CHICAGO — Three thousand Bernie Sanders supporters gathered at a lakeside convention center in Chicago on the weekend of June 17–19. The People’s Summit, as the event was called, provided a space for activists to celebrate the Sanders campaign’s meteoric rise, lament how it narrowly missed upending the Clinton machine in the race for the Democratic nomination and most of all to plot the future of a “political revolution” that will have to continue on after the Sanders 2016 campaign officially expires.
The People’s Summit opened one day after Sanders appealed via livestream to supporters across the country to mount thousands of campaigns for local, state and federal offices and transform the Democratic Party from within. A similar message was on offer at the People’s Summit.
“Heroes aren’t made. They’re cornered,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, the union that played a leading role in organizing the event.
During one breakout session called “The Down Ballot Movement Strategy for Political Revolution,” a facilitator asked a packed room of 180 people “How many people here will run for elective office in your community within the next few years?”
Thirty to forty people stood up.
When asked who would help work on a campaign where they live, almost everyone else in the room was on their feet.
The next wave of a populist insurgency that Sanders has been the face of for the past year was declaring itself.
Will an over-emphasis on electoral politics diminish the upsurge in social movement activity (Occupy, Black Lives Matter, climate justice, $15 minimum wage, etc.) of the past five years that helped fuel the Sanders campaign? Will the necessary small donor support materialize for myriad down-ballot campaigns in the way it did for Sanders’ high-profile run for the presidency?
To the extent there are local breakthroughs, will the pragmatic concerns of governance diminish the aspirational vision of a better world that made the Sanders campaign such a vital force? And regardless of local victories, is it truly possible to transform a national party that remains firmly in the grip the 1 percent?
Sanders and his supporters have disproven so many nay-sayers during the past year so who is to say what are the limits of the possible?
In much of the country the Democratic Party is an empty shell. Its pretends to be “the party of the little person.” Yet, it caters to the interests of its wealthy donors, outraging many of its rank-and-file members. Given this, the thinking goes, why not try to “occupy the party” while keeping up the pressure for change from outside the electoral process as well?
It’s what the New Right did in successive waves after the defeats of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in his first White House run in 1976. By 1980 the New Right was not only in position to take over the Republican Party but gained sway over the country for the next 30 years.
Whether such an approach can be successful for the Millennial Left remains to be seen. Still, thousands of ordinary people inspired by the Sanders campaign are determined to try and make the political revolution where they live. Here are stories of five such individuals this reporter spoke with at the People’s Summit. Their accounts were condensed and edited for length and clarity.
New York, NY
I was always interested in social justice. My family fled a civil war in Bangladesh. Right after the invasion of Iraq when I was 12, my father was racially profiled and arrested and my family who were living in Texas got death threats and had their houses egged.
In 2014 I was doing climate justice work and was a part of Flood Wall Street. I was also involved with the Black Lives Matter movement and was a part of shutting down bridges and the Black Friday event where we shut down the Macy’s on 34th Street.
When you’re in the streets participating in these movements, you can see how disgusting the establishment can be and feel like there’s no way to influence them. Charles Lenchner and Winnie Wong of People for Bernie showed me you can do direct action protests and have a really good strategy and theory of change when it comes to electoral politics.
I co-founded the Millennials for Bernie Facebook page and started incorporating my story and other young people’s stories who are getting involved. Our page reaches 6.7 million people per day and we get thousands of shares. I’m also an admin for the Bernie Sanders dank meme stash, which has a half-million young followers.
We coordinated online campaigns and also got people to start meeting and doing more things offline. In Bushwick we did a t-shirt screening party where you could bring a t-shirt and have a Bernie logo put on it. We did a voter appreciation day where we got in touch with bars that agreed to give a discount to people who had their voter sticker on, or if they had a Bernie sticker on.
I will be going to the Democratic National Convention as a Sanders delegate from New York. I’m looking forward to it and really nervous. Everybody keeps talking about Chicago 1968 and I’m googling that and like, “Is that what’s going to happen?” Whatever happens, I hope it’s something good for our movement like getting our issues in the platform and setting the tone of the general election.
I’m a huge supporter of getting involved locally, which I don’t think most people have done. I would really like to see more communities of people of color become involved in the progressive movement. I think it’s really important for children of immigrant parents to start being involved. I think our work should be with those communities. We need to go knocking door-to-door with our values and bring these people into our movement.
Small Business Owner
DuPage County, Illinois
I’m a business owner and a socialist. I run a small carpet cleaning business that cleans restaurants. My mom was an activist in the atheist movement and my grandfather was the mayor of Lombard, Illinois. Both of them installed in me a deep sense of humanitarian responsibility. But it wasn’t until Bernie Sanders’ run for president that I took a leadership role in my community.
DuPage County for Bernie Sanders began organizing in August 2015. At first it was a handful of us putting flyers on people’s doors about Bernie. DuPage County encompasses the northwest suburbs of Chicago and has more than 900,000 residents. We have grown to become a regional network with 10-15 core organizers and hundreds of active volunteers down to the precinct level that has basically gained leverage over the local Democratic Party.
We have barely spent a dime. We are a word-of-mouth group. We go door to door. We make phone calls. We show up at festivals, parades, the train station. We have our meetings at the College of Dupage cafeteria, which is open to the public 24/7. The local Democratic Party just had a golf outing at the country club. That’s not us.
Bernie won in DuPage with 52% of the vote and candidates are starting to realize they not only have to go to the township meetings of their local Democratic Parties, they need to go to our meetings and reach out to us.
Some people in the Democratic Party want us to collect signatures, knock on doors, make phone calls for all their candidates. But if a candidate doesn’t have a truly progressive platform — $15 minimum wage, universal health care, racial justice, immigration reform, serious action on climate change — then we can’t support them as a group. And if we can’t endorse anybody for a position, then so be it. We will run somebody from our group next cycle.
This year we will have Bernie-crat candidates running for county auditor, county recorder and forest preserve commissioner. Me and a colleague of mine have been discussing lately running for State House and State Senate in 2018 but will consult with our group first.
I believe the Sanders movement will make the most headway in red states and counties like ours where the Democratic Party is weaker, there’s room to grow and they need us more than we need them. It’s an excellent opportunity to take over your local Democratic Party at the county level so that you can then exert influence over state-level Democrats, then move up the chain. A lot of people are upset our guy isn’t going to win the presidency. But they have to understand it’s a long game. It’s going to come in waves. But we have to keep the momentum going.
I have worked as a nurse at the Watsonville Community Hospital for 11 years. We are an agricultural community and the majority of our patients speak Spanish only. I have been involved in my union at the hospital advocating for patient and worker rights but wasn’t particularly active before this campaign.
I first got to hear Bernie Sanders speak when my union endorsed him last August. What stood out to me the most was that he answered the questions that people asked him. I was like, “This is my guy. This is the politician I’ve been wanting to have happen.”
I did most of my door-to-door canvassing for Bernie in Watsonville. Talking to people in the community, it was less about me telling them about the issues but hearing what was important to them about what was going on in their lives. They were worried about their jobs and if I mentioned that I was a nurse they were like, “I don’t know how to afford health care.”
It was through my union that I ran as a delegate candidate and was elected to be a delegate from California’s 20th congressional district. It means I can be a voice for all the people I work with and the people I represent in my community. If Bernie can win the nomination, great. But I’m pretty clear on how things are looking right now so my hope is that we can have a civil discourse and come out with a platform that actually includes the needs of the people of this country.
I’ve always felt connected to my community. When I go shopping at Target, I run into people I’ve cared for there. But now I feel so much more invested and connected to the individuals in the community. I’ve been to their homes, I’ve talked to them, I’ve seen their kids play out in the front yard. I have this feeling of these are my people and I’m theirs.
I don’t think I will be stepping back after this. I’m looking at our city council and county supervisors and realizing how ignorant I’ve been about local politics. I want to support the people who consistently come out and help us and when it’s necessary call to account those officeholders who aren’t doing what they promised.
Our local politicians are people just like us. Some of them may have more advantages than others. But they’re still human beings. And if they’re human beings, that means any other human being within their constituency could step forward as well. It could be me. That’s kind of an eye-opening realization.
Special Education Teacher
New York, NY
I work at the Mickey Mantle School in Harlem. My life changed three years ago when Eva Moskowitz tried to use her political clout to throw us out of the building that we shared with one of her Success Academy charter schools.
That was my enough-is-enough moment. I got a crash course in organizing: who to call, what to do, what to say at a press conference. Before that, I had been this quiet, politically apathetic teacher who went home and had her miserable life. That changed everything for me. I got divorced, have amazing new friends, totally different circles.
As someone who took out student loans and has a hefty debt, I started following Elizabeth Warren and her fight in Congress over student loan debt. I helped MoveOn organize a couple of events in New York for Warren and did a pretty good job and was later invited to join the group that became People for Bernie. I started doing social media for them. I did the first Brooklyn meet-up where new volunteers had a chance to meet up and begin networking. I later organized another one at Union Square that drew a little over 300 people.
I helped organize a march and rally at the end of January and a large one in April that drew 15,000 people. It was a beautiful thing. I will be in Philadelphia as an alternate delegate. I will be on the floor of the convention and if another female Sanders delegate from New York drops out or has to leave the floor for more than 10 minutes, I will fill their position.
I want to see true democracy in action. I want us to have the opportunity to vote on measures like going to open primaries and know if we lose it’s because more people voted “No,” not because the powers that be decided the matter. And I’m glad Bernie is taking the fight all the way to the convention. He made a promise to people that he was going to see this through and not back down.
I’ve filled out the online questionnaire for people who are interested in running for office in the future. Nothing ever happens if you stay quiet. It’s a matter of timing and when a seat opens up. Between different advocacy groups and the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club I am a member of, they all want me to run for office at some point so we’ll see.
Recently Quit Job at Hedge Fund
Los Angeles, California
I grew up in a neighborhood in Los Angeles where most of my friends and neighbors didn’t have a lot but had enough to get by. I was raised by a single mother who took care of myself and my siblings and made sure we went through school and found good jobs.
I used to work for a hedge fund but I quit my job in May because in Bernie Sanders I saw for the first time in my life a politician who truly cares about working and middle class people and especially the poor which is what I see everyday in LA. I volunteer to feed the homeless. I buy families food, I give coats to the homeless. But this was the time I decided to say, “Enough is enough” and run for Congress on Bernie’s platform.
I started in April and had to enter as a write-in candidate. It’s difficult when you’re not on the ballot, but I had a team of 100 people volunteering every day on my campaign phone banking, texting, doing door-to-door canvassing, greeting people outside the subway. I raised almost $4,000 in small donations. The incumbent Xavier Becarra raised $13,000 in small donations and $1.2 million from Super PACs, lobbyists and other special interests.
I won’t know my vote tally until the counting is finished in July. I don’t think I made it to the top two in the primary and thus won’t be on the ballot in November which is how it’s done in California. Right now I’m taking time to enjoy being with my family. I’m looking to use my knowledge in finance to go to work for a nonprofit or maybe for Los Angeles County overseeing budget spending.
I had a chance to ask Bernie a question during a televised town hall meeting about what advice he would give someone like me who is just starting to run for office. He looked me in the eye and told me I should go out and feel the pain in my community and then have the guts to stand up to people in power.
I’m definitely running for Congress again in 2018. I will be very well-organized and will be on the ballot. I think I can win. I have had kids who haven’t even finished high school who want to help and they want to run for Congress someday too. I think it’s going to become a trend in the next couple of years with people stepping up to the plate, especially young people. I wouldn’t say it’s the cool new thing to do. It’s the thing that needs to happen in order for this country to move forward.