when things fell apart. It was at that point, apparently, when Ringelstein realized the establishment is morally corrupt.

After he sold the company, Ringelstein voted for Hillary Clinton and went to Nashville and made a video smacking of #MAGA, i.e. “make America great again.”  His song, “Raised in the U.SA” is a semi-wholesome country music ditty and the semi-sexy video features perky white Millennials dancing around in red, white and blue bathing suits sucking down beers that closely resemble Budweiser and playing guitar. In the end there is an appearance of Ringelstein in a Speedo-type bathing suit resembling a smallish American flag.  

Surviving rejection is a useful skill to have when running for U.S. Senate against Angus King, two-term former governor and the state's most popular politician. Ringelstein can nevertheless add value to the election by being an informed voice for those demanding fundamental reform.

For Democrats the family question to bat around is whether or to what degree capitalists are still welcome under the tent, i.e. those who aspire to achieve commercial success in the marketplace and use wealth created to do good and pay off student loans, like Ringelstein did, versus members of the party who push for stronger and tighter reins on the herds of galloping big businesses driving a market stampede and want free college, like Ringelstein does now.

There is merit to the idea that some social programs are both essential to civilized communities and not suited for the marketplace and there is room for reasonable people to disagree where the line gets drawn. Forget about Hillary versus Bernie. The size and role of government is an idea worthy of debate among people who share other important values.

Ringelstein brings credentials to the conversation about the economy -- he has an ivy league degree and worked as a teacher and was a successful entrepreneur before deciding to throw his hat in the ring as a Democratic Socialist. He’s seen the other side of the mountain and breathed in the cool air on top and concluded it's too thin. The economy is rigged, he believes, based on personal experience as a player in it.

Ringelstein’s Republican opponent in the race, Eric Brakey, is also known to have appeared in a video in a Speedo-type bathing suit as part of a “job” before getting into politics as his career. Brakey, a theatre student, “worked” on an ad for coconut water by dancing Brazilian-style. Other than this stint in business its unclear Brakey has had much success in or with the market, but nonetheless he claims to be pro-business and raises lots of money promising to drain the swamp of career politicians. You can count on him to prop up the free market for as long as he can keep a government job. Brakey’s anti-government and therefore pro-business, or so the logic goes. His legislative claim to fame is getting a law passed to let people in Maine carry concealed weapons without a permit.

The outcome of the race for U.S. senate may be preordained but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues to debate, candidates to watch and serious questions to ask about what it means to be free.