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Autistic Candidate’s Louisiana Campaign for Congress Is One to Watch

Joshua Collins wanted to be the first openly autistic U.S. Congressperson in American history. While his campaign fell flat, another autistic candidate is still in the running. Louisiana Democrat Rob Anderson, who is on the autism spectrum, is a self-described progressive Southern Democrat campaigning to unseat two-term incumbent Republican U.S. Congressman Clay Higgins in Louisiana’s third district.

Encompassing the Bayou State’s southwest and south-central regions, the third district has been in Republican control since 2011. The current race, however, has been described as one of two statewide Congressional competitions that are “expected to be competitive” for Democrats in the fall. According to Mark Ballard, capitol bureau editor at The Advocate, Anderson is running a “surprisingly strong challenge” in a four-way battle for the seat in the state’s November primary. If no candidate achieves a plurality, the top two vote-getters regardless of party will compete in a runoff election to determine the district’s next legislator.

Running for Congress

While being the United States’ first openly autistic member of Congress would be historic, Anderson is hardly bothered by the lack of media coverage about the groundbreaking nature of his Congressional race. “I am running on being a representative for the people of Southwest Louisiana,” he clarified. “The main one I push is being just a regular person from the working class who happens to be autistic.”

Anderson’s eclectic background is an assortment of jobs from IT analyst, business owner, and author in his younger years, coupled with more recent stints in working-class trades like drilling and homebuilding. His diverse career history works in his favor, he said. While his district has traditionally been Republican, “I don’t look at my district as red. I just look at it as working class. There are a lot of people just like me.” His platform includes efforts to excise big money from politics and legalize marijuana, as well as invest in infrastructure, education and health care.

Pivoting to politics once his children were grown, Anderson is leveraging his grassroots, social media-based campaign, including a Twitter following of over 100,000, to fundraise in a world that has been turned upside down by the pandemic. “We tried one [in-person] event, a small one, after we reopened Louisiana at the end of June, and I think we had five people show up,” Anderson said. “Everybody who RSVPed had expressed that [COVID-19] was their concern.”

Navigating a Typical World

Anderson received his autism diagnosis in his 20s while working New York City in the early 1990s. He said he struggled to express emotions in a typical world that doesn’t understand neurodiversity. Autism is definitely part of Anderson’s life and informs his platform as a potential representative. “I always advocate for autistic causes and will till the day I die,” he said. Anderson’s son Elias is also on the spectrum. However, Anderson doesn’t feel the need to center his entire campaign on a diagnosis — he’s focused on the members of his Louisiana community.

While he has not experienced discrimination in his Congressional race, Anderson has had to work with staffers to reach an understanding of communication styles. “[Learning his background] really opened my mind to how to perceive our current communication styles,” said Clare Stagg, Anderson’s campaign manager. “It has been really helpful for me as more or less a neurotypical person to learn about how to speak and I guess interact better with people who are [neurodivergent].”

Disability Rights Issues

Anderson explained that one of his first jobs in 1987 was working in hospice with dying AIDS patients. The experience taught him the injustice of how people in nursing homes are treated. “They deserve to be treated with respect, and even if you know they are dying, you shouldn’t just shove them off in a corner,” Anderson shared. To this end, he is a staunch supporter of the Disability Integration Act, which reaffirms disabled people’s civil rights to home and community-based services.

Moreover, Anderson is an advocate of improving on the Americans with Disabilities Act. He highlighted that despite mandates by the 30-year-old law, many public buildings in the U.S. still are not accessible to wheelchair users and others with disabilities. Anderson experienced this first-hand when out with his friend who uses a wheelchair. In some restaurants, Anderson shared he had to “haul” his friend up stairs.

“I am always going to be fighting for people who all they need is a little help just to get that level playing field,” Anderson shared.

The Takeaway

Anderson’s approach to flipping his district centers around leveraging President Donald Trump’s growing unpopularity. “The one thing people are sure of is that we need change,” Anderson said. “We are going to encourage and drive voter turnout this year.”

“I think people will realize if they show up they can win, and we can win. They have a champion that will stand up for them,” Anderson continued. “We are the hope for Louisiana flipping a district blue.”

Header image via Rob Anderson/Facebook