Lane County Berners

Why so many Oregonians are #FeelingtheBern

illustration courtesy

On Jan. 21, “Berners” commandeered the Cozmic building on 8th and Charnelton in downtown Eugene. There were about 30 people at Cozmic when the Lane County for Bernie Sanders meeting began. The space, often used for concerts, might have been quieter than usual, but the atmosphere was a mixture of excitement and optimism.

The Sanders supporters were diverse in age, ranging from teens, not yet old enough to vote, to senior citizens, as one woman humorously described herself. After the meeting, volunteers made posters, wrote letters to local publications or joined the phone-banking team.

Political consultant and Lane Community College board member Matt Keating was the first to speak at the Lane County for Bernie Sanders meeting. Keating emphasized the importance of phone banking to support the Iowa caucus that, at the time, loomed on the horizon. He urged volunteers to join action groups to raise awareness for their candidate.

On Monday, Feb. 1, the Iowa caucus concluded with a near draw between Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. The caucus was the first statewide contest of this election cycle to decide who will represent the Democratic Party in the 2016 presidential race. Media pundits called it a win for Clinton, but Sanders fans saw it as a sign their candidate was on the rise.

On Feb. 9, Sanders won the New Hampshire primary by a 20-percent margin over Hillary Clinton, with 60 percent of the vote going to Sanders. With more primaries on the way, including the Democratic National Convention in July when the Dems choose their presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders volunteers across Lane County and Oregon are urging their fellow voters to #FeeltheBern.

The candidate — Bernie, as his supporters prefer to call him — is promising to fight income and wealth inequality, and to battle big money in politics as well as the escalating costs of health care and higher education — all issues dear to his passionate Oregon supporters.

Can Sanders win? That’s the burning (Berning?) question as his Oregon volunteers push to elect the 74-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont to America’s highest office.

Minimum Wage

Kelsey Howe, a member of Lane County for Bernie Sanders who was organizing a phone-banking group at the meeting at Cozmic, says she’s supporting the candidate because he gives her hope. Howe says she suffers from seizures, and the medication doctors have prescribed for her condition cause depression. While depression is a medical condition, Howe says that Sanders’ policies on affordable health care, higher minimum wage and free education would alleviate the majority of her stress.

“I was getting really bad grades,” she says. “I really wasn’t able to work enough. I just wasn’t able to support myself. It was really stressful.”

Howe says that raising the minimum wage would mean everyone would have a chance at the American Dream. “Right now the American Dream isn’t possible on $9.25 an hour,” she says. “It just simply isn’t. That’s why it’s so important to raise that.”

Sanders’ stance on minimum wage isn’t a new concept dreamed up just for the campaign. According to his official website, Sanders led the effort in the U.S. Senate to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for federal contract workers, and he’s advocated for a $15 minimum wage in the Senate.

“We must also establish equal pay for women,” Sanders writes on his website. “It’s unconscionable that women earn less than men for performing the same work.”

For now, Howe is helping with phone banking and keeping track of calls the phone bankers make.

“Overall time, our team has made 2,068 calls,” she says. “That’s not even counting the calls we were making before,” she adds of the efforts leading up to the Iowa caucus. “That’s not counting the 20 other people I have that aren’t really good with computers.”

The Candidate

Why does Sanders generate so much support? Any Democrat on social media knows that if you praise Hillary Clinton you will be hit with a passionate deluge of pro-Sanders comments from Bernie fans. Berners are dedicated to the white-haired man with the stooped shoulders and Brooklyn accent as well as the issues he stands for.

Keating, at a Bernie Sanders gathering earlier in January, channeled the Bard in his love for the Bern, proclaiming, “To Bern or not to Bern, that is the question” and “to Bern, perchance to dream” as he put Sanders’ platform into Shakespearean prose. From Photoshopped images of Sanders with cats to an appearance on Saturday Night Live with his doppelganger Larry David, Sanders is a pop culture phenomenon as well as a political candidate.

Sanders, who would be the first Jewish president, is running on a distinctly populist platform. He says he is for the people. In Eugene, Sanders supporters have been sending letters, making signs and phone banking to support his election.

The New York native has an extensive resume in domestic politics. Sanders has represented Vermont in the Senate since 2006, and served in the House for 12 years before that. While he may be running for president as a Democrat, Sanders served the state of Vermont as an Independent and avowed socialist for more than two decades.

“When Sanders announced back in May his candidacy, he was in single digits in favor with our national polls,” says Tim Morris, a member of the Lane County for Bernie Sanders leadership. “Now he’s tying with a well-known former secretary of state, with only a 2 percent difference in the vote. We’ve proven that every single vote matters, every phone call makes a difference and our hard work is paying off.”

Sanders has publicly admitted that his opponent in the Democratic primaries has the majority of the party and the establishment’s support. But Sanders doesn’t necessarily want to be the “establishment” candidate. In the Feb. 4 Democratic debate hosted by MSNBC, Sanders said he’s relied on the middle class, emphasizing the zeal of individual supporters over big money and corporate donors. As of Feb. 1, his campaign had reported more than $75 million in donations, averaging $27 a piece.

In a Dec. 20 press release, the Sanders campaign announced that it broke the record for individual contributions with 2.3 million contributions. President Barack Obama, who previously held the record, won his re-election campaign with 2.2 million individual donations as of Dec. 31, 2011.

On SNL, Sanders managed to stay on message and still get laughs. “I am so sick of the 1 percent getting this preferential treatment. Enough is enough,” Sanders says in a skit. “We need to unite and work together if we’re all going to get through this.”

Reflecting that proletarian zeal, Lane County for Bernie Sanders is a grassroots campaign led by a leadership committee, and the work is delegated among a group of volunteers.

Madelon DeVita and Tom Brown. Photos by Mohammed Alkhadher

Campaign Finance

“He’s an honest person. I don’t even like using the term politician,” says Joe Montez, a member of the Lane County for Bernie Sanders leadership. “He’s doing something that hasn’t been done by not taking money from any kind of corporations or Super PACs.”

Montez, a lifelong Democrat, volunteered in the past three presidential elections, and says he’d like to see the party become more progressive. “I feel like we’re going center-right, instead of to the left, and I’d like us to move more towards progressive values and ideas.”

Sanders has used his refusal to accept Super PAC funds as a platform for his election, and says he’ll move to repeal the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that removes restrictions on campaign contributions. Sanders says money in politics is undermining the political process.

Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited sums of money donated from corporations, unions, associations and individuals to advocate for or against political candidates.

“The American people are saying ‘No’ to a rigged economy,” Sanders said during his speech following the Iowa caucus.

Free Education and ‘Socialism’

Ultimately, the most popular issue among those interviewed was the cost of higher education. Madelon DeVita, a retired medical transcriptionist, says that when she went to college things were very different.

“I went to college for free,” she says. “For free! We had a registration fee of maybe $25 and we paid for our books, which were much cheaper. I think the most expensive book I ever bought was $35, not $300.”

DeVita says it’s sad to see the millennials, or those born at the turn of this century, being handcuffed and shackled with debt.

“Slowly, over 40 years, the states were given less and less money for education [and] we started putting more money into the military,” she says. “When things happen slowly, you don’t see it as much.”

DeVita says that her ex-husband completed a Ph.D. without any debt because the G.I. Bill covered the expenses.

Sanders has a six-point plan to lower the cost of higher education. He says better education is needed in a more competitive global economy, and that the current cost of going to a university is counter-productive to the nation’s best interests and future.

Some have labeled Sanders as a socialist because of the plans he hopes to implement. He doesn’t seem too bothered by this — by his own account he’s running as a democratic socialist — and his supporters in Eugene don’t seem to think it’s a bad thing either.

DeVita says she’s always been “a very left-leaning Democrat. So when Sanders came out saying he’s a democratic socialist, I was going ‘Yay, I found my man!’”

As part of his platform, Sanders wants to take on Wall Street, the economic disparity between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of the population and immigration reform. He wants to improve upon the Affordable Health Act, with a program he calls Medicare for All.

While some are hypercritical of these plans, DeVita thinks it’s “fabulous” that people are referring to the candidate as a socialist.

“They don’t realize what it means. They equate socialism and fascism,” she says. “Democratic socialism gives a strong social safety net, such as free tuition, free healthcare, and we don’t know any different because that’s always been the way it is.”

The Movement

At the grassroots level, Berners across Oregon say they are confident their candidate will win in their state.

Attendance at Lane County for Bernie Sanders meetings has grown by leaps and bounds. According to local progressive activist Ruth Duemler, the first meeting had 11 attendees, the most recent she attended had 300. That doesn’t include campus group UO for Bernie Sanders, she says.

Emma Easely Darden, a professional photographer and organizer with Portland for Bernie Sanders, says Sanders is the candidate that represents the people’s interests.

“My husband and I would have had to potentially gone through bankruptcy twice due to our child being in the ICU,” Darden says. “He really cares about all of those things, they aren’t just campaign points.”

“There was a national day of rallies, there’s going to be another one on Feb. 27. We decided to have a rally, as opposed to a march, to coalesce attention for Bernie Sanders,” Darden says.

She can probably expect good turnout. Of a Sanders rally in Portland’s Pioneer Square back on Jan. 22, she says two security guards that do regular events estimated attendance at “about 2,000.”

Portland City Commissioner and one-time Senate candidate Steve Novick was optimistic about Sanders’ chances as well.

“He will definitely win Oregon,” Novick said in an interview with EW. “Oregon has a history of voting for the insurgent candidate.” Novick himself has endorsed Sanders.

“New Hampshire was so validating,” Darden says, of Sanders’ recent success in the primary there “to see how many people were really excited to get out and be part of the electorate.”

Back in Lane County, Lane County for Bernie Sanders organizer Tim Morris says of New Hampshire, “This historic win has erased any doubt of his electability and changed the conversation of national politics forever.” He adds, “I think we will all be surprised with the Nevada caucus come Feb. 20.”

Keating says it’s important Oregon’s Berners help aid the movements in other states because Oregon’s primary isn’t until May. Morris says that from Feb. 17 to 21 some Oregon Berners are heading to Nevada to volunteer during that state’s Feb. 20 caucuses.

And speaking of May, Sanders’ supporters remind voters that Oregon residents can only vote in the Democratic primaries if they’re registered Democrats.

Sanders’ strong support in Oregon and his placement in the recent primaries is also one of the reasons why the campaign is pushing phone banking in other states, Howe adds.

Retired union welder and Lane County for Bernie Sanders volunteer Tom Brown says: “I’ve got Medicare. My medical is covered. I’ve got social security. I’m in relatively good shape.”

But this isn’t about him, Brown says; it’s about the nation. “No, this is for the future,” he explains. “This is for the good of the whole country. If we don’t come up with policies that encourage economic equality, we’re going to end up in a feudal society.”

Lane Country for Bernie Sanders meets at Cozmic 12:30 pm every Saturday.