Bernie’s grassroots movement hopes for a comeback in Tuesday’s Illinois primary

By Alison Saldanha
Medill Reports

On a warm spring Saturday in Grant Park, where Barack Obama held his victory rally in 2008, voters waving blue and white campaign signs grooved to the beat of rock,  pop and gospel music, breaking into chants of “Feel the Bern!”

At about 2 p.m., John Lennon’s 1971 single “Power to the People” started to play as the energetic, mostly under-40 crowd broke into loud cheers to greet Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on stage.

“Hello Chicago!” he said, his voice booming through the park.

The 78-year-old presidential candidate, running for the second time, urged voters to support whoever wins the Democratic nomination. “Together we know our differences are far, far less than our differences with this dangerous president,” he said.

Sanders hit hard at his list of differences with his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, questioning Biden’s support of the Iraq War, support for budget cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and his campaign funding tied to billionaires and allied political action committees.

“Joe Biden and I are friends,” he said. “Now that the primary nomination process is coming down to two people, it is important for the American people, the people of Illinois, to understand the differences between us in terms of our record, in terms of our vision for the future.”

On Tuesday, voters in Illinois, Arizona, Florida and Ohio will head out to cast their ballots, choosing who would be the best challenger to President Trump in the November election.

Polls project Biden — who thumped Sanders in the past two primaries — to win Illinois, where 155 delegates are at stake.

Sanders, fresh from debating Biden on Sunday night, is trying to seize what may be his last chance to blunt Biden’s momentum and find a path to the nomination.

Although Biden has the support of most of the key Democrats in the state, Sanders has the best grassroots organization, said Richard Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman.

“So, it is going to be a very interesting battle between the Sanders organization that’s been working longer, and the sway that more traditional, liberal politicians hold here.”

He added that big Biden wins in Illinois, along with Florida, which offers 200 delegates, could effectively end the race for the nomination.

“One could argue South Carolina was the turning point, but [Illinois] would be creating the momentum to take the candidate probably to the nomination of the Democratic Party, particularly when added to Florida,” Simpson said.

This explains Sanders’ move to “put all his chips” in the state, said political science professor Brian Gaines of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“People are thinking that it’s Biden’s race to lose, and the assumption is that Biden’s going to do well in the South, he’s going to win Florida. So when we start looking at where Sanders can win, Illinois looks pretty important,” Gaines said, adding that “impressionistically” Sanders could take Illinois on Tuesday.

Sander’ field operation could prove particularly important on an election day when precautions against the coronavirus might impact turnout, with fewer older voters casting ballots. On the other hand, Biden has triumphed repeatedly in states where Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has suspended her campaign, had stronger ground games.

On Mar. 11, despite losing to Biden in four of six Democratic primaries held the previous day, Sanders reiterated his intention to stay in the race. He challenged the front-runner to face him on a range of national issues including health care, climate change, student debt and immigration. They debated Sunday night.

Gaines added that Biden’s surge since the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary, when the vice president won 48% of the vote compared to Sanders’ 20%, was not related to an “exceptionally good” performance in the last debate there on Feb. 24.

“He needs to be able to say, ‘Look I’m doing just fine in a one-on-one debate,’ not merely in the chaos of the 10-person debate.”

Katt Ross, 29, a social worker at a LGBTQ health center who attended the Sanders rally in Grant Park, felt certain that Sanders’ ground-game would pay off.

“Bernie’s fan base is so much more enthusiastic and mobilized and that will win this election,” she said, observing that she had not heard or seen anything similar from the Biden faction.

Another attendee, Mariam Rodriguez, 27, who also voted for Sanders in 2016, when he won 49% of the vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 51%, said she came to the rally to prove Sanders is still popular.

“I definitely want to encourage people to not give up and vote for Biden or whatever, because they feel like that’s the most sensible option — they need to know a lot of us are on Bernie’s side,” Rodriguez said. She added that she was excited to see supporters for Sanders’ progressive policies grow since his last election bid in 2016 though in fact, the senator has been polling fewer votes than he did then.

Although Sanders’ campaign put the turnout at the March 6 rally at 15,000 people, there were far fewer black supporters than he would need as a group to make a strong showing. It is Biden who is winning large majorities of African American voters state after state.

So far, the senator’s campaign, focused on economic justice, has failed to attract the majority black vote, which some experts believe is hurting his chances.

“If Democrats hope to mobilize the African American community, a Sanders-style message framing Trump as a threat to the poor and the working-class isn’t the best way to do it,” wrote Christopher Parker, a political science professor at the University of Washington. “If the goal is to maximize black turnout in 2020, a message emphasizing the threat that Trump poses to racial progress, according to our survey, is more effective.”

In an effort to mobilize working-class black voters in Illinois, Sanders’ campaign has been holding multiple canvassing events in disinvested black neighborhoods of the city for several weeks now.

In late February, a more diverse group of 18 people gathered in the basement of the Douglass branch of the Chicago Public Library in North Lawndale, on the West Side, to canvass for Sanders.

Before hitting the streets, they sat in a circle and talked about why they believed in Sanders’ campaign. Their stories made clear that they were united in their frustration with the health care, education and employment that keep them “surviving instead of thriving.”
Sanders contends that Biden must provide answers on these issues, should the former vice president win the nomination.

One of the canvassers, Beatrice Maldonado, works for a not-for-profit organization in Humboldt Park, and had just turned 26, losing the cover of her parents’ health insurance as allowed under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

“I had to make sure I found a job that would offer health benefits, which still doesn’t compare to the health insurance plan I had lost,” she said. “I kind of feel like I’ve just been out here coasting, barely getting by, not really thriving, not really suffering, it’s just been really difficult.”

“You go to school and you do what you have to do, and it’s still impossible just to make a decent living. So when you see somebody like Bernie Sanders as an advocate for all of us, it just gives you hope that we really can change the system.”

When the canvassers broke into pairs, Thaddeus Andry, an architect who works on corporate interiors in downtown Chicago, knocked on doors near the library, named after former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who famously said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”

“I believe if Bernie Sanders is elected, it will be the greatest transfer of wealth into the black community, the working people,” said the 31-year-old resident of the Hermosa neighborhood, who grew up in Austin with his brother and single mother.

He unlatched the gate of the first house on the street, carefully avoiding doors he had knocked on the week before.

“If I’m looking out for the interests of my community, then I am going to support the people I think are best equipped to make the best choices for people like me, I’m going to advocate for the person who wants to transfer some of that wealth to working America, because wealth translates into the power,” Andry said.

Over the next hour, he visited 30 homes in the neighborhood. Some residents told him they were busy, or not interested, while others refused to answer the door.

One of the people Andry tried approaching on the sidewalk, a lanky man in his twenties shrugged nonchalantly when asked whom he would support in the upcoming elections.

“I don’t vote, man, I don’t believe in politics, nobody cares about us,” the man said, brushing off Andry’s attempts to convince him otherwise.

A Biden supporter, Debra Buffington-Adams, 69, a retired teacher from Woodlawn, said Sanders does not understand the needs of the black community.

“His people are going to be so disappointed if he wins, because he is not going to be able to deliver on these promises,” she said later by telephone, referring to Sanders’ advocacy of Medicare for all, free college tuition and a Green New Deal. “Nothing comes for free, so free health care is going to come out of their taxes. Now, how many Americans are willing to pay higher taxes?”

Instead, she said, Biden’s focus on helping black businesses and reversing redlining — the racially discriminating practice of denying loans and insurance to neighborhoods on the basis of race or ethnicity — is more in tune with the black community’s needs.

“He takes the needs of the community to heart and that’s why there’s so many who have embraced him, because they trust him,” she said.

While Sanders attracts the support of younger, more politically or socially active African Americans, Biden would still win the African American vote,  Simpson believes. Part of it, he said, is “sort of a natural support for being vice president to Barack Obama.”

On a Tuesday evening, a predominantly white group of about 12 people bustled around a narrow office at an “Illinois for Biden” phone banking event held at the 2nd Ward Democrats office in West Town. BIDEN and JOE2020 posters adorned the space.

Volunteers sat at desks, facing each other as they talked on their cellphones and jotted down notes at the phone bank, which had been operating since early March.

“Right now, here in Illinois, we’re kind of still starting to build this campaign,” said volunteer Carrie Patch, 24, who reported that this was the largest group of volunteers yet. She expected turnout to grow in the coming days.

Patch was a Sanders supporter in 2016, drawn by his promise to end student debt. As she grew more involved in politics and studying policy, however, she turned to Biden.

“I do like Bernie Sanders, but I don’t think that he can get the nomination and defeat Donald Trump. That’s what scares me about him,” Patch said. “His ideas are so progressive that I don’t think that people who are a little bit more conservative would vote for him. They would just automatically vote for Donald Trump and Trump would win and that would be the end of that.”

Biden is largely relying on endorsements from Illinois’ local and state leadership to win votes, said supporters and experts alike.

While Sanders has the endorsement of longtime ally, Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, as well as longtime civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the vice president recently won the endorsement of Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as well as Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“I think he’s really just relying on elite endorsements and positive press to get undecided voters who are thinking almost exclusively about ‘How can we beat Trump?’ rather than, ‘Do I love Biden?’” Gaines said.

He added that while Sanders has a passionate, committed base of supporters, to win Illinois and get the nomination, he must now convince undecided voters: “I think every ethnic group has a set of voters who are still thinking that way,” the professor said. “They don’t have Biden t-shirts or Sanders t-shirts, they’re just thinking: ‘I want our party to win.’”

Photo at top: Supporters for Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders hold up letters spelling out the Vermont senator’s name at a rally at Grant Park in Chicago on Mar 6. Campaign organizers estimate 15,000 people attended the rally to hear Sanders speak. (Alison Saldanha/MEDILL)