Buffalo—Before Bernie Sanders spoke to over 11,000 people on Monday at the University of Buffalo, he made a brief unscheduled stop. The crowd in the alumni arena was more diverse than most Sanders rallies—not as diverse as Buffalo itself, a city where non-Hispanic whites are in the minority, but with a greater number of black and brown faces than I’d seen in other rallies in other parts of the country. And like every Sanders rally I’ve been to, the crowd was happy to be there, shouting “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” at every rumor of the candidate’s appearance, and gleefully taking selfies of one another before, during, and after Sanders’s 90 minute speech.
The audience at Sanders’s first stop was a lot quieter, a lot older, a lot whiter—and a whole lot smaller. They were pleased to see Sanders, but there was no mistaking the scene at Local 1122 of the Communications Workers of America for a rock concert or a sporting event. These were 25 shop stewards at Verizon who had to prepare their members to go on strike on Wednesday morning, and the mood in the room was a mixture of anxiety and defiant anger.
“It’s getting old, having to fight just to keep our jobs,” said Larry Turner, a 25 year veteran. “Ever since the merger with Bell Atlantic [in 2000] it seems like we have to keep fighting just to stay in place. They were supposed to be building FiOS [fast broadband] here in Buffalo and they just stopped.”
When Sanders arrived, the stewards, who had been discussing the likelihood that Verizon would try to discipline or discharge members, interrupted their strategy session to listen to the man Larry Cohen, the former president of the union who now leads Labor for Bernie, told them had always had their backs. “I want to thank you for standing up to the outrageous greed of corporate America,” Sanders told them, pointing out that Verizon had booked $ 39 Billion in profits over the past three years. The company recently bid billions for the loss-making Yahoo—yet continues to demand its workers pay more for their health coverage.
Sanders didn’t stay long—only about 15 minutes. Then he was off to the university, where after brief speeches from local activists he was again introduced by Cohen—who had the whole arena shouting along in a call and response: “What do we do when we’re attacked? We stand up, and fight back!”
On paper, Buffalo doesn’t look like Sanders country. Two years ago, when Zephyr Teachout’s underfunded campaign gave Andrew Cuomo a bloody nose in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Cuomo carried Erie County by a 52 percent margin. In a city that has been losing population since before World War Two the Democratic Party—and the patronage it can wield in government—has long been the area’s only lifeline. The African-American vote is a big part of that—which is why Byron Brown, who became Buffalo’s first black mayor in 2005, is still in office.
Yet Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, chair of Young Black Democrats of Western New York, told me that in her part of town “the community is leaning heavily towards Sanders.”
Her confidence was matched by Brian Nowak, who started organizing Buffalo For Bernie ten months ago. “We’ve got the numbers. We can win this,” he said. Win or lose, Nowak added, “Bernie’s going to leave town. We’re still here, and we need to organize.”
A candidate fixated on the White House doesn’t keep 11,000 people waiting so he can cheer up a couple of dozen shop stewards nervous before a big strike. But Bernie Sanders did. Because for him, too, this has never been just about winning the nomination—or the presidency.