Bernie Sanders’ Tallahassee grass roots

 20150625_190350Tallahassee — August 13, 2015

Bernie Sanders is doing something that was unimaginable to many – he’s leading Hillary Clinton in a poll in a key state. Sanders tops Clinton 44 to 37 percent among New Hampshire voters, according to a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll. The Hill called the results stunning.

Although the New Hampshire primary is six months away, Sanders is looking less like a protest candidate and more like a legitimate challenger to Clinton, who according to a CNN poll, 57 percent of voters find untrustworthy.

I’ve been watching Sanders’ growing campaign because of an interest in grass-roots politics. Two weeks ago I walked into the Leon Count Public Library and found myself emceeing a meeting of more than 70 Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

I had intended to write about Tallahasseans participating in Sander’s national meet-up but the local organizer for the July 29 event had about 30 minutes to fill before Sanders would speak to his followers via an Internet hookup and asked if I would like to entertain a captive audience.

Why not? I’ve been taking notes on Sanders’ growing popularity among Tallahassee progressives. I recognized many of the folks in the crowd from my reporting, we’ve made good radio over the years when I had hosted talk shows. And I thought, maybe it was a chance to reconnect with my roots.

I’m between jobs and muddling through an existential crisis writers and drama queens so enjoy. The mix of gray-ponytailed baby boomers, college students and office workers has been my audience while I pursued a career out of a variety of radio, television and magazine jobs. And their get-together was civic engagement at the street level – exactly what intrigues me about our political system.

The library meeting was one of two Tallahassee meet-ups and among the more than 3,000 meetings nationwide attended by about 100,000 Sanders’ supporters.

When addressing the groups via an Internet feed Sanders called the national meet-up as the start of a “political revolution” that will produce a strong grass roots movement in all 50 states.

“When we stand together there is nothing, nothing, nothing that we can not accomplish,” Sanders said as the library crowd erupted with applause and hoots.

“We need your help to knock on doors, your help to make phone calls, we need your help to talk to your brothers and sisters, your coworkers your family members, need your help to produce events. When we do that we will make history in November 2016,” said Sanders.

In north Florida, the Sanders’ revolution had a modest beginning on the street where I live. A neighbor and his friend hosted a meeting of Sanders’ supporters at the end of May and six other people showed up.

Pat Fowler had bought a couple six packs and three pizzas for the gathering and after a two-hour meeting people left his house with pizza and beer and Fowler still had leftovers for a late-night snack.

The first order of business at the May meeting was to decide whether the group was a bunch of Don Quixotes dreaming an impossible dream. A couple veterans of Lawton Chiles’ 1992 people’s campaign erased the doubts by recalling how Chiles’ path to the governor’s mansion was built on $5 and $10 contributions and the free publicity a people’s campaign generated.

“Okay, I’m in,” said Ron Saff a physician and well-known Capital City environmentalist.

The national storyline is that Sanders is drawing bigger more enthusiastic crowds earlier than any previous presidential candidate. His momentum is driven by a digital revolution making available tools previous insurgents did not have and the work of supporters who believe he is authentic – a straight talker with a consistent record.

The Internet and social media enable Sanders’ national campaign to organize a nation-wide meeting and local volunteers to publicize and participate in the event at minimal cost. In Florida activists are weaving a statewide network of clubs and groups thanks to Facebook, Twitter and email.

Big Bend Sanders’ supporters held a second meeting in early June and it attracted about 18 mostly white middle-aged (50+) men to a Mexican restaurant. Also in attendance was Landon Glover a Wakulla County resident and Tallahassee Community College student who had started a Bernie Sanders Facebook group, website and campus group.

Landon Glover has weaved a network of Sanders' chapters at five Florida universities

Landon Glover has weaved a network of Sanders’ chapters at five Florida universities

By the end of June, Glover’s network of Sanders’ supporters included more than 150 activists in five cities and was coordinating activities with Sanders groups at Florida Atlantic and Florida State universities, and the universities of Florida and Central Florida as well as New College of Florida.

“Bernie is different,” said the 22-year old Glover. “He is someone who will actually tell you what he believes and that is attractive to my generation so it’s just a different politics that I can get behind.”

Brian Lupiani, a retired Florida State University bureaucrat, had organized the May meeting and had met Glover during a June First Friday event, Tallahassee’s monthly street party, and the two agreed to coordinate their group’s activities into a two-prong North Florida/Big Bend campaign; bringing together young and old, student and retiree.

The older men hope the Glover group’s youth and energy will fuel a viable Sanders’ Florida campaign. The two groups bonded over dinner and established common ground on income inequality, environmental concerns, and the need for a jobs program and support for education.

“What we are here for tonight is to work on electing Bernie President of the United States, “ Lupiani said to start the discussion. “And win or lose on that to begin a movement locally on his and our agenda to make some important changes in the economy and the environmental policies of this nation.”

The group decided it would work at the local level to counter the national narrative that an Independent Senator from Vermont and self-described Socialist could not win the Democratic Presidential nomination.

The third meeting held June 25 attracted 32 people and for the first time it was not all white.  On the activists minds that evening was a NBC Wall Street Journal poll showing 95 percent of non-white Democratic voters say they are likely to support Hillary Clinton.

A stereotype of a Sanders’ supporter is a Volvo-driving, financially comfortable white guy.

Sanders' supporters tend to be older white people

Sanders’ supporters tend to be older white people

“We need to get some black participation in this group,” said Pat Fowler who had hosted the May meeting and is assisting Lupiani. “Nearly 50 percent of the Capital City is black. We need minority outreach or he’s going to have problems.”

Sanders is making efforts to broaden his support beyond white baby boomers. During the national meet up he used the tag line “enough is enough” when calling for policies to reverse the decline of the middle class, end predatory interest rates, increase the minimum wage and called attention to cases of blacks dying after encounters with the police.

Sanders’ Tallahassee supporters decided to host two events for the July national meet-up. Glover headed up an outdoors event in the arts district between the two universities. It attracted more than 200 people, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Democrat photos showed mostly white, older people.

Lupiani organized an in-door meeting at the library that attracted more than 70 people and included a few Latinos and blacks. That was the group to whom I spoke. I had one question, why are you here? And for the next half hour people lined up to explain why they were talking to me and not home watching Modern Family reruns.

Here’s the thing I’ve noticed about the three Sanders meetings before the national meet-up. It is not the same people. Attendance grew from six to 18 to 32 but it was different people. That’s not usually the case in Tallahassee where activists on the left and right are known by their pet projects – it’s a small town where people tend to play roles; you usually know who will be at a meeting before you show up.

The other thing is that the group is linked by Facebook and social media and seems willing to gather information needed to challenge the national narrative about Sanders. Socialist is one of those overused words that have become a slur without meaning.

Craig Shaw came to the Tallahassee library armed. Earlier he had sent a group email detailing how Republican-dominated states like Texas and Wyoming use their natural resources to fund public services, reading from the material he proclaimed – “It’s form of ownership of the means of production, the very definition of socialism,” Shaw told the group. “Bernie’s views are in line with most of the nation.”

Others agreed, not shying away from the word as of it was some form of deadly kryptonite.

The library group defined Sanders’ form of socialism as a way to enhance a civil society. Folks who spoke while waiting for Sanders to talk talked about the influence of money on politics, income inequality, ending generational poverty, changing the culture, supporting public education and putting handcuffs on the prison-industrial complex.

And they seemed to like Sanders as a person, mentioning he is authentic and is preaching the same message he had 40 years ago when he began his political career.

While Sanders is surging in the polls he is also running counter to the direction that Democratic Party is headed. The 1960’s-era activist’s campaign message is centered on economics while the Party is no longer focused on economic solidarity. It tossed aside the issues of workers and labor unions years ago and now caters to sexual and racial identity. A shift, Jonathan Martin calls the most consequential trend in American politics.

But still, a little-known self-described socialist from Vermont is leading a former Secretary of State and party icon in an important primary state. And his numbers keep growing. And in Tallahassee his supporters keep finding new people in the steamy summer heat that often leaves the Capitol City looking a bit like a ghost town.

In a couple of weeks students return to town for the fall semester at Florida A&M University and FSU and TCC. In September lawmakers and other politicos will be in Tallahassee for committee meetings.

The Florida presidential primary is in March. In eight weeks Sanders’ Tallahassee supporters went from six people meeting in the suburbs to 300 gathered at two downtown locations at a time when sleepy and empty were the best words to describe the city.

So, who know what they can accomplish given more time and people with which to work? One thing they do know though, Sanders has already surpassed expectations.

One Response to “Bernie Sanders’ Tallahassee grass roots”

  1. I regret the fact the Bernie Sanders has embraced the idea that he’s going to live life like the Vermont snow, as pure as he possibly can, while he runs for president, because it weakens his chances – and he’s an enormously important progressive voice,” Lessig said. That it will hurt his chances of securing the Democratic nomination, the upstart candidate disagrees.

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