By Arthur A. Schwartz
By the time you read this, the Iowa Caucus results will be counted and either Bernie Sanders will have won or he will have suffered a narrow loss. Whichever way it goes, his campaign has awakened a movement in America which must not be lost.
I haven’t been to Iowa, and I am not planning a trip to New Hampshire. But I am at the epicenter of the Bernie Sanders campaign in New York State, and it is joyous to see what positive energy can achieve.
Back in December I received a call from someone in Vermont who I had met at a fledgling citywide meeting of Bernie Sanders supporters. “Senator Sanders would like you to be his campaign lawyer in New York State.” My main job would be to help set up and supervise the petitioning operation, and get Bernie and a slate of Democratic Convention delegate candidates on the ballot.
What I have watched over the last seven weeks is like a scene out of an inspiring movie. While the Hillary Clinton campaign advertises for petitioners at $10 an hour, the Bernie campaign has volunteers coming out of windows. An email to New York State contributors resulted in 23,000 people volunteering to petition. One hundred sixty-eight people were chosen to run for delegate slots (including me, and former State Senator Tom Duane), and a group of core volunteers was created in every Congressional District in the State. I am not talking about cores of five. In Ulster and Dutchess counties, 200 volunteers have brought in over 6,000 signatures. An Upper West Side group, braving cold and snow, has delivered 4,000. After four weeks, I had 60,000 signatures piled up in my office library.
On January 9 a national Sanders staffer scheduled five public meetings for January 11 and 12th to train people to use a new smart phone app for making phone calls to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. So many people signed up overnight that the number of meetings doubled, to ten. More than 1,000 people showed up. On January 4 an emailed invitation was received by volunteers: Bernie would be at Town Hall on January 5 to talk about Wall Street. Overnight, 1,500 people turned out. After his speech he walked down Fifth Avenue and was mobbed.
Although the media frames Bernie’s campaign support as “young,” the NYC turnout and participation has cut across all ages. I helped raise money to send an 84-year-old retired union organizer to Iowa, and busloads of Legal Aid lawyers are headed to New Hampshire. And they are moved because they see a politician who they believe is not talking out both sides of his mouth, who appears to be resolute and sincere, and who will compromise only when the compromise is principled. Perhaps most importantly, Bernie is telling his supporters that if he is elected, they will play a role—en masse—in pushing to solve the major problems the U.S. faces, whether it be overly expensive and often unavailable healthcare, the poor quality of American schools, the crushing expense of higher education, climate change, or the growing impoverishment of working people. And, of late, despite Hillary’s efforts to wrap herself in Obama, Bernie is the candidate whose audiences chant, as Obama’s did: “Yes We Can!” as he urges them to dream about a better world. Hillary has been saying that she’s the “practical candidate of incremental change;” those words are not inspirational.
I saw similar energy in 2007 and 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for President. But Barack told the mass movement he inspired to go home. Bernie has promised never to do that—and that promise has unleashed energy that will not only engulf my office; it will have the potential to change the way we do politics in this country.
Arthur Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader in Greenwich Village and a candidate for New York State Assembly, and a Bernie Sanders pledged delegate to the Democratic National Convention.