Sanders rouses progressive candidates with call to fight party establishments
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., addresses the Progressive Change Campaign Committee conference in Washington, D.C., April 12. | PCCC Facebook

WASHINGTON—Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., roused a crowd of hundreds of progressives running for political office—from county board to Congress—with a call to fight back against the political establishments of both parties.

“When we have the least-qualified president in our history and right-wing extremists in governors chairs, our job is to stand up, to fight back, to bring our brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors into the political process by providing hope,” he declared. “It is to transform America.”

Sanders keynoted the opening all-day session on April 12 of a 4-day D.C. conference and training for prospective candidates, organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Some 450 hopefuls, more than half of them women, 18 percent of them unionists, 40 percent people of color, and 20 percent LGBTQ, signed up.

And the union count doesn’t include those, such as two female county board hopefuls from Will County, Ill., and a congressional candidate from Nevada, whose fathers and grandfathers were unionists, or a third Will County candidate whose doctoral thesis was on how German and Irish immigrants created Chicago’s unions.

Most attendees are first-time hopefuls, motivated by either disgust at the GOP-run Congress and President Donald Trump, duplication of the right-wing agenda at the state and local levels, or local issues the hopefuls said veteran politicians don’t address, such as criminal justice reform, good roads, infrastructure, child care, and well-paying jobs.

In one example, Christina McNeil of Boise, Idaho, running for an open GOP-held House seat, was motivated to jump into the race when incumbent GOP Rep. Raul Labrador “looked me right in the eye” at a town hall “and told me ‘No one ever dies because they don’t have access to health care,’” after she questioned his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Labrador is now running for governor.

The crowd greeted her description of that Q-&-A with groans. Studies by Harvard Medical School calculate health insurers’ denial of payments for needed treatments cause 45,000 deaths yearly.

Methods covered in conference workshops included how to get your name out, “branding,” and having a coherent message; when and how to talk with the media (or not); recruiting and signing top campaign staffers; success on social media (some hopefuls have never used it); recruiting and mobilizing volunteers; and, of necessity, how to raise money.

Sanders was greeted with a roar, repeated chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” and interrupted frequently by applause and cheers—and occasional laughter for his jibes at the GOP, centrist Democrats, and political consultants. He also stated money is useful and needed, but that it’s no substitute for shoe leather.

“Watch out for consultants,” he warned. “There’s a large group of people, particularly here in Washington, who make zillions of dollars and often their advice is conservative, and wrong. Trust your heart.

“When I was first elected as mayor of Burlington [Vermont], I defeated a five-term mayor because I literally knocked on thousands and thousands of doors. The most important thing is face-to-face contact,” he said.

“Do not spend your entire lives raising money, as some here would have you do.”

Sanders, even more than the other speakers, pointed out that on issues, the country is increasingly with the progressives, including the issues he raised in his 2016 Democratic presidential primary campaign. Those ideas, such as Medicare for All, $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, free tuition at public colleges and universities, and the wipeout of college debt, were considered radical then.

Many in the Democratic Party, he claimed, waved them aside, or worse. But now, for example, his Medicare for All bill has 16 Senate Democratic co-sponsors and the $15 minimum wage—the Dems at the time were stuck on $10.10—now has 30 U.S. House sponsors. And he said the latest opinion poll shows 59 percent support for Medicare for All.

By contrast, a wide range of attendees reported consultants advising them not to run on progressive planks, not to campaign for the minimum wage increase or Medicare for All or gun control measures and—in some cases—not to even put a (D) on their signs. The attendees rejected that advice.

But it’s not just the GOP standing in the way of the progressives. In some cases, it’s the Democratic establishment. Just as in the close Lipinski-Newman congressional primary on Chicago’s Southwest Side and suburbs, Nevada 4th District hopeful Amy Vilela is taking on the state’s Democratic machine constructed by retired U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The daughter and granddaughter of Ironworkers also faces former Rep. Steven Horsford, who lost after one term, and State Sen. Patricia Spearman, among others, in the June 12 primary. Horsford is former director of the Culinary Arts Academy, sponsored by Unite Here Local 226, Nevada’s largest union.

Other speakers concentrated on common themes the progressives are pushing, while the PCCC provided talking points, issue papers, sample ways to recruit staffers and raise funds, and notes on how to network, including networking with each other.

One goal, PCCC leaders said, was to build a nationwide group of progressive elected officials who know each other and can trade ideas within states and across state lines.

A common theme is support for public education, highlighted by remarks from Cindy Ralston, who took time out from the continuing Oklahoma teachers’ strike to travel to D.C. for the sessions.

Ralston, an Oklahoma Education Association member and former 30-year teacher at the Broken Arrow school district, and now a substitute in Plaskell, is running against an anti-teacher, anti-worker incumbent in the 12th House District outside of Tulsa.

“We have been on the wrong path in education for a decade,” in the Sooner State, she said. “They took away our textbooks and we have had a 28 percent cut in education funding. We are not being heard. So 438 teachers called in sick, and the others are out marching.”

That led organizers to prompt the crowd to dial #OklaEd on their cell phones to support the striking Oklahomans—and they were quickly joined by #120strong for teachers calling in sick in Kentucky and #RedforEd for the Arizonan teachers who wore red to class to symbolize how their schools and districts were short of cash, too.

The three states cited in the hashtags, like Congress, are all Republican-run, and this year’s elections for legislatures in all three and governors in Oklahoma and Arizona are vital for both progressives and the nation as a whole, speakers said. That’s because officeholders elected this fall will not only be able to change the nation’s direction, but they can also reverse GOP repression of voting rights and—though speakers did not say so—control redistricting after the 2020 census.

That possibility led Sanders, after praising the progressives for successfully changing the national discussion on education, gun control, criminal justice reform, racism, economic inequality, workers’ rights, and other issues, to say the next goal must be to increase turnout this fall.

“Our second point is involving many millions of people in the political process in a way we’ve never seen in the history of the country,” he said.

“The establishment wants, #1, to push tax cuts for millionaires and a war agenda. And #2 is to tell you ‘politics are too complicated for you, so don’t get involved.’” And Republicans’ “idea of a good election is nobody votes and big money dominates.”

“But if you look at what my colleagues are doing, you realize anybody can run for anything. Just look at the president of the United States and know that you know more than he does on his best day,” the senator drolly said, to laughter from the crowd.

That prompted him to set a goal for the group: A vast increase in turnout this fall.

“Four years ago,” in the important 2014 off-year election, “we had the lowest turnout since World War II, 37 percent” and the GOP won big, he explained. “If we can go out and increase turnout of young people, people of color, and working people, by giving them hope, and get that up to 50 percent, virtually every single one of you will win your election,” he predicted.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.