“The Republicans I talk to don’t feel any more represented by their party than the Sanders Democrats,” says Corbin Trent. It’s a steamy night a few weeks after the California primary, in a hall belonging to Local 737 of the United Auto Workers. Bernie Sanders hasn’t yet endorsed Hillary Clinton, but even his most die-hard supporters know he isn’t going to be president. Trent, the founder of Tennessee for Bernie, is talking about the widening gap between Americans and the people who are supposed to represent us in Washington.
“We have a Congress made up mostly of millionaires who spend all their time talking to each other,” he says. “Our country is becoming an oligarchy.”
When Trent finishes, Zack Exley stands up. The people in the room are all Bernie volunteers, and Exley, a senior advisor to the Sanders campaign, begins by acknowledging their grief—and their frustration with the Vermont-based national campaign. “I was one of those people up in Burlington, and I want you to know you guys did 10 times what was required to win. In a whole bunch of ways, we let you down.”
Exley and Trent are a formidable double act. As the inventors of the “Bernie barnstorm”—a concentrated training session designed to turn green volunteers into the disciplined organizers who went on to build the biggest grassroots electoral movement this country has ever seen—they’ve been on the road since September. Exley, a tall, lean man with spiky silver hair and geeky glasses that make him look more like a film director than a veteran political operator, worked on Howard Dean’s pioneering campaign and then for MoveOn.org. A brilliant online organizer, he was chief revenue officer for the Wikimedia Foundation before joining the Sanders campaign—whose success in raising money from small donors proved that relying on corporate funding is a choice, not a necessity.
Trent is younger and more solid; with his calm good humor, he’d be an asset in a bar fight. He also seems less self-conscious—at least here in his home state, where his familiar accent and easy manner soften the radicalism of his message. While both Trent and Exley share their audience’s acute frustration with the outcome of a campaign that came tantalizingly close to victory, they’re in Nashville not to mourn, but to organize.
Their pitch is simple: Even if Sanders had won the nomination, and then the election, his ability to effect change—to bring about the political revolution—would have been severely limited by a dysfunctional Congress in thrall to corporate interests. So why not harness the energy, enthusiasm, national organization, and fund-raising muscle of the Sanders volunteers to elect a brand-new Congress—all at once, in 2018—committed to the same platform of greater economic equality, climate justice, civil rights, criminal-justice reform, and fair trade? Why not elect a Congress that not only looks like us—more women, more people of color—but that will actually work for us instead of for lobbyists and special interests?
This was the start of the Brand New Congress (BNC) campaign. “It sounds like a crazy idea,” admits Exley—and if anyone else were behind it, I’d probably agree. But in state after state, wherever I found Sanders volunteers phone-banking, canvassing, or holding Bernie Fest events to recruit their neighbors, when I asked how they managed to do so much with so little direction from the national campaign, the answer was always the same: “This guy Zack Exley came down for a couple of days…”
Wendy Sejour, a veteran of Florida progressive politics who got scores of volunteers onto the streets of Miami—right in Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s backyard—tells me: “We put out the word four to five days in advance. Found a local union hall. A hundred people showed up. Basically it’s just Corbin and Zack. They talked about what the campaign was doing, and how they wanted us to fit in.” With the national campaign focused on the four early states, the rest of the country was left to Exley and Trent’s “distributed organizing.” And while the national office can claim credit for Sanders’s stunning victory in New Hampshire, it lost Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina. Meanwhile, the volunteers went on to win another 22 primaries. Sejour has already signed on to BNC.
So when Exley says “I think we can do better than 40, 50 seats. I think we can pick up a couple of hundred seats,” I’m inclined to take him seriously. Because of what he’s already accomplished. And because of the numbers.
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“Our job is to identify 100,000 people in each district who are pissed off with Congress,” says Debra Mayes, one of the group’s African American–outreach team leaders. “In most districts, you only need 30,000 votes to win the primary.” (Making a conscious, early, transparent effort to attract a truly diverse team is one way Brand New Congress is trying to learn from the mistakes of the Sanders campaign; this is one of the fruits of what Exley calls “this shared experience of how things should not be done.”)
For decades, pundits have lamented the decline in voter participation, especially in midterm elections. Brand New Congress looks at those figures the way the Barrow Gang looked at backcountry banks—as opportunities. “Turnout in midterm primaries is typically between 8 and 13 percent,” says Exley. And if the idea of a small, ideologically cohesive force challenging the party establishment sounds familiar, that’s not an accident either.
Like the Tea Party, BNC is in part an expression of frustration with a status quo that paralyzes government’s machinery while allowing insiders to prosper. But while the Tea Party (aided, funded, and directed by donors like the Koch brothers) works to pull the center of debate to the right, targeting only wayward Republicans, BNC aims not to take over the Democratic Party, but to do an end run around both parties, returning government to the people.
“We’re looking for people who are really good at what they do, with a deep history of service—teachers, nurses, social workers, firefighters—who had chances to sell out but refused. That guy who keeps turning down promotions so he can stay in the union. The principal who doesn’t want to become a superintendent. The nurse who keeps everything together,” says Exley.
“Think of what we’re doing as a reboot of Congress,” he continues. In Democratic districts, the group’s strategy is straightforward: make sure every corporate or blue-dog Democrat faces an aggressive primary challenge like the one Tim Canova, a law professor and Sanders supporter in Florida, is now running against Wasserman Schultz. “And if we lose those primaries, we’re gonna run our candidates again as independents,” says Exley.
What’s new—and what distinguishes BNC from efforts like the Working Families Party, or from the Sanders-led Our Revolution—is the group’s commitment to finding progressive Republicans to run in red states and districts. “That probably makes working with us a nonstarter for Our Revolution,” says Trent.
“In Tennessee, the candidates would be mostly Republicans,” Mayes adds. What about the platform? “They’d be running on Bernie’s platform—plus a bigger-scale jobs program,” she says. Including abortion and gay rights? “Non-negotiable,” she replies.
Do such Republicans exist? “We live in my wife’s hometown in the Missouri Ozarks,” says Exley. “We go to church on Sundays. Everyone you meet is a Republican, but there are plenty of people who really believe that ‘love thy neighbor’ stuff in the Bible.”
“All of our candidates will have to support the living wage, access to health care, and education,” says Trent. “They’ll have to be committed to civil rights and social justice—and opposed to trade deals that don’t help us as a country. But if you want to win here in Tennessee, that also means they’re going to have to be Republicans. The First Congressional District here is R plus-20”—that is, a 20-point Republican advantage. “We’d be in a primary with [Tea Party stalwart] Phil Roe. And if you know Phil Roe, you’re gonna be excited to see him go home.”
Even among the Bernie faithful in Nashville, it isn’t an easy sell. “I’m a lifelong Democrat,” Sidney Bennett tells me after the meeting. “I would have a really hard time supporting Republicans to do anything. They just don’t see the value of social progress.”
Officials in the Working Families Party—who have been struggling to build an independent left faction inside the Democratic Party for nearly 20 years—dismiss Brand New Congress as a distraction. Others on the more “movement” side of the Sanders campaign remain dubious about the group’s investment in electoral politics—and skeptical about its ability to find Republicans, even nominal Republicans, willing to run on the Sanders platform.
Saikat Chakrabarti, the Sanders campaign’s director of organizing technology who is now part of BNC’s “core leadership,” says the group’s critics underestimate two critical factors. “There are so few things 80 percent of Americans agree on. But regardless of party affiliation, they agree that Congress is broken,” he says. The BNC’s other secret weapon is the size of the task. Far from being daunted, he says, “people get excited when it’s something big. Something transformational. When you ask them to do a lot.”
Yolanda Gonzalez, a teacher from California, spent two months traveling Nevada with a life-size cardboard cutout of Sanders and a bullhorn, spreading the message through the state’s immigrant communities. When we meet in Tennessee, she seems exhilarated, not discouraged—though when Exley broaches a plan for a “What’s Killing White People?” tour to persuade working-class white voters to support BNC, she rolls her eyes.
The next time I cross paths with Gonzalez is in Philadelphia, where she’s a member of the California delegation to the Democratic National Convention, festooned with Sanders buttons and shouting “Lock her up!” as part of the #NeverHillary brigade. “We definitely have some Bernie-or-bust folks,” Trent tells me a few days later. “People who believe the DNC is completely broken. But we also have plenty of pragmatists”—like Chakrabarti, who e-mailed me after Clinton’s speech to say he had “some hope that she might try to do something real. Hillary Clinton is someone who follows the tide, and…she’s possibly begun to realize the tide has shifted.”
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Bernie Sanders won’t be on the ballot in November. But his campaign revealed a hunger for progressive ideas (and unbought candidates) that no one suspected. Win or lose, Clinton is unlikely to satisfy that yearning—which doesn’t mean that Brand New Congress will either.
The night before Nashville, BNC had a meeting in Memphis at a barbecue joint in a white neighborhood near the primarily white high school I went to. Apart from the BNC organizers, the crowd could have been my homeroom. “The people that are coming to see us are Bernie’s base,” said Trent when I challenged him on this. “On our core team, I’m the only white person.” Legally, BNC is a political-action committee—and with Exley currently acting as more of a mentor, the day-to-day decisions are made by Trent, Chakrabarti, Stacey Hopkins (an African-American activist from Atlanta), and Alexandra Rojas, a Californian who’s in charge of local organizing.
It’s also true that representation isn’t always a simple matter of color. The Ninth District in Memphis “is the blackest district in America,” says Steve Cohen, the white Jewish progressive whom the city has sent to Congress since 2007. Cohen was first elected because the Fords, a local African-American political dynasty, overplayed their hand: sitting out the primary, then running a ne’er-do-well son (multiple arrests; never graduated high school) as an independent.
Though he endorsed Clinton, Cohen has a high regard for Sanders. “Bernie and I spoke together at a rally against the Keystone pipeline,” he says. But he has little sympathy for the view that blue-dog Democrats are the enemy: “Blue dogs gave us a majority. Blue dogs made John Conyers Judiciary [Committee] chairman. Made Nancy Pelosi speaker. Made Henry Waxman a chairman.”
Exley bristles when I relay Cohen’s comments. But Trent tells me, “We’re not going after progressives. Steve Cohen’s got a decent voting record.” Out of 535 members of Congress, he reckons they’ll put up some 400 candidates. And while BNC wants to make trouble for both Democrats and Republicans, in swing districts, the group could determine the outcome. Dave Cambron, who worked on the Clinton campaign in Memphis, says, “We’re a little dot of blue in a sea of red. If BNC wants to run someone in the Eighth CD [just east of Cohen’s district] in two years, Democrats will come out in force.”
All radical groups have to navigate a path between purity and pragmatism. What makes Brand New Congress distinctive is the scale of its ambition, its disregard for party labels, its respect for local knowledge—and its openness to argument about everything except its core beliefs.
On September 20, the group will host a nationwide live-stream event. Trent reports that “we’ve had a good turnout” on their organizing tour, and “fund-raising is up.” Next March, it plans to announce the first 50 BNC candidates. This should allow plenty of time to organize—another lesson learned the hard way during the Sanders campaign. With their candidates freed from the need to raise funds—and all running on a unified platform—BNC aims to run a national campaign with a local accent.
“The real barrier now is candidate recruitment,” says Trent. “A lot of the candidates we’ve been getting are not breaking the mold. We need to get outside the Bernie bubble.” He remains optimistic. “The candidates we want are out there; we just have to find them. Last night, a guy asked me if he could nominate himself. I told him if you can’t find one other person to nominate you, you probably don’t have a future in politics.”
Does Brand New Congress have a future in politics? We’re about to find out.