Sanders finds fans among Michigan Democrats

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

An emerging cadre of Michigan Democrats are backing the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has become the biggest challenger to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the party’s nomination in 2016.

A self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, Sanders is pushing a message focused on reining in money in politics, creating a single-payer or government-dominated health care system and narrowing the nation’s widening income gap between the rich and poor.

The message is resonating among some Michigan Democrats. Others say they are turned off by the former secretary of state, who arrives Tuesday for a $2,700-a-ticket fundraiser at a supporter’s Grosse Pointe home.

“I really don’t want to see her as my first woman president because I don’t think she represents us,” said Democrat Kelly Collison, a 27-year-old single mother from the Lansing area who is an organizer of a Michigan for Bernie Facebook group.

Although Clinton remains the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, Collison and others are pushing the candidacy of Sanders, a political independent in Congress who votes with the Democrats and has been gaining on Clinton in the polls and attracting large crowds across the country.

Sanders’ chiding of corporate interests and big banks enthralls his supporters, who argue Clinton is more closely aligned with the titans of Wall Street than average Americans.

As Sanders’ campaign has gained more attention, Clinton has made moves to appeal to her party’s liberal wing by proposing an increase in the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 an hour and laying out proposals related to paid sick leave and child care.

But some Democrats remain unsatisfied.

“She’s parroting a milquetoast version of what Bernie’s saying. She’s so cautious,” said state Rep. Rose Mary C. Robinson, a Detroit Democrat. “Wall Street owns her and her husband.”

Robinson, one of the Legislature’s most liberal members, acknowledges she’s been “burnt out on the Clintons” since President Bill Clinton occupied the White House for two terms during the 1990s.

Clinton to be at fundraiser

Democratic political strategist Jill Alper and her husband David Katz are hosting Clinton on Tuesday afternoon for a fundraiser at their Grosse Pointe home. The minimum ticket price of admission is $2,700, while a $50,000 donation will fetch a host sponsorship and “membership in Hillraisers program,” according to an invitation obtained by The Detroit News.

Alper is widely expected to steer the Clinton campaign in Michigan. Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 — starting a streak of six straight Democratic presidential candidate victories in the Great Lakes State.

Sanders’ Vermont-based campaign does not appear to have any on-the-ground staff in Michigan yet, though the March 8 Democratic primary is still more than seven months away.

But a growing network of grassroots Sanders supporters are forming social media campaigns and meeting weekly at bars. Nearly 200 people have signed up to attend a July 29 gathering at the HopCat bar in Midtown Detroit, said organizer Karissa Prikopa, 23, of Redford.

The “Michigan for Bernie” Facebook group is organizing other meetings for Sanders supporters that night in Ann Arbor, Imlay City, Lansing, Mecosta, Mount Pleasant, Saginaw, Traverse City and Ypsilanti.

“We have so much support, we can’t even keep track of it,” said Prikopa, who works in car sales. “People want an alternative to the mainstream candidates that we’ve had.”

But Clinton supporters doubt Sanders’ campaign will still be operating by the time Michigan primary voters go to the polls on the second Tuesday in March.

“Bernie Sanders will have a good showing in New Hampshire, a decent showing in Iowa and I think he will fade to black after that,” said T.J. Bucholz, a Democratic political consultant and Clinton supporter. “To think that any of these insurgency candidates will best Hillary Clinton beyond the early primaries is a pipe dream.”

Other Democratic nomination seekers include former Rhode Island Gov. and U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia. Vice President Joe Biden has not ruled out making a third run for the presidency.

Sanders trailing in polls

In the average of national polls, Sanders trails Clinton by 40 percentage points at 16 percent of likely Democratic primary voters. But in the early voting state of New Hampshire, Clinton’s lead narrows to 15.5 percentage points over Sanders, according to

In Michigan, a statewide poll conducted June 9-11 by Lansing-based polling firm Glengariff Group found 54 percent of likely general election voters could identify Sanders, compared with 99 percent for Clinton.

Clinton and Sanders had statistically matching unfavorable ratings among Democrats at 12 percent each. But in the favorability test, 79 percent said they had a favorable opinion of Clinton, while 29 percent viewed Sanders favorably.

“He’s going to have to really make a mark in Iowa and New Hampshire to have a real shot at propelling him in the other states that come in March,” said pollster Richard Czuba, president of the Glengariff Group.

Sanders struggles with African-American voters, a key Democratic voting bloc, Czuba said.

Clinton’s favorability rating among African American voters was 79 percent, while 14 percent of blacks had a favorable view of Sanders and 58 percent said they’ve never heard of him, the pollster said.

“It is a very large gulf,” Czuba said. “He’s got to move with the change and tap into, frankly, African-American voters who appear to be very strongly in the Clinton camp right now.”

Clinton supporters also contend Sanders could not win a general election against a Republican, except for maybe the bombastic billionaire Donald Trump.

“I think it would be extremely difficult for Sen. Sanders to win the presidency in a general election,” said David Hecker, state union president of American Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed Clinton. “I think he’d have a shot against Trump, but I just don’t think (the Republican nominee) will be Trump.”

But disenchanted Democrats supporting Sanders believe his presence is making Clinton listen to them and adjust her policy positions to be more progressive after her 2008 defeat to Barack Obama in the primaries.

“I think, just like most candidates, she’s too beholden to big money,” Ann Arbor resident Georgina Lehuray said of Clinton. “I think if anything, Bernie Sanders will pull her to the left and hopefully will keep her there if she does win the nomination. I think it’s time Democrats stand to be Democrats.”

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Bernie Sanders

Age: 73

Hometown: Burlington, Vermont

Professional experience: U.S. senator from Vermont since 2007; U.S. representative from Vermont, 1991-2006; mayor Burlington, Vermont, 1981-1990; non-political employment included brief stints as an aide at a New York psychiatric hospital, Head Start preschool teacher and property tax researcher for the state of Vermont, according to Politico magazine.

Personal background: Married since 1988 to wife Jane O’Meara Sanders. Divorced once. One adult child, Levi Sanders, from a previous non-marital relationship, according to Politico magazine.