Bern notice: Can a grassroots effort have an effect on the election?

People who attended the Bernie Sanders rally Saturday, February 27, on the Downtown Mall, painted each other’s faces during the festivities. Photo: Ryan Jones People who attended the Bernie Sanders rally Saturday, February 27, on the Downtown Mall, painted each other’s faces during the festivities. Photo: Ryan Jones

Bernie Sanders is standing in Nour Sulaiman’s living room. That is, a life-sized cardboard cutout of the senator dressed in a suit and tie has taken up residence in the far corner of the UVA fourth-year’s home.

A friend dropped off the likeness for the February 27 Sanders rally that was held—where else?—near the Free Speech Wall on the Downtown Mall, organized by two local grassroots organizations: Charlottesville and Central Virginia for Bernie Sanders and UVA for Bernie Sanders.

Two days before the rally, Sulaiman, one of the organizers of UVA for Bernie Sanders, along with several Sanders’ supporters, painted the Beta Bridge with a message directing people downtown. The goal was to draw as many people as possible to listen to local speakers talk about why they support the independent socialist democratic senator from Vermont to be president of the United States.

Even though he trails former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in delegates (65 to her 91; or 85 to 544 counting superdelegates, those who can vote any way at the Democratic National Convention) Sanders’ supporters say he has a higher percentage of the popular vote. They also say polls showing Clinton has a large lead in most of the 11 state primaries, including Virginia, on Super Tuesday, March 1, can be unreliable, especially if first-time millennial voters turn out, a generation Sanders has largely captured with his platform of free tuition to public colleges and universities. Up for grabs in Virginia are 95 delegates (and 15 superdelegates) that are split proportionally based on percentage of the vote.

The cutout isn’t the only preparation that’s been done to spur Sanders to a win in not only Charlottesville but Virginia as a whole on Super Tuesday. These two groups have been active since the summer and fall, first working to get Sanders on the Democratic presidential candidate ballot—grassroots groups across the state collected 17,882 signatures, 300 percent more than the 5,000 required.

In the last few days leading up to our local election, the focus is on reaching as many potential voters as they can, to inform them of their polling locations and the date of the election, and to answer any questions they have about Sanders’ platform.

Kurt Schlegel, a volunteer, works on the campaign full-time at the moment, mostly through canvassing, 12-hour days if needed. He believes he’s knocked on more doors than anyone else in the state—at least 1,500.

When canvassing he likes to have a conversation with the people he meets, his neighbors, because he says a lot of them have concerns similar to his.

“I’m just glad to help out,” he says. “Somebody’s got to do it.”

Getting organized

A Bernie Sanders volunteer inspects a neighborhood turf map that outlines one of the canvassing areas. Photo: Ryan Jones
A Bernie Sanders volunteer inspects a neighborhood turf map that outlines one of the canvassing areas. Photo: Ryan Jones

After Sanders officially announced his candidacy in May 2015, grassroots efforts throughout the country started mobilizing. Charlottesville and Central Virginia for Bernie held its kick-off event, Stand with Bernie, in July at Firefly. Sanders spoke in a live webcast during the event, and supporters began throwing out ideas on how to spread the word about the senator. One of those attendees was retired political scientist David RePass, who eventually also helped a representative from the official campaign find space for the local Sanders field office, which opened underneath the Water Street parking garage February 10. For his part, RePass has spoken about Sanders—from people’s living rooms to an official talk just last week to the Democratic party chairs in Augusta, Waynesboro and Staunton. He also attended the opening of the field office, and said it was packed “to the ceiling—you couldn’t move.”

Nic McCarthy was manning the door during opening night—greeting everyone as they arrived. He got involved in the grassroots effort circuitously through the Black Lives Matter and Allow Debate movements. He had attended protests for both, and some local grassroots people recognized him and mentioned the Sanders group. McCarthy had seen Sanders in person when he spoke at Trinity Episcopal Church in May, but he was unimpressed.

“I didn’t believe him, I guess. He just seemed like another guy, which is something he combats,” McCarthy says. “He doesn’t speak in a folksy way.”

It wasn’t until months later, when he started seeing Bernie memes on Facebook and reading more about the senator’s viewpoints that he found a candidate he wanted to support.

“What I like about Bernie Sanders, he points out things that are common sense when he says them, but it’s like I feel like I never thought about that before,” he says. “Like why isn’t election day a national holiday? People have to find an hour [to vote] and work, and that disproportionately affects the working class.”

He missed the first local grassroots gathering last summer, but attended subsequent meetings. He estimates that hundreds of people are involved with the local grassroots effort, with a core of about a dozen to two dozen people consistently involved.

Sanders supporters also attended statewide grassroots meetings. At the three meetups held last summer they talked about how to organize in their local communities, how to create a structure so they could be more effective statewide, and a campaign official attended one of the meetings in Richmond to help with organization as well. They decided to create a centralized place to share information—using Facebook and Slack, a messaging app that can also store documents. But the technology options posed an intergenerational problem, when older group members were not able to figure out how to use Slack. They wondered would e-mails work better? Phone calls?

“We were learning a lot of things for the first time,” McCarthy says.

Before Sanders was on the ballot, a lot of the group’s efforts were focused on reaching out to community leaders (referred to as grass-tops) and organizations to share information about him. McCarthy remembers getting phone calls from City Council members during his morning shift cooking at the Jefferson Area Board for Aging. He works part-time in the mornings now and volunteers full-time on the campaign until late at night.

After Sanders was on the ballot, the official campaign’s statewide director wanted the group to focus on phone banking, McCarthy says. The local chapter met about once a week—often holding meetings in the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library main branch—to talk about other ways people could get involved, whether making a poster or brainstorming ways to organize better.

“It was really important to me that we try to be as participatory as possible, to engage as many people as possible,” McCarthy says.

In the last few weeks the local campaign office, which has one employee, Central Virginia field organizer Dan Epstein, has served as the hub of activity. Volunteers have staffed the office in shifts—there’s always someone manning the front door—and phone banking and canvassing have taken place at regular daily intervals. Large-scale maps of city streets and voting districts are colored in bright highlighters to denote where the districts are and which ones the group has already canvassed. On opening night, volunteers wrote on Post-Its what they needed to equip the office, and whoever could bring in that item took the Post-It with them. There is also a makeshift wall calendar created out of blue painter’s tape in which volunteers’ shifts are scheduled via Post-It notes as well. The temporary scheduling system makes sense—everything in the office will be moved out March 2.

The UVA for Bernie Sanders group started in true grassroots fashion—Sulaiman and three other students founded it in September and started putting up fliers around campus to advertise their meetings. She says they’re now 200 strong, with about 50 active members, who have gotten together to watch the debates, as well as phone bank and canvass.

“We have one of the most active groups in Virginia, if not the most active group, according to the campaign,” she says.

One of the founders, Rich Olszewski, a third-year UVA law student, drafted a petition asking the university to either give students the day off on election day or encourage leniency in attendance and not schedule tests on those days. They submitted the petition, with 555 student signatures, to President Teresa Sullivan last week; even if the university takes months to review it, the group hopes its petition will be approved for future elections.

“We wanted to encourage students to just go out and vote for whoever they want,” Sulaiman says. “We think it’s necessary for a democracy to flourish to have people of all ages voting in all kinds of elections, including local elections.”

The week before Super Tuesday Sulaiman estimates she is spending about 25 hours a week on the campaign and organizing the rally.

“There are a certain number of folks who are intimidated by being politically active, and I think a certain number, maybe just as many, find it cheesy, hokey, and it’s really important to overcome those feelings,” Olszewski says. “This campaign is sincere, authentic, it’s the real deal. There’s nothing manufactured about people’s passion and enthusiasm for Bernie.”

One month before Super Tuesday

Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy speaks before a packed room and introduces Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe during the Thursday, February 25, opening of the Hillary Clinton field office behind the Ming Dynasty restaurant on Emmet Street. Photo: Ryan Jones
Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy speaks before a packed room and introduces Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe during the Thursday, February 25, opening of the Hillary Clinton field office behind the Ming Dynasty restaurant on Emmet Street. Photo: Ryan Jones

Schlegel is 20 minutes from Ames, Iowa, in a small town called McCallsburg. It’s 8 o’clock at night, pitch black save for the blinking cell tower lights miles away. He has a list of 15 doors he needs to knock on—in days the town’s residents will be participating in the February 1 Iowa caucus.

There’s snow on the ground, and at some point during his canvassing over the last few days he took a photo of a thermometer outside: 18 degrees. You get used to the cold, he says.

He parks his truck at the bottom of the driveway of a farmhouse and starts walking toward the home. He searches for a path to the main entrance but can’t find one. He thinks to himself, “I don’t want to get shot in Iowa in the freezing cold, thousands of miles away from home and nobody even knows where I am.”

Schlegel saw Sanders speak in September at UVA’s Miller Center. Even though he arrived two hours early, Schlegel still was unable to snag one of the 125 or so seats inside. Sanders came out after taping “American Forum” and spoke for about five minutes. The buzz was electric, Schlegel says.

This encounter motivated Schlegel to get involved for the first time in a presidential campaign. He did a little phone banking for the local grassroots efforts but quickly found he wasn’t much of a phone talker. He read on Facebook about a call for volunteers for the Iowa caucuses and tried to recruit others to go with him, with no luck. So it was just him and his dog, Gus Burger, who drove the 1,047 miles to Ames to start knocking on doors for Sanders (Gus visited 250 doors with his owner). Schlegel slept in a friend’s basement during the hours he wasn’t canvassing. He estimates he knocked on 400 doors in Iowa, a dedication that led Schlegel to be invited to a volunteer rally with Sanders the day before the caucuses—he even got to shake Bernie’s hand.

But back in McCallsburg, Schlegel is headed down the driveway. After walking 300 feet, he looks up at the house. This is the only house for miles. He has to knock on this door. He sees that the driveway goes to the back of the house and he knocks tentatively on the door. “Bernie!” a woman exclaims as she opens the door.

“It’s a revelation,” he says. “You don’t necessarily feel like you’re going to go out in the middle of nowhere and meet these people who feel the way you do.”

The woman who answers the door says she is an avid Bernie supporter and thinks she can get her husband on board, too.

The next morning campaign organizers tell Schlegel they ran some numbers and they need one more voter in McCallsburg. He calls everyone he met the day before—including Olive, the 84-year-old Clinton supporter who said she was undecided after talking with Schlegel. He calls the farmhouse woman and asks if she will pick up Olive and drive her to the caucus. He says she has five blocks on the way to sell her on Bernie.

Later that day he gets a text from the woman, who wanted to let him know she got two more people—one more than they needed.

When he returned to Charlottesville, Schlegel was initially disappointed—there were no TV ads, no banners everywhere, and the local field office hadn’t opened yet. But now, in the last few days before Super Tuesday, this is what Iowa was like, he says. A few days ago he even drove to Richmond to help canvass there.

Win or lose on Super Tuesday, Schlegel will continue being involved with the grassroots effort. A couple of friends he made in Iowa are in South Carolina now, but plan to go to North Carolina for the primary next weekend.

“Once you get your feet wet it’s like quicksand in this campaign and you don’t want to leave,” Schlegel says. “You can’t walk away because you get committed. It’s great.”

The rally

Rally signs included homemade ones with slogans such as “Feel the Bern” and “Keep $ out of politics.” Photo: Ryan Jones
Rally signs included homemade ones with slogans such as “Feel the Bern” and “Keep $ out of politics.” Photo: Ryan Jones

At noon on Saturday, February 27, weeks of planning come to fruition.

As the band Das Homage plays, someone holds up the Sanders cutout behind the Free Speech Wall, and bounces the senator’s smiling face in time to the music. After the set, Bernie is returned to his spot leaning against a lamppost by the stage, where supporters flock to take selfies with the senator.

McCarthy, one of the main rally organizers, grabs the mic and steps on the small stage, upon which leans a black-and-white poster of Sanders being arrested during a civil rights protest. McCarthy asks the crowd, which is decked out in Bernie shirts, hats and even face paint, if they’re ready to “feel the Bern,” and comments on how there are fewer supporters at this rally than the one January 30, due to the final Get Out the Vote push happening over the weekend. He urges supporters to stick around after the rally and sign up for phone banking or canvassing shifts.

Speakers include Sulaiman, one of the rally organizers, as well as a local activist who supports Sanders’ desire to end fracking, and a living wage campaign organizer who speaks about his support of the $15 minimum wage. Rally attendees are invited to share why they support Sanders in 30 seconds or less. From high school students to baby boomers, each person has a different reason. A Fredericksburg Sanders campaign volunteer likes the senator’s support of universal health care. “The cause is right and the time is now!” the crowd chants as he leaves the stage.

A local reenactor who plays Thomas Jefferson’s master builder, James Densmore, speaks to the crowd on Jefferson’s behalf: “Mr. Sanders represents what Jefferson called the natural aristocracy, the middle class,” he says.

And a high school student says she supports Bernie because her generation will be the one battling the effects of climate change, and “he’s the only candidate that’s going to deal with that and turn that around.”

“Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!”
McCarthy and the crowd chant in call-and-response.

Afterward, the group parades down the mall. They shout several refrains about Sanders, while onlookers snap photos or stop to watch. One gives the group two thumbs down as they pass—democracy in action.

Once assembled back at the Free Speech Wall, Lee White, who moved to Charlottesville in 2014 from England, spurs the rally attendees to be involved as much as they can in the final push before Super Tuesday. Although he can’t vote in this election, he’s been an active grassroots member since that first meeting last summer.

“We know where his heart is at, this guy is just fighting for all of us, for a better world basically,” he tells the group. “I have an absolute burning desire to do something here, to make something happen. Every single person that is here, every single person who is out there who might vote for Bernie is important. What if on Tuesday night we’re all sitting around the TVs watching returns come in for Virginia and it’s almost there. What if we can just do a little bit more this weekend?”

One last push

UVA for Bernie Sanders founder Nour Sulaiman paints Beta Bridge with other supporters February 25 to promote Saturday’s rally. Photo: Ryan Jones
UVA for Bernie Sanders founder Nour Sulaiman paints Beta Bridge with other supporters February 25 to promote Saturday’s rally. Photo: Ryan Jones

After the rally, the Bernie cutout is moved to the front room of the field office. It’s propped against an office window, along with the myriad colorful signs that have sprouted up in the last few weeks. About a dozen rallygoers sit in the main room, receiving canvassing training from Kimberly Stevens. She’s showing them how to download the MiniVAN app, which they can use to track their canvassing results instead of paper.

McCarthy leads a team–including Evan Brown, Mallory Napier and Mark Soechting—to turf districts 14 and 16 in the Walker neighborhood. As the group leaves the mall, McCarthy stops to put a $20 bill and a $1 bill in an open guitar case of the Buskers for Bernie. Along the walk, past the 250 bypass, up Park Street to North Avenue, he gives the team some pointers on canvassing. He, too, says it should be more of a conversation and you always want to leave a positive impression on a potential voter.

McCarthy knocks on the first few houses while the group watches.

Most people are not home, courtesy of the nice weather that day, McCarthy surmises. If no one answers, they leave a door hanger and pamphlets with information on Sanders and how to vote. Eventually the group splits into two, dividing the turfs up to perform the canvassing faster.

Out of about 20 stops in the neighborhood, 25 percent are confirmed Sanders supporters. One woman says she’s undecided and engages the group in a conversation about Sanders’ stance on several issues.

Three hours later, during the return trip to downtown, the conversation turns toward Sanders’ potential running mate. There’s also talk of who the Republican candidate will be and if Clinton would be able to beat Trump, should they both win the nominations. They all say Sanders is the best candidate to defeat any Republican candidate.

There’s a Super Tuesday watch party at South Street Brewery, followed by a volunteer recognition event the next day. What will the atmosphere at those events be like if Sanders doesn’t win—will the effort have been worth it?

“Even if he doesn’t seem like he’s winning after Super Tuesday, I think he’s going to stay in because he still represents a real core. He represents the millennial vote, and they’re arguing he’s going to stay all the way to the convention and really push for these issues,” McCarthy says. “In terms of politics I think we’re in a really transformative time, and this is just the beginning.”

This article went to press the morning of Super Tuesday, when the primary election results were unknown.

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