COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — The Democrats who believe in Bernie Sanders risked leaving their cars stuck in unplowed snow for the night as they packed into a downtown theater in one of the most Republican congressional districts in America.
More than 100 people gathered Wednesday evening to hear a Sanders field director named Josh Phillips explain the campaign’s Colorado strategy. From a stage, the young Vermonter with a beard and pierced ear shot jolts into the crowd as though he wielded a Tesla coil from one of the inventor’s old work experiments in the shadows of America’s mountain.
Coming off Sanders’s near tie with Hillary Clinton in Iowa this week, this Colorado Springs event was one of several Bernie barnstorms held along the front range. Phillips made his pitch for the septuagenarian democratic socialist and longtime Independent who is running for president this year as a Democrat.
“This is the political revolution,” Phillips said, promising Sanders would fight to get big money out of politics. Phillips called Sanders a candidate for the people not the billionaires, spitting the words “corporate” and “special interest” across a mostly white audience of young folks and boomers. The smell of marijuana was at times shamelessly obvious.
But Phillips also said something else: “Colorado is a state the national campaign is looking at, not just to win, but to win big.”
And what about that revolution? It could be happening right here in the Springs. When Phillips asked the crowd to raise their hands if the Sanders campaign was the first they’d ever been involved in, nearly all of them did. He went around the room asking why Sanders, why now.
“Citizens United,” said one of the political newcomers to big applause. “To end the separation of money and state,” said a second. “I’m old and I’m pissed,” harrumphed a third. “Because I’m young, I don’t want to be the typical young person who kind of just sits around,” explained another. “I’m a veteran for Bernie. He’s been supporting us for 30 years and he’s the only one after all these others who have sent us to war,” said another. A mother of five with three jobs said every time one of her kids gets hurt, “my heart’s in my throat thinking about medical bills despite the fact that I have insurance. Healthcare is a right, it’s not a privilege.”
Phillips then asked for a show of hands of those in the crowd who had donated to the Sanders campaign. Again, nearly all went up. He asked for those who had gone out and knocked on doors for the candidate; again, nearly all hands reached for the sky.
“What the other candidates don’t have is this grassroots movement,” Phillips said.
That support was on display this week as the national campaign dispatched a handful of field staffers to Colorado for events throughout the state with 1,200 volunteers signed up. Organizers are trying to shore up committed supporters to have in each neighborhood precinct for the March 1 caucus day. With Martin O’Malley now out of the race, vote counting at the caucuses will be easier than in Iowa where Clinton edged out Sanders by a sliver.*
The Sanders campaign is selecting caucus captains who have studied the party rules so they can oversee each precinct caucus and look out for any of the “chicanery” that might have happened in Iowa, Phillips said.
“It is a massive undertaking,” he told them.
In Colorado, unaffiliated voters or those registered with another party cannot participate in the Democratic Party’s caucuses. Because of this, Sanders organizers made a big push through the fall and early winter to urge non-Democratic voters across Colorado to switch to the Democratic Party by Jan. 4.
“We called every single Bernie supporter who was not registered as a Democrat before the deadline who had to be registered as a Democrat before the deadline by January Fourth, and we got over 3,000 of our Bernie supporters to change their affiliation so that they could caucus,” Phillips said. “And now they’re stepping up to be volunteer leaders … That is how we’re going to build the movement. That’s how we’re going to get new people.”
Following Phillips’s speech, George Powell, a hip, silver-haired supporter, stood alone in a corner marked off for voters who live in House District 14, a conservative stronghold near the headquarters of the evangelical Focus on the Family. Powell actually lives in nearby Manitou Springs in House District 18 — the little snow-globe mountain town has the only two recreational pot shops in the county — but no Democrats had come from the conservative suburban District 14 to represent that area and so he carried their lonely banner.
What is it that brought Powell off the mountain from Manitou to downtown Colorado Springs on a freezing weekday evening? The Sanders trifecta.
“Oh, it’s probably the income inequality thing, Citizens United and the Koch brothers,” he said, chuckling. Colorado having a question this year about universal healthcare on the statewide ballot will “break waves for Bernie,” Powell said.
Outside in the snowy streets tires were spinning and drivers rocked their cars back and forth, edging out of parking spaces to head home from the event four weeks from caucus day.
Inside, leaning over the back of a chair as people filtered out, Lynn Goodwin, a Sanders district captain, explained what the candidate means to her from a generational perspective. She invoked his recent TV ad in Iowa titled “America,” set to the 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song.
“There are a lot of us old hippies who were planting these ideas,” she said. “We old hippies, we started this movement. The idealism, and the fairness and justice … it’s lovely to see now the millennials are picking up the second stage of that.”
*A previous version of this story referenced coin tosses.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr