While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will both be spending election night in New York, Bernie Sanders will be on the other side of the country, making a last-ditch effort to carry Proposition 61, a California ballot initiative that would bar the state from paying more for medicine than the Veterans Administration, across the finish line.
“This isn’t national health care,” says Larry Cohen, who chairs the board of Our Revolution, the group designated by Sanders to carry forward the values that fueled his presidential bid. “It isn’t even Medicare for All. But for us, and for Bernie personally, it’s important to show that we can get something like this accomplished.”
“This is about the power of the grassroots versus the power of money,” says Shannon Jackson, Our Revolution’s executive director. “Before Big Parma started dumping money into television, the polls in California were 87 percent in favor” of the initiative, he says. But after an estimated $120 million spent on negative advertising, the race has become much closer.
A lot has been written about the “Sanders effect” in close congressional races, where his backing has helped power candidates such as Russ Feingold, Pramila Jayapal, and Zephyr Teachout. Much less attention has been paid, however, to the dozens of down-ballot races where an expenditure of just a few thousand dollars can make the difference between a hopeless cause and a viable campaign. “Our real focus is down ballot,” says Cohen.
“The OurRevolution.org site launched on August 24,” says Jackson. “Since then we’ve raised over $1.3 million.” In Rhode Island, the group’s backing helped Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence school teacher, defeat John DeSimone, a 24-year incumbent and former majority leader of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, in the primary. “Marcia led Rhode Islanders for Bernie,” said Jackson. “And this let her take on—and defeat—a corporate Democrat who was very close to Wall Street.”
In Oregon, the group has raised over $12,000 for Brad Avakian, a candidate for secretary of state who is committed to reforming the state’s campaign finance system, and expanding voter access through automatic voter registration and same-day registration.
The race for Maricopa Country recorder is another where Our Revolution is hoping a relatively modest amount—$12,815 in small donations—will make a big difference for candidate Adrian Fontes. “We saw so many problems with voting during the Arizona primary,” says Jackson. “Here’s a candidate with good politics, a great platform, dedicated to protecting voting rights—and with a good chance of winning.”
During the primary campaign Sanders often stated “real change has to come from the bottom up.” In applying that maxim, Our Revolution has backed candidates like Sabrina Shrader, running for state representative in West Virginia. Originally, says Jackson, Shrader “was only anticipating being able to afford a few flyers and maybe some yard signs. But with $19,000 from Our Revolution she’s been able to wage a genuinely competitive campaign.”
In addition to Jane Kim’s campaign for State Senate in California, Jackson and Cohen both also mentioned David Zuckerman’s bid to become Vermont’s next lieutenant governor as a race where, as Cohen said, “Bernie is personally focused, and we feel we can make a difference.” A dairy farmer who has been “a progressive activist his whole life” on issues ranging from the labeling of genetically modified food to legalizing marijuana, “Zuckerman is a cookie-cutter candidate for what this movement represents,” said Jackson.
Meanwhile, Cohen himself will be spending Tuesday in Howard County, Maryland, working to help pass a ballot initiative creating a Citizens Election Fund providing a six-to-one match for small-donor financing for candidates in local elections who reject corporate and large-donor funding. “There are 8,000 Bernie voters in Howard County,” says Cohen. “They could provide the margin to put this measure over the top—and start to actually do something to counteract Citizens United.”
But the group’s enthusiasm for local issues and candidates with deep local roots doesn’t mean a withdrawal from the national stage. The point, as always, is to build power—and use that power to press for change. The best example of that strategy is a petition the group sent out last month calling for Hillary Clinton to take a position opposing the Dakota Pipeline. “What triggered that move was having three Our Revolution board members at Standing Rock” said Cohen: the actor and environmental activist Shailene Woodley (who was actually arrested protesting the pipeline), Native American activist Deborah Parker, and Jane Kleeb, incoming chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
“We got 60,000 signatures in three days,” says Cohen, and though Clinton has still not taken a stand—a position Cohen attributes to the pro-pipeline position of the AFL-CIO—the group plans to resume pressure on November 9. “If Clinton wins the election she’s going to feel immense pressure,” Cohen said.
“The other obvious first issue is the TPP,” said Jackson. “She’s been silent since the primary, and—just like the pipeline—she needs to take a stand.” The more Our Revolution candidates elected to office, the greater the group’s ability to apply pressure for the causes it supports. That, at least, is the theory. How well will it work out on November 8? Watch this space.
Correction: An earlier version misidentified Jane Kleeb as the former chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. She is the incoming chair.