BernieCrats bring Sanders’ message to state House races

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Bernie Sanders is falling short of becoming the Democratic nominee for president, but a handful of state House candidates are answering the Vermont U.S. senator’s call to carry on his “democratic socialist” vision by running for office.


At least six candidates inspired by or aligned with Sanders, a political independent before running for president, are competing in the Aug. 2 Democratic primaries for the Michigan House of Representatives.

“We’re called BernieCrats, unofficially,” said Elayne Petrucci of Trenton, one of four Democrats running in the competitive 23rd House district primary.

“There is not an ‘official platform,’ but it’s the basic idea that we need universal health care, that money in politics corrupts and the idea that big corporations need to be paying their fair share.”

Many of the Sanders supporters or sympathizers said they prefer to be called “progressive” instead of liberal because they tend to be further to the left politically. They especially embrace Sanders’ call for a political insurgency.

“This is a movement and revolution through our entire political system — it’s more than just a presidential election,” said Kelly Collison, founder of the Michigan for Bernie Grassroots group, who is not a candidate herself.

Experts say the political newcomers may not necessarily make a mark this fall, but they could be part of a wave building toward a future sea change in the Democratic Party.

“If Hillary Clinton wins and doesn’t listen to the drum beat — especially from younger people and young women — and they don’t like what they see in the first years of her administration, I think you’re going to see the phenomenon explode in the midterms,” said Democratic consultant T.J. Bucholz of Vanguard Public Affairs in Lansing, referring to the 2018 election.

Clinton was expected to run away with the Democratic nomination, but Sanders mounted a competitive campaign that notched victories in 22 states including the March 8 Michigan primary, which remains one of the biggest surprises of the election cycle.

The 74-year-old politician has refused to end his campaign despite Clinton’s decisive delegate advantage heading into the July 25-28 Democratic nominating convention in Philadelphia, where he hopes to influence the party platform.

“We need new blood in the political process, and you are that new blood,” Sanders told supporters earlier this month.

Candidate Elayne Petrucci says BernieCrats believe that money corrupts politics and big corporations should pay their fair share.

Democratic divide

The six state House candidates filed before Sanders’ call to action, but “Bernie has kind of been saying that all along — that we need to be in every level,” said Petrucci, who filed her paperwork three days before the state’s April 22 deadline after receiving encouragement during an activist meeting at a Sanders’ campaign office.

Although Sanders said last week he will vote for Clinton in the general election over presumptive Republican nominee and New York businessman Donald Trump, he continues to push for change within the party.

The energy created by Sanders eventually could be “powerful for the party because it engages young people in a positive way,” Bucholz said. “But in the short term, it’s a headache for Hillary.”

Like Petrucci, Nicole Reid of Warren did some volunteer work for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign but had not run for office before this year. Reid said she wants the party to move in a more progressive direction than she thinks Clinton will take it.

“The Democratic Party might actually split as a result of this election cycle,” said Reid, who is mounting a long-shot bid to unseat incumbent state Rep. John Chirkun of Roseville in the 22nd District primary. “I think the people at the head of the (Democratic National Committee) are almost Republicans.”

Eric Anderson of Hastings, running in the 87th District, is not sure he considers himself a Democrat but said he was inspired to run because of the success Sanders had “in speaking a completely different language” than most politicians.

“He almost perfectly mimics my thought processes, in that he’s an independent progressive who’s never been affiliated with the Democratic Party even though he caucuses with them,” he said.

Anderson is the only Democrat seeking the open seat but will be a heavy underdog in his general election matchup with Republican Julie Calley of Portland, the wife of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

Dennis Black of Detroit, who faces an uphill battle as he takes on incumbent Rep. Stephanie Chang and five other Democrats in the 6th District primary, said he’s generally to the left of Democrats on most issues.

“The reason (Sanders) ran as a Democrat for president is the same reason I’m running as a Democrat for state House,” he said. “It’s party identification. I’m going to where the people are.”

Some Sanders backers remain lukewarm when it comes to Clinton, but many are enamored with Democratic Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive favorite who Clinton could tap as a running mate, although Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine appears to be a top prospect.

“I think Elizabeth Warren could solve many of the problems Hillary Clinton has on her left flank,” Bucholz said. “There are some saying Warren is bad because she’s been so-anti-Wall Street, but anybody who knows this country and says there shouldn’t be some reforms isn’t paying attention.”

Campaign reform amplified

Sanders supporters are running as progressive Democrats, but some of them are also comfortable with the democratic socialist label the presidential candidate has embraced, even though it may turn off some voters.

“I think the term does scare some people, but for the people who do pay attention and do a little bit of research, they realize his policies would be good for the country,” Reid said.

Betsy Coffia of Traverse City is running her third consecutive state House campaign in the 104th District, where she came within 6 percentage points in the 2014 general election without accepting contributions from special interest groups.

While Sanders did not motivate her to run for office, Coffia said his presidential run and platform has helped her “move the needle” in a traditionally conservative area.

“I really appreciate that the issue of money in politics is getting this attention and traction and the national level,” said Coffia, who’s competing against Megan Crandall of Traverse City in the Democratic primary. “It’s what we’ve been talking about the last two election cycles.”

House candidate Sean Mullally, who endorsed Sanders but intends to vote for Clinton if she is the nominee, said Sanders has given voice to progressives and helped amplify his message in the 92nd District, where he’s competing in the Democratic primary along with fellow Muskegon resident Terry Sabo Jr.

“Our system is broken right now, and we need to talk about things like fundamental campaign finance reform, redistricting and increased accountability for public officials,” Mullally said. “If our system of government doesn’t work, then we’re not going to be able to solve other societal problems.”

6 districts

The candidates in the six Michigan House of Representative primaries where supporters or sympathizers of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders are running:

District 6: Rep. Stephanie Chang of Detroit, Deirdre Jackson of Detroit, Donnie N. Malone Jr., Dwayne Redding of Detroit, David Sanchez of Detroit, Casondria Walker-Keith of Ecorse, Dennis L. Black of Detroit

District 22: Rep. John Chirkun of Roseville, Jeff Bonnell of Roseville, Nicole Reid of Warren

District 23: Sherry A. Berecz of Brownstown Township, Darrin Camilleri of Brownstown Township, Steven Rzeppa of Trenton, Elayne Petrucci of Trenton

District 87: Eric Anderson of Hastings (no primary opponent)

District 92: Gail Eichorst of Muskegon, Terry J. Sabo of Muskegon, Sean Mullally of Muskegon

District 104: Megan Crandall of Traverse City, Betsy Coffia of Traverse City

Source: Michigan Secretary of State’s Office