Austin’s Sanders supporters are not Berned out

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Good day Austin:

On Saturday night, about 50 veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign, some of whom were at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, gathered in a room at Sholz Garten for a “Post-Philly conversation.”

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On Sunday, the campaign finally closed down its little Austin volunteer field office on East 6th Street.

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So the Sanders campaign is over.

Well, yes.

But the spirits of the Sanders’ folks remain high, and the campaign for the Sanders agenda will continue through a number of different organizations intended to support simpatico candidates at the local level.

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White board at Austin HQ

 

I have not been one who ever underestimated Sanders.

The First Reading I did on Sanders in April 2015, when he visited Austin while he was deciding whether to run for president – Sanders Wows Austin: Watch out Hillary, here comes Bernie – got many times more hits than any First Reading I’ve written. Many times more.

Nothing like a market metric to let you know when a socialist is resonating.

The premise of that First Reading was that Sanders was well set to give Clinton a run for her money.

Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, was in Austin for a couple of days last week, the tail end of a trip that took him to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, to see if there is the interest out here in America for him to run for president in 2016.

Sanders would be a novel candidate for the Democratic nomination for president because, for starters, he is not a Democrat, though he caucuses with them in the Senate. He is, in fact, the longest serving Independent in congressional history.

Also, he is an avowed socialist, unlike most Democrats, who are only accused socialists.

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Judging by his reception in Austin, Sanders will be running for president. And, for a number of reasons I’ll explain as we go along, I think Sanders could prove a problem for Hillary Clinton, especially in the early going.

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He doesn’t care about any of the gossipy, horse race, process kind of questions that dominate political coverage, and he makes you embarrassed you asked those questions. All he wants to talk about is what he wants to talk about – income inequality and the “grotesque and obscene” concentration of wealth and income in America. Voters – Democratic primary and caucus voters at any rate – will like that and it will keep him from being embroiled in the petty corruptions and distractions of hour-by-hour press coverage.

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He has been doing this oil-on-water, Brooklyn boy of the Green Mountains thing for decades with great success, by virtue, it seems, of changing almost nothing about his politics or his persona. His practice in Vermont does give him an edge in rural, small-town and working class Iowa and New Hampshire.

His being an Independent gives him the option of being as anti-Washington as Ted Cruz, but from the left, and his being an out socialist will comfort to the activist left that he won’t wilt on those commitments either in a general election or if he were elected.

And his not being Elizabeth Warren means he will generate less upfront excitement and attention and journalistic nit-picking, which is all good for sneaking up on Clinton.

 

 

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In Philadelphia, I did a  First Reading on Julie Ann Nitsch, a field organizer for the Sanders campaign in Austin and a Sanders delegate, who was feeling pretty alienated from the Democratic Party in Philly.

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Nitsch returned from Philadelphia, binge-watched the CW telenovela Jane the Virginit’s adorable – and attended a day-long seminar put on by Annie’s List, which trains, recruits and funds Democratic women candidates.

“At end the seminar I asked, “How do you know if you’re qualified?” The response: “With all due respect, that’s a very girlie question.”

In other words, cast aside your doubts and run. Nitsch, who was a student and staff at Austin Community College, is now a candidate for ACC trustee.

 

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Here she was Saturday night talking with Cliff Walker,  campaign services and candidate recruitment director. for the Texas Democratic Party, who has made it his mission to bring Sanders supporters into the fold.

 

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Does Nitsch plan to vote for Hillary Clinton?

“I’m going to vote. I can’t not vote.”

For Clinton?

“I believe Donald Trump is going to drop out. I don’t think Hilary Clinton is going to have any problem.”

There is an argument among some Sanders supporters that they only need to vote for Clinton in swing states. Elsewhere, they have the luxury of voting for someone else, like Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

“That’s a mistake,” said Daniel Fetonte, a retired labor organizer for the steel workers, the communications workers and CLEAT, the police officers’ union in Texas, who with his wife, Barbara, are the godfather and godmother of the Sanders campaign in Austin.

He said Sanders supporters need to back the ticket, “because of the program we fought for at the Democratic Convention. If  we walk away we won’t be fighting for that program. Also, it’s going to be a wave election so while we might not win the state we’ll pull in a whole lot of state representatives and state senators and that will help protect the state employees union, the teachers’ union.”

“To vote for a purer candidate who might be better on some issues is a serious mistake,” Fetonte said. “We have tremendous standing in the Democratic Party and we should work with the coordinated campaign. That means voting for an imperfect candidate for president.”

He thinks most Sanders supporters will vote for Clinton.

“If you want to vote for perfection, go live on a commune.”

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Sign in Lower Manhattan

 

The Sanders campaign also helped grow the socialist movement in Texas. Fetonte said there are now 266 members of the Democratic Socialists of America in Austin and almost 800 statewide. He said that 34 of the 75 Sanders delegates from Texas were DSA members.

“A lot of people are not scared of democratic socialism because of Bernie,” Fetonte said.

“One of the things about Bernie is he believes this stuff and he is totally honest about it and real ethical,” Fetonte said. “He would always tell us, `don’t attack other people.'”

“He didn’t expect to go as far as he did,” Fetonte said.

Barbare Fetonte said that being a Sanders delegate was the high point of her life.

“To represent Bernie Sanders, I hate that that’s the high point of my life, but right now I feel that it was,” she said.

The convention was an emotional roller coaster.

“I remember Monday feeling, she hasn’t got the nomination yet, what are these guys talking about?”

“And then I remember Monday, at the Bernie caucus, it was a high.”

But then many of the Sanders delegate booed their candidate when he called on them to back Clinton.

She saw the hurt in Sanders.

“I was upset with that. I felt like their mothers. You don’t boo this man.”

But didn’t the boos come out of a place of love for him?

“He didn’t see it that way. I don’t think he was ever able to convey to us what he had to do .”

But, in Barbara Fetonte’s view, the very best thing to come out of the Sanders campaign was Chau Ngo, the campaign’s 33-year-old Austin Regional field director – her vast territory encompassed 57 counties –  who she said brought incredible enthusiasm and ability to the campaign.

“She was the best thing about this campaign,” said Fetonte.

 

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Left to right, Chau Ngo, Daniel Fetonte, Barbara Fetonte, Liliana Mendoza-Pierce, at Sholz Garten

Chau, who grew up in Arlington, came to Austin 15 years ago to study astronomy, chemistry and Spanish at the University of Texas. Now, a divorced mother of two children – 9 and 11 – she remains one class shy of graduating with a degree in history and government.

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Barbara, Cardboard Bernie and Chau

 

“Everything has an end to it,” said Chau, as she finished emptying the tiny field office on East Sixth Sunday.

“If we had just closed it up after the primary it would have had a different feeling because there was just so much energy immediately afterward. And you saw for weeks after the election, about how people still came around wanting to talk about their experiences. We had people go to Ohio, Iowa, New York, California to canvass.

 

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Many of the volunteers were first-timers.

“I think they come out more knowledgeable overall. They learned a lot in the process. They got curious about something and that curiosity doesn’t stop.”

She thinks most will remain active though, “not necessarily political. It was a way for people to find a place. it was a starting point.”

Will most of the volunteers end up voting for Clinton?

“I don’t know. I would probably say most people who will be voting will end up voting for her.  But there are a sizable number who won’t. But I doubt they would have voted for her anyway. They were here for Bernie, not for the Democratic Party. I think it is a mistake for the party not to engage with those folks as much.”

Will she vote for Clinton?

“I am on the Dump Trump campaign, whatever that means, as long as Trump doesn’t make it to he presidency.”

Ngo is among the founders of Left Up to Us, a local organization of Sanders supporters who will back like-minded candidates, though Ngo is now throwing herself into her new job as an apprentice organizer for the Texas State Employees Association.

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Sanders is rolling out a few different new organizations to channel those energies, and will be launching one of those – Our Revolution – with hour-long national live stream the evening of August 24. Local Sanders supporters are setting up viewing events, including one Nitsch is planning at The Gatsby on East Sixth in Austin.

From a July 15 story by Nicole Guadiano in USA Today:

WASHINGTON — His presidential aspirations behind him, Bernie Sanders is looking ahead to a busy future in which he continues to focus on nothing less than transforming the Democratic Party and the country.

In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, the Vermont senator detailed plans to launch educational and political organizations within the next few weeks to keep his progressive movement alive. The Sanders Institute will help raise awareness of “enormous crises” facing Americans. The Our Revolution political organization will help recruit, train and fund progressive candidates’ campaigns. And a third political organization may play a more direct role in campaign advertising.

Sanders plans to support at least 100 candidates running for a wide range of public offices — from local school boards to Congress — at least through the 2016 elections. And he’ll continue to raise funds for candidates while campaigning for them all over the country. He said he probably will campaign for Tim Canova, a progressive primary challenger to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

“If we are successful, what it will mean is that the progressive message and the issues that I campaigned on will be increasingly spread throughout this country,” Sanders said. “The goal here is to do what I think the Democratic establishment has not been very effective in doing. And that is at the grass-roots level, encourage people to get involved, give them the tools they need to win, help them financially.”

Meanwhile, Jacob Limon, who was state director of the Sanders campaign in Texas, is launching Revolution Texas.

Some Sanders supporters, including Nitsch, are also involved in another new organization, Brand New Congress.

Here is its plan and here are some of the people involved.

And here is a very positive appraisal of it from D.D. Guttenplan in the Nation.

Nashville

“The Republicans I talk to don’t feel any more represented by their party than the Sanders Democrats,” says Corbin Trent. It’s a steamy night a few weeks after the California primary, in a hall belonging to Local 737 of the United Auto Workers. Bernie Sanders hasn’t yet endorsed Hillary Clinton, but even his most die-hard supporters know he isn’t going to be president. Trent, the founder of Tennessee for Bernie, is talking about the widening gap between Americans and the people who are supposed to represent us in Washington.

 “We have a Congress made up mostly of millionaires who spend all their time talking to each other,” he says. “Our country is becoming an oligarchy.”When Trent finishes, Zack Exley stands up. The people in the room are all Bernie volunteers, and Exley, a senior advisor to the Sanders campaign, begins by acknowledging their grief—and their frustration with the Vermont-based national campaign. “I was one of those people up in Burlington, and I want you to know you guys did 10 times what was required to win. In a whole bunch of ways, we let you down.”

Exley and Trent are a formidable double act. As the inventors of the “Bernie barnstorm”—a concentrated training session designed to turn green volunteers into the disciplined organizers who went on to build the biggest grassroots electoral movement this country has ever seen—they’ve been on the road since September. Exley, a tall, lean man with spiky silver hair and geeky glasses that make him look more like a film director than a veteran political operator, worked on Howard Dean’s pioneering campaign and then for MoveOn.org. A brilliant online organizer, he was chief revenue officer for the Wikimedia Foundation before joining the Sanders campaign—whose success in raising money from small donors proved that relying on corporate funding is a choice, not a necessity.

Trent is younger and more solid; with his calm good humor, he’d be an asset in a bar fight. He also seems less self-conscious—at least here in his home state, where his familiar accent and easy manner soften the radicalism of his message. While both Trent and Exley share their audience’s acute frustration with the outcome of a campaign that came tantalizingly close to victory, they’re in Nashville not to mourn, but to organize.

Their pitch is simple: Even if Sanders had won the nomination, and then the election, his ability to effect change—to bring about the political revolution—would have been severely limited by a dysfunctional Congress in thrall to corporate interests. So why not harness the energy, enthusiasm, national organization, and fund-raising muscle of the Sanders volunteers to elect a brand-new Congress—all at once, in 2018—committed to the same platform of greater economic equality, climate justice, civil rights, criminal-justice reform, and fair trade? Why not elect a Congress that not only looks like us—more women, more people of color—but that will actually work for us instead of for lobbyists and special interests?

This was the start of the Brand New Congress (BNC) campaign. “It sounds like a crazy idea,” admits Exley—and if anyone else were behind it, I’d probably agree. But in state after state, wherever I found Sanders volunteers phone-banking, canvassing, or holding Bernie Fest events to recruit their neighbors, when I asked how they managed to do so much with so little direction from the national campaign, the answer was always the same: “This guy Zack Exley came down for a couple of days…”

Wendy Sejour, a veteran of Florida progressive politics who got scores of volunteers onto the streets of Miami—right in Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s backyard—tells me: “We put out the word four to five days in advance. Found a local union hall. A hundred people showed up. Basically it’s just Corbin and Zack. They talked about what the campaign was doing, and how they wanted us to fit in.” With the national campaign focused on the four early states, the rest of the country was left to Exley and Trent’s “distributed organizing.” And while the national office can claim credit for Sanders’s stunning victory in New Hampshire, it lost Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina. Meanwhile, the volunteers went on to win another 22 primaries. Sejour has already signed on to BNC.

So when Exley says “I think we can do better than 40, 50 seats. I think we can pick up a couple of hundred seats,” I’m inclined to take him seriously. Because of what he’s already accomplished. And because of the numbers.

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I am dubious, for reasons outlined by Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine, and I am curious about Sanders’ take on something that seems way more audacious and unlikely is succeed than his own campaign was.

From a great distance, the news that volunteers associated with Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign are turning their attentions to the herculean task of organizing progressives for midterm elections would seem to be exciting news for all Democrats. Without question, the close alignment of the two parties with groups of voters who do (older white people) and don’t (younger and minority people) participate in non-presidential elections has been a big part — along with the normal backlash against the party controlling the White House — of the massive Republican gains of 2010 and 2014. The prospect of heightened midterm turnout from under-30 voters alone could be a big and important deal for the Donkey Party. 

But the closer you get to the Sandernistas’ Brand New Congress initiative — the new project by recently laid-off Bernie staffers to create a revolution in Congress beginning with the 2018 elections — the less it looks like the instrument for a difficult but achievable task and the more it looks like the product of a very strange set of beliefs about American politics. It’s not focused on boosting progressive turnout in general elections, but on recruiting and running candidates in Republican as well as Democratic primaries who meet a rigid set of policy litmus tests. The idea is very explicitly that people alive with the Bern can literally elect a “brand-new Congress” in one election cycle to turn public policy 180 degrees. Or so says key organizer Zack Exley:

We want a supermajority in Congress that is fighting for jobs, criminal justice reform and the environment,” Exley said. “Most Americans actually want that, and I think we get it by running Dems in blue areas, Republicans in deep red areas, and by running independents wherever we didn’t defeat incumbents.”

Republicans, too?

Corbin Trent, another former Sanders staffer, said bringing Republicans on board is “the key to it being a successful idea” and there’s enough overlap between Sanders’ platform and tea party conservatives to make the PAC’s goals feasible.

Reality television star Donald Trump’s current status as the Republican front-runner demonstrates that GOP voters are eager for candidates who, like Trump, criticize the corrupting influence of money in politics and the impact of free trade deals on American workers, Trent said.

This will allow Republicans to say ‘Yeah, I’m a Republican, but I believe climate change is real and I don’t believe all Muslims are terrorists,” he said. “It will allow people to think differently in the Republican Party if they want to pull away from the hate-based ideology.”

Yes, that was what I feared: The discredited notion that lefties and the tea party can make common cause in something other than hating on the Clintons and Barack Obama is back with a vengeance. And worse yet, Donald Trump — Donald Trump — is being touted as an example of a Republican capable of progressive impulses because he shares the old right-wing mercantilist hostility to free trade and has enough money to scorn lobbyists. Does your average Trump supporter really “believe climate change is real” and disbelieve that “all Muslims are terrorists”? Do Obamacare-hating tea-partiers secretly favor single-payer health care? Do the people in tricorn hats who favor elimination of labor unions deep down want a national $15-an-hour minimum wage? And do the very activists who brought the Citizens United case and think it’s central to the preservation of the First Amendment actually want to overturn it?

It’s this last delusion that’s the most remarkable. If there is any one belief held most vociferously by tea-party activists, it’s that anything vaguely approaching campaign-finance reform is a socialist, perhaps even a satanic, conspiracy. These are the people who don’t think donors to their political activities should be disclosed because Lois Lerner will use that information to launch income-tax audits and persecute Christians. The tea folk are much closer to the Koch brothers in their basic attitudes toward politics than they are to conventional Republicans. 

But there persists a sort of “tea envy” in progressive circles. Here’s Salon staff writer Sean Illing in a piece celebrating Brand New Congress:

Real change in this country will require a sustained national mobilization, what I’ve called a counter-Tea Party movement. While their agenda was nihilistic and obstructionist, the Tea Party was a massive success by any measure. And they succeeded because they systematically altered the Congressional landscape.

Well, you could say that, or you could say the tea party’s excesses cost Republicans control of the Senate in 2012, and produced an environment that’s made Donald Trump and Ted Cruz the GOP’s only two options for this year’s presidential nomination. Indeed, you can probably thank the tea party for the likelihood of a very good Democratic general election this November. 

But that will again produce excellent conditions for another Republican-dominated midterm in 2018. It sure would make sense for progressives to  focus on how to minimize the damage in the next midterm and begin to change adverse long-term turnout patterns. Expending time, money, and energy on scouring the earth looking for Republican primary candidates willing to run on a democratic-socialist agenda will not be helpful.

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What might have been

Of course, per the New England poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.” And, it is now painfully obvious that the dream team ticket for the Democrats this year was Bernie and Michelle.

Just look at the numbers.

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Seriously.

The personal chemistry would be fantastic – cranky old Jewish guy and ebullient young black woman.

She clearly gave the best speech at a convention of some very good speeches.

And for every argument against putting the First Lady on the national ticket, there is an effective rebuttal crafted by the Clintons.

In 1992, Bill Clinton said if you elected him you would “get two for the price of one.” The two he was talking about were the governor and first lady of Arkansas. Big deal. With Michelle you’d be getting the former president and first lady of the United States.

But, of course, Clinton has since padded her resume with that stint in the Senate and service as secretary of state. But all anyone remembers about her Senate career was her voting for the Iraq War and some Wall Street entanglements, and all anyone knows about her tenure as secretary of state is Benghazi and her private email server.

If Sanders had just an inch more political savvy, after the last primary he would have met with the Obamas, offered Michelle the vice presidency, and pried away a sizable number of super delegates, including much of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Could the socialist and the first lady have won? Running against Trump, could they lose?

And instead of the Obamas having to wreak havoc on the Kalorama neighborhood where they are moving when they leave the White House so Sasha can finish high school in D.C., the Obamas could simply have moved into BFF Joe Biden’s place at the Vice President’s residence at the Naval Observatory.

Oh well.

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