COLORADO SPRINGS — On the outskirts of town, in a nondescript office building festooned with red-white-and-blue bunting and political tchotchkes, an effort is underway at this city’s Hillary Clinton campaign headquarters to lure supporters of Bernie Sanders back from the brink.
It’s July 13, the evening after the U.S. senator from Vermont endorsed his onetime rival for the White House. In a small back room, about 10 volunteers are making phone calls on Clinton’s behalf in a heavily Republican area of a state where Democrats went for Sanders by 19 points during the March 1 caucuses.
The theme of the evening is unity. A woman in her 20s stills wears a Bernie 2016 shirt.
“I definitely still am a supporter of Bernie Sanders,” says Sean O’Brien, dressed in a Broncos T-shirt and mesh shorts, who is working on data entry for Clinton’s Colorado campaign. “But unity. I think we need all the help we can get to stop Donald Trump.”
The 19-year-old is one of the thousands of Coloradans who swarmed the caucuses on March 1, leading to record turnout. In Colorado, a grassroots uprising crushed the Clinton campaign on caucus day despite the state’s party elite being firmly behind her candidacy, from each member of the Democratic congressional delegation to Gov. John Hickenlooper.
O’Brien doesn’t know if he would have gotten involved in the Democratic Party machine if not for the political revolution Sanders promised during his campaign. But now he is staying involved— and working to get the party’s presumed nominee elected— even though Clinton is not his preferred choice. He got a phone call recently from a Hillary operative asking if he would help out.
The transition for other Coloradans has not been as smooth.
Take Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton, one of only a handful of lawmakers in Colorado to publicly support Sanders before the caucuses. As a delegate to the July 25 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he’s staying committed to his candidate.
The morning after Sanders endorsed Clinton, Salazar says he got an email from an official he characterized as high up in the Democratic Party— he declined to say who it was— essentially telling him he needed to get on board with Clinton. Salazar took a different tack than O’Brien.
“I hit back at him,” Salazar told The Colorado Independent. He says he told the party official that for the past five years the party hasn’t been listening to him and others about what it needs to do to win over younger voters. Instead, party leaders have called Salazar a troublemaker and a rabble rouser.
“There’s this arrogance within the Democratic Party that we’re supposed to unify around a person,” Salazar says. “No. We’re supposed to unify around principle and values, and the chosen candidate adheres to those things. And that’s what party unity comes from … and that’s what they’re not getting. And it’s just infuriating to me because these are really intelligent people.”
What Salazar wants to see from the party is, among other things, the abolition of superdelegates and a full-throated rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership global trade agreement.
Later on Tuesday, after Sanders endorsed Clinton, the U.S. Senate’s longest serving independent held a 38-minute conference call with his delegates from around the country.
“I think right now where we are at is working with the Clinton people … and our goal right now is to come together to do everything we can to defeat Donald Trump,” Sanders said on the call.
But Sanders also told his delegates they should still vote for him at the Philly convention if they have the chance.
“My hope is we can get 1,900 votes on the first ballot,” Sanders said.
Salazar, who was on the call, says he’ll vote for Sanders if there is a roll call vote.
“If Hillary Clinton happens to be the nominee then I will vote for her, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she gets my endorsement,” Salazar told The Independent. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done by Hillary Clinton in order to get my endorsement, and by the Democratic Party. And I know that’s how thousands of Bernie supporters in the state of Colorado feel, too.”
In Denver, someone defaced a mural of Sanders, writing the word SELLOUT above his name.
Some of his supporters have already bolted from the Democratic Party in Colorado.
“Yesterday, I switched my party affiliation to Green after being a Democrat for more than 29 years,” one Sanders supporter, Luchia Brown of Denver, told The Independent on Wednesday. “I know tons of others who did the same.”
Hashtags popped up dedicated to such efforts. #Dexit. #Demexit. #BernieOrBust.
At least one Colorado Sanders delegate, Tom Grushka, has resigned his position as a delegate to the national convention, the state party confirmed.
For her part, Brown, now a member of the Green Party, hasn’t given up on the idea that the democratic socialist from Vermont could still make it to the White House.
“After the convention, if Bernie is not the nominee, there is still the chance he could run with Jill Stein on the Green ticket,” Brown says. “She has offered him the top spot. While some may fear that a third party will give Trump the election, others believe that enough Republican voters will go for the [Libertarian] candidate Gary Johnson to make a run on the Green ticket a viable option.”
Jonathan Singer, a Sanders-supporting Democratic House member who lives in Longmont, has said that those feeling the Bern in Colorado are some of the most intellectually and politically diverse groups he has ever worked with. Understandably, there’s a range of emotion in the days after the endorsement.
JoyAnn Ruscha, a Denver-based Sanders delegate who also worked on the campaign staff, for example, says she’s frustrated with her Bernie-or-bust cohorts, but she also believes all this talk about unity from the party might be coming a bit too soon.
“Let me go to Philadelphia to cast my vote for the candidate I think is most fit to be president before you ask me to rally around someone else,” she says. “Simply put, a cry for party unity before the convention is premature.”
To be sure, the Colorado Democratic Party is not in anything like a meltdown. Plenty of pragmatic Sanders supporters saw the Clinton endorsement coming.
Mike Maday, a Sanders delegate in Colorado Springs, is one of them. He always felt Bernie was about pushing ideas and policies, and he sees him in that role regardless of his status going into the convention. Sanders, he says, was instrumental in pushing for progressive planks in the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform on which delegates will vote in Philly. Issues like expanded Medicaid and Medicare coverage, greater funding for community health centers, strong language in the platform about a $15 minimum wage, campaign finance reform and overturning Citizens United are among them.
“We still have issues to look at in terms of Democratic Party rules, superdelegates being one issue, open primaries being another,” Maday says. “Generally I think we’re getting a lot of what we wanted. Not the candidate we wanted necessarily, but I think Hillary Clinton is a way better choice than Donald Trump.”
Maday was a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where he says media were looking to elevate tensions between Obama and Clinton supporters because conflict makes for good coverage. But things went smoothly then, and he expects they will again. It’s still early. Emotions are running high.
At the 2008 convention, “Every question I got asked was … ‘How will the party survive this?’ he says. “And the reality was we were doing just fine. As everybody saw, the Clinton people came together with the Obama people and we did well there. I think that’s what’s going to happen here.”
Photo credit: Allen Tian