It was a warm summer’s night three years ago in rural Vermont. I pulled down a long driveway, past cow pasture and hay bales, up to a small farmhouse porch where an old fellow in a slouch hat was smoking his pipe. He nodded to me and asked if I was lost.
“No, sir,” I said. “I work for Bernie Sanders’ senate campaign.”
He stood and beckoned me inside, then called for his wife saying, “This girl says she’s from Bernie Sanders.”
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The woman put down her washing, walked up to me with tears in her eyes, and gave me a big hug. “Thank you so much,” she said, “Bernie did so much helping my late daddy when they weren’t giving him his veterans’ benefits. He’s got our vote. You tell Bernie to keep giving ‘em hell down there in Washington!”
That, in a nutshell, is what it was like being Bernie Sanders’ Field Director for his 2012 Senate Re-Election Campaign.
We knew from the start that Bernie was going to crush his Republican competition, but Bernie has been a political underdog for most of his career—often winning (or losing) by a few votes against candidates who regularly outspent him 2-1—so he doesn’t take any race for granted or do anything half-assed. In 2012, he hired me to coordinate five other organizers and spend five months going door-to-door in every corner of the state. The goal was to have real conversations with voters about Bernie’s core issues: single-payer healthcare, protecting Social Security (and debunking the myth that it contributes in any way to the national deficit), preventing greedy corporations from shipping jobs overseas, and addressing climate change before it’s too late. Oh yeah, and asking people to vote for him too. Vermonters were overwhelmingly supportive of their longtime, firebrand politician with the crazy hair and a penchant for telling the truth. He won re-election in 2012 with 71 percent of the vote. And he did it all while raising the level of political discourse in our state around some pretty important and complex issues.
Bernie is notorious for not mincing words. I’ve heard him tell many a voter, “Look, here’s what I think about X issue and why. I understand you disagree and if you don’t want to vote for me based on one issue even though we agree on at least a dozen, well, so be it.”
Vermonters like that. They like his straightforwardness. They like his honesty, even if they don’t always like his answers. As the longest-serving Independent in Congress, Bernie isn’t beholden to any particular party (Though he often caucuses with the Democrats, he’s just as quick to call them out for being weak-kneed on economic issues)—something else that plays well with voters here. And he has never accepted corporate sponsorship, choosing instead to raise all his money through grassroots fundraising. About $15 million of it to date.
While Vermont is considered a liberal state today, it was overwhelmingly Republican not that long ago, and the rural working class population still votes predominantly conservative…except for Bernie. Bernie’s message of taking on Wall Street and the big banks speaks to them too. They may not love his positions on wedge issues like abortion or immigration, but the Senator’s core message has always been focused on the economic issues that all working people have in common; his strategy is to keep the focus on those who keep the rest of us down (i.e., the 1 percent). And it’s working.
The other reason Vermonters are loyal to their Senator is because he does an excellent job serving the people of this state in a very real way. Your landlord unfairly trying to evict you? Having trouble getting your Social Security? Need a wheelchair and your insurance company giving you the run-around? Is your employer threatening to crush your union? Call Bernie! His on-staff social workers do a wonderful job helping Vermonters navigate the complicated webs of legal and government bureaucracy in order to get the answers they need—and woe to any unscrupulous business owners, landlords, or employers who incur Bernie’s wrath!
I love that Bernie sees public service and education as important parts of his role as a U.S. Senator. I’ve never known regular people to have this sort of faith in a politician before. But it’s not a fluke—it’s a trust Bernie has earned from a more than 30-year track record of fighting for working people. Since he first took office in 1981, Bernie has been standing up for income equality, for single-payer healthcare, for civil rights, for LGBT rights, for women’s rights, for unions, for Social Security & Medicare, for paid sick & family leave, for an end to American military occupations, for alternative energy and breaking our addiction to fossil fuels, and for a more democratic political system where corporate money doesn’t buy elections.
People all over the country are flocking to hear the politician who talks about things like taxing the rich, free college tuition, affordable childcare, and ending institutional racism (visit his website for his entire platform on how he intends to address physical, legal, economic, and political violence against people of color). His events are regularly pulling in massive numbers (15,000 and 20,000 people), even in red states. And considering that Bernie has now pulled ahead of Hillary in New Hampshire and Iowa polls, and is rapidly catching up to her in national polls—the idea that just maybe corporate money doesn’t buy every election in this country—well… maybe it’s not such a crazy idea after all.
Bernie isn’t perfect. If you’re looking for a candidate who scores 100 percent on every one of your issues, prepare to be disappointed. He’s not the messiah. He’s not a superhero. He’s not a perfectly-coiffed professional candidate with a slick answer for everything. He’s just a man. A good man, but still just flesh and blood. He’s not going to single-handedly undo generations of exploitation and abuse under an oligarchical economic system. But he sure is going to try. And more importantly, he knows that the working people of this country have the power to build a more economically and socially just society when we unite and organize.
Bernie has my vote because he fights like hell for working people, because he has the courage to stand up for what’s right even when it’s hard, and because he deeply means everything that he says. I really hope progressives all over the country will take the time to get to know Bernie Sanders like Vermonters do. Maybe then you’ll see it’s not populist shtick—Bernie truly is different from every other presidential candidate you’ve seen.