Three helicopters hovered overhead. A sign read, “Tax the rich / Legalize drugs.” Numerous members of the fourth estate lingered on the fringes of the gathering, cameras and notebooks in hand. It was supposed to be a rally for hotel workers seeking to unionize. But a rumor that started circulating only hours before created a different kind of stir.
When the rally reached 101 California St., in the shadows of San Francisco’s most moneyed business interests, several hundred people had joined the Unite Here Local 2 hotel workers. A rally such as this, common in everyday city life, would be lucky to draw 25 to 50 people and a few, if any, members of the media.
Next to the small, cordoned-off stage stood a man with an earpiece and a pin attached to his suit coat lapel. It indicated that he worked for the U.S. Capitol Police, in charge of protecting members of Congress. He merely smiled when asked if he’d be there for any other reason than to look after a visiting U.S. senator from Vermont — one who’s hoping to remain that pesky voice of reason in the back of the nation’s head until it starts listening.
Here in The City on that Wednesday afternoon, everyone was all ears.
Bernie Sanders showed up at exactly 4:40 p.m. His appearance was between stops in San Jose in the morning and Vallejo in the evening. He made time for the hotel workers, and in one fell swoop proved he’s the candidate he claims to be: one for the proletariat, not the well-heeled minority.
But Sanders didn’t accomplish that just by showing up. He also knew where he was and who he was speaking to. He supported the workers’ quest, saying unions are important vehicles for dignified workplace treatment. He told the crowd he was shocked by the sight of so many people living on the streets of San Francisco. His wife, Jane, stood off stage, snapping pictures of her husband during his brief remarks before greeting the audience after the senator did the same.
It was as if they were just like the rest of us, because, well, they are.
It’s easy to write off Sanders and his continued candidacy as a waste of time. With Donald Trump being the presumptive Republican nominee, some argue Sanders is damaging the Democratic Party’s chances of retaining the White House. But that ignores the fact that the people who came to the union rally in The City — the legions of folks who’ve packed venues nationwide to see the man in person, the millions more who’ve donated their money and time to get him elected — are, for the most part, doing something they’ve never done before. And particularly here in California, many Sanders supporters are engaged in a primary process that has not been this important in their lifetimes. There’s life after Bernie, many say.
Frank Gamboa, 39, and his wife, Liz Martinez, 33, said after the hotel workers rally that watching Sanders in the early going made them “get off their ass,” as Martinez put it, and join the campaign as volunteers. They live in Alameda and volunteer out of Sanders’ Oakland office. They, like other Sanders supporters, believe this is the beginning of something new in U.S. politics, whether or not their guy wins. Gamboa said it’s the same way with Trump — even if you despise him, it’s undeniable that Trump, like Sanders, has galvanized people who long ago became disenchanted with politics.
The couple mentioned Tim Canova, who’s challenging Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida’s 23rd congressional district. Sanders recently came out in support of Canova, and it’s no secret that the DNC’s primary and caucus rules, not to mention superdelegates, have not always favored Sanders in his race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination.
Amanda Tucker, a 33-year-old Oakland resident who came to the rally with Gamboa and Martinez, took a tougher stance in her support of Sanders, saying come November “it’s Bernie no matter what. I’ll write in his name.”
One of the most stinging criticisms of Sanders supporters is their perceived worship of the man like he’s some kind of deity. Late-night television jokes aside, it’s obvious some folks are wearing rose-colored glasses, but others are dead serious in their convictions. Jennifer Bair, a touring musician who attended a volunteer drive in the Mission District recently, did not mince words in her assessment of Sanders’ base.
“It’s not a cult, he’s not a savior,” she said. “We are following a cause for our nation.”
Bair had joined dozens of others at Mission: Comics + Arts to learn what they could do for the Sanders campaign in the remaining weeks until California’s primary on June 7. There were men and women, minorities and majorities, gay and transgender folks, millennials and baby boomers — exactly the diverse crowds the event’s hosts said they’ve encountered every step of the way.
Clarice Corell and her husband, Jake Barlow, both 48, volunteered for the Sanders movement last year. Corell is an executive assistant, and Barlow is an unemployed app designer. The gathering they organized at Mission: Comics + Arts was a display of the grassroots force that has united behind Sanders nationwide. They’re called barnstorms — or, as Corell affectionately put it, “Bern-storms” — and they serve to recruit fresh faces and connect them with more seasoned volunteers to perform phone banking, tabling and other voter-contact efforts.
Earlier in May, Corell and Barlow were elected as delegates for Sanders in San Francisco’s 12th congressional district and could be invited to Philadelphia for the Democratic Convention in July — one that Sanders and his supporters hope is contested, which California will have a major role in deciding. Like so many others, this is the first time Corell and Barlow have been deeply involved in a political campaign.
One of the main topics at the Bern-storm was party registration, which perhaps best highlights the divide in the Democratic race.
Some states have open primaries, while others limit voting to those registered with the party. The California primary is semi-open, meaning each party is allowed to set its own rules. A voter must be registered as a Republican to vote for a GOP candidate, but the Democratic Party is allowing non-party-affiliated voters to request a primary ballot. This has created much confusion.
Barlow said he and others have encountered numerous people who believed that registering as an independent means they have no party affiliation. However, in a twist of irony, most of them are actually registered as members of the ultra-conservative American Independent Party.
This became such a big issue in the days leading up to California’s voter registration deadline this past Monday that a lawsuit was filed in hopes of extending that deadline to June 7, the day of the primary. The registrar of voters in San Francisco was named in the lawsuit, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera responded by calling it a “political stunt” without a shred of truth.
Whether or not Herrera is right is beside the point. Sanders’ campaign is bringing people into the fold who either never thought they wanted to be there or believed Washington was uninterested in their views. They may be liberal, some far to the left, but they abandoned the Democratic Party because they no longer believe in its leaders.
To combat the party affiliation issues, Barlow told folks to re-register as Democrats and to encourage others to do the same. This, he said, would make it possible to not only vote for Sanders, but to vote in other important local races, such as for candidates in San Francisco’s Democratic County Central Committee.
Thanks to Sanders, these voters now feel empowered, and they want to keep going long after June and long after November.