Ybor City—Florida was not feeling The Bern.
It’s less than a month before the March 15 Democratic primary, and I’m spending the afternoon phone banking at the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) office here in what used to be the center of Florida’s hand-rolled cigar industry. A historic neighborhood near downtown Tampa, Ybor City was once a rich blend of Cuban, Spanish, Italian, and German workers, and Jewish and Chinese shopkeepers. But it was devastated by urban renewal in the 1960s, especially the construction of Interstate 4, which tore through the neighborhood on its way from Tampa to Daytona.
Over the past decade the surviving low-slung brick factory buildings, some with delicate wrought iron balconies, have been converted into bars, clubs, restaurants, and tourist shops. The NNOC office is on 7th Avenue, the district’s main drag. Chris Woltman, who grew up in Thonotosassa, a small town about 10 miles east of here on the other side of the interstate, hands me a script and shows me how to use the Bernie Dialer, a computer program that automatically dials numbers on the voter list until someone picks up, then allows you to log the contact as either a Republican or Clinton supporter (in which case you thank them and hang up) or a possible Sanders voter (who get logged for follow-up calls).
In Florida politics, the “I-4 Corridor” was once known as the swingingest region in a swing state, full of independent voters that both parties would court assiduously. But President Obama carried this area by comfortable margins in 2008 and 2012, aided in part by changing demographics. The Hispanic population of Hillsborough County, which encompasses Tampa, increased by 70 percent from 2000 to 2010; the African-American population was up by 37 percent; and the number of Asians doubled during the same period.
Only we’re not calling Hillsborough County today—or even Florida voters. Instead we’re calling South Carolina, where the primary is just over a week away—and where I can’t say my effort made much difference to a disastrous finish. In the course of the afternoon I talk to lots of Republicans, plenty of folks who say they can’t be bothered to vote this year, and just one likely Sanders voter. Out of my fellow phone bankers only Nikol Hornsby, a mother of four from nearby Riverview, seems to have much luck, racking up an impressive string of Sanders “leaners.”
Hornsby herself “was registered independent,” she tells me. “But I’m going to vote for Bernie. He’s not Hillary Clinton. He’s not business as usual.”
Hornsby’s sister Juliet says she was drawn to Sanders because “he hits all the notes that are important. But a lot of Democrats are just party voters. And those people feel like it’s her [Clinton’s] turn.”
Janice Deal, a retired art teacher, urges me not to be discouraged by the poor response—or by the small number of phone bankers on a weekend afternoon. “The younger generation has this,” she says. But I can’t quite shake the sense that we’re shouting into the wind.
* * *
The feeling that the campaign hasn’t really started yet is even stronger in Gainesville. Out on Turlington Plaza, one of the University of Florida’s campus “free speech zones,” I see groups of students with clipboards and matching T-shirts, but these turn out to be delegations from the Impact and Access parties competing for student government.
“It’s hard to mobilize college students,” says Timothy Tia, a sophomore economics major and co-organizer of “Gators Want Bernie.” “We call it that because if you put ‘for Bernie’ it sounds official.”
The closest Tia and his friends have come to official status was a visit by Zack Exley, the campaign’s roving liaison to the grassroots, in late January. By then Gators Want Bernie had been running meet-ups for months. “Most politically engaged students are already Bernie supporters. It’s just a matter of registering people to vote,” says Tia.
Thanks to Florida’s Republican state legislators, though, that’s become a lot more difficult. In 2012, Governor Rick Scott’s administration reduced opportunities for early voting and made it harder for voters previously registered in one county to change to another—a measure that especially impacts students and minorities. (Florida also bars anyone with a felony conviction—even for nonviolent offenses like drug possession—from voting.)
Jesse Fallen, head of the College Democrats, told me “there used to be an early voting location here on campus. After Rick Scott became governor they took it away.” Scott’s administration also instituted rules requiring any group registering new voters to submit the completed forms within 48 hours—or face fines of up to $1,000. That put a stop to the League of Women Voters registration drive. It also prevents Gators Want Bernie from actually registering new voters—a big handicap since Florida’s closed primary means only voters who registered as Democrats before February 16th will be allowed to vote.
“We’re just college students, and we can’t afford to risk a fine for getting the paperwork wrong,” says Tia. Fallen, a Clinton supporter, says that even though College Democrats have registered “hundreds” of student voters, “and Gainesville is a blue area, we still have a Tea Party mayor and a Republican city commissioner. Scott got re-elected for the same reason: because Democrats stayed home.”
With 214 pledged delegates at stake—and 29 electoral votes in November—Florida is the richest prize in the primary calendar between Super Tuesday and New York on April 19. Hillary and Bill Clinton have both visited the state many times—mostly to attend under the radar private fundraisers in the homes of wealthy donors. But Hillary has also held several public events here, starting with a speech at the National Urban League conference in July in Fort Lauderdale. Sanders, who also spoke at the Urban League conference, didn’t return to the state until this week, when he held a rally in Miami on the eve of Wednesday’s Democratic debate. Clinton has eight offices in the state. Sanders has three—and those didn’t even open until March 4: three weeks after the registration deadline, and just one day before early voting begins.
“I’m very disappointed he didn’t come to Florida” sooner, said Tia, who messaged me last week ecstatic that Sanders was speaking in Gainesville on the 10th. Rafael Navar, national political director of the Communications Workers of America, which has been coordinating a lot of the organized labor support for the Sanders campaign, explained that Sanders was too busy “trying to fight the perception he’s not a viable candidate” in states like Nevada and South Carolina to have time to visit Florida any earlier.
The Sanders’ campaign’s huge, poll-defying upset in Michigan underlines the perils of premature defeatism. However, should Sanders fall short in Florida on Tuesday, the campaign may well regret not spending more time and money here.
In both 2008 and 2012 the Obama campaign devoted enormous effort into “banking” absentee ballots in Florida—in the latter case, partly as a counter to GOP moves to restrict early voting. This time around Florida Democrats have already requested over 750,000 absentee ballots. Though well behind the 900,000 provided to GOP voters, that’s still more than the total number of Democratic votes cast in Nevada, South Carolina, and New Hampshire combined. But if the Sanders campaign is banking absentee votes in Florida, they’re being awfully quiet about it.
* * *
There is nothing quiet about Donald Trump’s rally at the Sun Dome in Tampa. Trump’s limo pulls up outside a half hour after the advertised starting time, escorted by dozens of helmeted state police outriders, their motorcycles roaring through traffic in a scene that seems to cry out for searchlights—and swastikas.
Waiting to go in the crowd is boisterous, but friendly enough. “I just want to see him shake and turn red,” says Melissa Bigger, a student nurse from Ellwood City, PA who has come with a group of her ΔΖ sorority sisters.
Two days earlier the Rolling Stones joined Adele, R.E.M., and Elton John on the list of artists who have made it clear they do not want Trump playing their music at his rallies. Perhaps in response, tonight’s playlist is practically all Stones tunes, including their version of “It’s All Over Now,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” and the possibly prophetic “Time is On My Side.”
But when Trump finally appears, his orange face, boxy suit, and improbable hair somehow oddly appropriate—still not normal, just “normal for Florida”—it is with a different lyric entirely on his lips: “Something’s happening.” And we don’t know what it is.
“This is a movement,” he tells the crowd of 11,000 mostly screaming fans. “You’re all on television, so smile and have a good time.” And we do. Though the message is as xenophobic as ever—at one point Trump leads the crowd in chanting “Build That Wall!”—his mood is genial, even playful, reserving his scorn for the hapless Jeb Bush, “a vicious guy…gutless.”
He derides Bernie Sanders as “a communist,” saying that in an election “where you have a communist against an entrepreneur, I like the entrepreneur,” but spends far more energy denouncing “the drug lobby,” whose machinations, says Trump, prevent the government from bargaining down the price of prescription medicines. “It’s all done for a reason. It’s called campaign contributions. And it’s bad!,” he roars.
The following night I sit with a group of Young Republicans in a sports bar in Fort Myers as Trump explains the facts of life to the debate audience. Not about immigration, or the Muslim Peril, but how their Grand Old Party is the tool of the same “lobbyists and special interests” who’ve sent millions of American jobs overseas while stashing corporate profits of “$2.5 trillion offshore.”
“Trump has made our job easier,” Jesse Fallen told me. “People are paying attention to politics when they usually wouldn’t.” That could well be true. But if the voters paying attention now are still angry about the hollowing out of the American middle class that followed Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement, or lost their homes in the crash while Hillary was singing for her supper at Goldman Sachs, that might not be such good news for the Democratic frontrunner. Especially against an opponent who has a semi-plausible claim to “getting things done” on an even bigger scale—at least in New York City—and whose shape-shifting skills make her earnest triangulations look like amateur theatricals.
* * *
It’s only when I reach St. Petersburg that I begin to suspect I may have missed something important. The endless quest for free Wi-Fi leads me to the usual downtown strip of hipster hangouts—including a splendid vinyl emporium where, among the posters for local bands, I spot a notice for “Bernie Fest!,” a two day long combination of voter registration drive, campaign fundraiser, and music festival kicking off that very afternoon.
I can hear the crowd at Kymatic Studios, a glorified warehouse-turned-performance-venue, before I can see it. Not just because of the indy rock blaring from the opened metal roller door, but because on a steamy weekend afternoon there are a few hundred people of all ages, colors, and shapes, many of whom spill out onto the sidewalk.
Inside I finally catch up with Mike Fox, a greying, bearded organizer for Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) I’ve been hearing about all week.
“Is Bernie still down in Florida? Yes.”
“By more than 10 percent? Probably.”
“Can we make that up by the 15th? Possibly.”
I’m so busy writing down Fox’s interview with himself that when he tells me “as a national staffer with PDA, I can’t coordinate with the national campaign.” I think he’s complaining—or making excuses, but when I feed him a line about how Sanders seems to be skipping Florida, he stops me. “You gotta win the next one. That’s the only way his campaign survives: state by state. And there’s a whole lot of states he has to worry about before Florida.”
“Besides,” Fox continues, “there’s already been more activity on the ground in Florida than we saw with Obama in ’08. At Martin Luther King Day here we had more people in our Bernie contingent than Obama had.”
“On January 29 the campaign organized 4000 meet-ups. We had 72 people show up—about 15 percent African-American, 7-8 percent Hispanic. I’ve been running campaigns here for years, and out of those 72 people, I knew exactly two.”
When I asked who these new people were, Fox took me back inside and introduced me to Amos Miers, a 39 year old graphic designer who’s put his architectural rendering business on the back burner to become a “We Want Bernie” team leader.
“I got involved in Occupy. I was going to go up to Occupy Wall Street, but then Occupy Tampa kicked off when the Republican National Committee came to Tampa [in 2012]. At the time I had no experience. I was expecting veteran activists to come in and tell us what to do.”
They never did. But that was when Miers “started hearing about Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.” Miers went to his first Sanders meet-up “not prepared to jump in. We were in Occupy. We were against the two party system. A lot of us were against electoral politics. But I still voted. I realized we had to be involved in politics.”
So he returned for another meet-up. Once again “we were expecting staffers to be here to tell us what to do. But Bernie wants the grass roots to emerge and be its own force. So the campaign’s not coming. We do what we do.” So far they’d raised $35,000—without any help from the official Sanders organization—and amassed a list of 7,000 volunteers and supporters.
Back in the fall I’d written about the “volunteer-based reservoir of energy, talent, and enthusiasm that propelled a senator from a tiny state into a national figure.” But what I saw operating in Florida went way beyond that. The campaign calls it “distributed organizing”—a fruit partly of Exley’s experience at MoveOn.org and Wikimedia, partly of his colleague Becky Bond’s work as political director for CREDO, the lefty mobile phone provider, with the rest coming from the way Corbin Trent leveraged the internet to build Tennessee for Sanders in a very red state with very limited resources.
The idea sounds simple: “The volunteers are the campaign,” says Miers. In practice that means that once a community organizes itself to a certain point, the campaign will sponsor a 2-day-long “Bernie Barnstorm.” Wendy Sejour, a New Orleans native who became politicized by the Iraq War and now lives in Miami, explained it to me.
“We put out the word 4-5 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. I personally got 45 people to switch from NPA [no party affiliation] to Democrat so they could vote for Bernie.” The Barnstorms are intensive training for organizers, who in turn are taught how to run their own sessions to train volunteers.
Fred Frost, a former president of the South Florida AFL-CIO who now works for the Communications Workers, says that his union ran “two-day boot camps” in Miami and Orlando, followed by daylong sessions at locals across the state. The only continuing link with Sanders headquarters is a “data coordinator keeping track of money and volunteer shifts.” At one session in Kendall, “the biggest CWA local in South Florida, we had people show up, on their own time, for a session that ran from 6 am to 10 pm. I’ve never seen that before,” said Frost.
It was Howard Dean, another Vermonter, who first demonstrated the potential of organizing via social media. Sejour, like Exley, is a former Deaniac. “When Dean imploded my heart got ripped out of my chest. But I got over it. Dean told us to join a local party, and so I did. I’m a precinct person. Until recently I was chair of the credentials committee. Also on the board of Florida Progressive Democrats.”
The Obama campaign also pioneered the use of social media, for online organizing and fund-raising, and as a way to get its message through a mainstream media blackout. Miers tells me Sanders is doing something different.
“The reason the IT works for us is that we’re also doing this physically. Face to face. Not just on Facebook. We use tech, but we don’t let it become a substitute for organizing,” he says.
Sejour, who worked for Obama, says the biggest contrast is what happens after the national campaign gets involved. “With Obama, too, we organized ourselves. Then they sent people down from Chicago who said ‘Thanks. Good work. We’ll take it from here.’ That hasn’t happened with Bernie. They don’t control what we do.”
* * *
The Sanders campaign’s freedom to improvise—and to respond to local conditions—may be its greatest strength. But it also makes what Sanders is doing easy to underestimate—a potential danger for a campaign constantly fighting the perception, endlessly reinforced by the media, that its cause is hopeless.
What I finally realized in Florida is that the campaign—not Sanders himself, or his paid staff, but the people who show up at his rallies, work his phone banks, and hopefully turn out to vote—comprises what Sejour calls “a loose affiliation” of three very disparate groups. One is Occupy. Though the encampments got busted, and the group itself seemed to melt away, Occupy’s radical critique not just of Wall Street, but of economic inequality itself, has found in Sanders a powerful tribune able to keep that message alive and in public view.
The second is the left-wing of the labor movement. Decimated by Ronald Reagan and given little help by either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, there remains a radical core of unions which, however diminished, still represent the only mobilized body the working class has in this country. Union workers have learned from bitter experience not to expect much from politicians—or to fall for easy promises. As Michigan shows, they are not so easily fooled about who their friends are, either. Clinton has more endorsements, from bigger unions, than Sanders. But I’ve been to dozens of Sanders events now, from New Hampshire to Florida, and the nurses have been at every single one.
The third element—and in some ways the easiest to miss—are the progressive Democrats. Some are old enough to have worked for Bobby Kennedy—or George McGovern. Others just never bought the Democratic Leadership Council’s strategy of tacking right to win back Republican voters. “I voted for Bill Clinton the first time,” says Wendy Sejour. “I thought, ‘Okay, Republicans are just evil.’ And I remember watching them on TV, when Hillary was talking about ‘super-predators’ and what happened in Haiti. My husband is Haitian.”
“When we started this caucus four years ago ‘progressive’ was still a dirty word,” says Susan Smith, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida. “But we wanted to show that we were no longer doing that corporate, moderate, scared-of-your-own-shadow politics.” Along with labor, these are the people who bring organizational savvy—and deep-rooted local knowledge—to the campaign.
“We’ve been doing this out of our living rooms,” Sejour says. “We print our own materials. I’ve created walk lists. I have access to VAN—the voter file. I can pull call lists and walk lists. We have a progressive political machine, a grass roots network that’s been working for years despite the party. But we need more people,” she says.
“Working people have been taking it up the shorts for 50 years,” says Fred Frost. “If we’re going to change things it’s up to us.” For all three groups the Sanders campaign offers a chance, as Frost says, “to keep the momentum going. This guy Bernie Sanders is a once in a lifetime candidate for us.”
* * *
Will distributed organizing win Florida for Bernie Sanders? Probably not. Clinton has the whole state party machine, from Senator Bill Nelson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz down to the mayors of Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. Sanders has his irregulars—and the tomato pickers from Immokalee. But what I realized, driving back from a wasted afternoon in Palm Beach listening to Bill Clinton compare the Sanders campaign to the Tea Party, is that when Sanders says this isn’t just about electing a president, he means it. So do his supporters.
“We are like Tea Party people, in that we are angry at the party establishment. I’ve had it up to here with centrist Republican-lite bullshit. I will no longer vote out of fear,” Wendy Sejour told me.
“Right now it’s all about Bernie,” she says. But Florida has another Democratic primary in August, and the voter lists and donor base the Floridians have assembled belong to them, not to the national campaign. Tim Canova is a law professor who worked with Florida unions against the Trans Pacific Partnership, eventually persuading most of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation to vote against fast track status. The lone exception: Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Plenty of Sanders supporters grumble at the way Shultz (co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign) often seems to have a thumb on the scales during this campaign. In January, Canova decided to do something about it, and is challenging Schultz for her seat. A quick look at Canova’s website, with its familiar blue and white color scheme, reveals his debt to Sanders—who in 2011 appointed Canova to serve on a committee with Robert Borosage, James Galbraith, Robert Reich, and Joseph Stiglitz advising him on reforming the Federal Reserve.
August will also see Patrick Murphy, a Republican construction company executive who switched parties to run against Allen West in 2012, facing a challenge from Alan Grayson for Marco Rubio’s former seat in the Senate. Murphy, who has endorsed Hillary and had Bill Clinton’s endorsement in 2012, is backed this time by President Obama as well as Joe Biden —and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Grayson, who was as member of Hillary Clinton’s Florida Leadership Council back in the fall, announced last month that he’s switching to Sanders in response to “overwhelming” support for the Vermonter in an online poll. Despite Obama’s opposition Grayson, a Nation contributor, currently has a wide lead over Murphy.
It will take a lot more than two seats to make a political revolution, of course. But these are exactly the kind of down-ballot challenges progressive Democrats need to mount if they want to stop being taken for granted—and for a ride—by corporate donors. And the Sanders campaign has given these challengers something more than donors or lists of progressive voters. It has given them inspiration.
So perhaps Bill Clinton was right to worry. Bernie Sanders may not win Florida on Tuesday. But in this state at least, his campaign will go marching on.