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story.lead_photo.caption This is Robb Ryerse on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017 outside a Bethesda, Md. church where he preached. Ryerse lives in NW Arkansas and is running as a Republican for Congress.

WASHINGTON -- When supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders launched Brand New Congress last year, they made it their mission to recruit and support an army of progressive anti-incumbent political candidates.

Today, at their Brand New Summit in Washington, they'll show off a slate of 20 challengers from around the country, including the Rev. Robb Ryerse of Springdale.

The 42-year-old pastor of Fayetteville's Vintage Fellowship is one of two Republican hopefuls to receive the group's seal of approval; the rest are Democrats.

All of the candidates are committed to fixing a broken system, Ryerse said, adding, "We may not be in the same party, but we're on the same team."

Ryerse, who is scheduled to deliver a speech at today's conference, will also appear on one of its panels to discuss "Crossing the Divide: How post-partisan politics can help candidates relate to voters."

As a congressional candidate in Arkansas' 3rd District, he'll be running to the left of incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Womack on several key issues, including health care and tax policy.

A campaign spokesman for the Republican from Rogers declined to comment Sunday.

Although most Brand New Congress candidates are Democrats, "there's a number of specific issues that unite us," Ryerse said Sunday. "Health care for everybody is a big one. Campaign finance reform is a big one."

The preacher has promised not to accept corporate donations or super political action committee money.

"We've got to recognize that the establishments of both parties are bought and paid for by their corporate interests and don't put people first," he said.

Unlike Womack and other House Republicans, Ryerse won't be fighting to slash corporate tax rates or eliminate the estate tax on assets of more than $5.49 million.

"Rather than Wall Street bailouts and tax cuts for the rich, we've got to spend on things that are actually going to make a difference in people's lives, like education and health care and a green energy economy," he said.

Ryerse, a graduate of Summit University in Clarks Summit, Pa., and of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa., grew up in a conservative Christian household near Cleveland.

Early on, he pastored what he describes as fundamentalist churches.

But he ultimately rejected some of the essential tenets of the Religious Right. He described the transformation in a book titled Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism But Didn't Lose My Faith.

Ryerse, who still considers himself an evangelical, welcomes gay couples and has officiated at their weddings.

Sunday, the Arkansan preached at Church in Bethesda, giving a sermon that emphasized Jesus, not politics. But afterward, during the coffee hour, he happily fielded questions about his long-shot candidacy.

Victor Williams, a member of the congregation and a Pine Bluff native, liked Ryerse's answers.

"He's practical. He's reality-based," the attorney and law professor said.

"As an ex-Arkansan, I'm really proud that he's ... continuing the tradition of [former Arkansas Gov.] Winthrop Rockefeller, who reformed that state from top to bottom as a Republican," Williams said.

Ryerse said he won't be able to match the Womack campaign financially.

"I understand that this is a long shot," he said recently.

Ryan Phipps, the pastor of Church in Bethesda, said he's not sure how Ryerse's message will be received in Arkansas' reddest congressional district.

"I'm guessing it's probably pretty conservative," he said. "You know, if you're in New York or D.C. or Massachusetts, it would probably be a lot easier."

But he expressed confidence in his friend and fellow minister.

"I believe in Robb as a person," Phipps said. "His values are good and his heart is good and I think it'd be cool to see someone like him in office."

Zeynab Day, a spokesman for Brand New Congress, said Ryerse stood out because of "those amazing ideals that he had."

"He said he definitely wanted to make change in the world and he felt like [this] would be a good place to start," she said.

While most of Brand New Congress' candidates are Democrats, the R behind Ryerse's name hasn't been an issue, she said.

"What we want to focus on is the problems and finding solutions to those, rather than the party labels," she added.

Metro on 11/06/2017

Print Headline: Progressive group backs 3rd District Republican

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