Bernie Sanders backers mobilize early in hopes of Michigan primary repeat

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters on  April 13 at Macomb County Community College in Warren.

Lansing — Supporters who helped Bernie Sanders win Michigan's Democratic presidential primary in 2016 have reactivated operations and quickly established what they call an unrivaled early ground game in the state.

But as Sanders returns to Detroit this month for the second set of Democratic debates, some of his most ardent fans fear the unusually large field of candidates — and particularly Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — will split the progressive vote and complicate his prospects for a Michigan repeat. 

“It's swamped,” said Nicole Reid of Port Huron, who helps lead the grassroots St. Clair County for Bernie group. "What are there, 25 people running now? I think that the Democrats are trying to just water down Bernie. They don’t want him to win.”

As a fellow favorite of the progressive left, Warren poses the most direct threat to the Sanders in the primaries. They will square off on the debate stage July 30, the first of two nights in Detroit, along with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

But many candidates are now championing policy ideas the Vermont senator popularized more than three years ago as an avowed democratic socialist, including Medicare for All, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and free college tuition.

Loyalists are touting Sanders' authenticity and consistency, arguing he stands apart from other candidates for pushing liberal policies establishment Democrats called “too radical” in 2016. Other politicians are reading the tea leaves, supporters said. Sanders tilled the soil and grew the plants.

“What we hope is that people really listen and realize that most candidates flip-flop,” said Elayne Petrucci of Trenton, a grassroots organizer with Metro Detroit for Bernie. “Where did they stand in 2015 or 2016? Were they talking about universal health care, true single-payer health care?”

Sanders has been "talking about the same issues for decades" and can be trusted to deliver on progressive priorities, said Sam Pernick of Royal Oak, a statewide organizer with the grassroots Michigan for Bernie group.

"He's the candidate that can not only reach people who may have voted for Trump in 2016, but can bring out disaffected voters and young voters in 2020 — which didn't happen in 2016," he said.

But supporters have reason to worry, said Democratic strategist T.J. Bucholz of Lansing-based Vanguard Public Affairs. Establishment favorite Joe Biden has deep union ties that could appeal to Michigan voters Sanders courted last time as he criticized international trade deals, Bucholz noted. 

Sanders “still has a lot of resonance” with grassroots activists in Michigan, but there are “a lot more options in this cycle than last time, when basically it was Hillary versus Bernie, hyper-progressives versus more moderate members of the party,” he said. “I think the chances of Bernie cutting through are harder for him.”

Consistency can be a tough sell on the campaign trail, where a flashier promise of “hope and change” propelled Democratic President Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 and a pledge to “Make America Great Again” helped Republican President Donald Trump win in 2016.

After "feeling the Bern" last time around, Lena Thompson of Detroit is looking for a new messenger to bring a fresh perspective to familiar ideas.

“The revolution does not have to continue with the guy who started it,” said Thompson, who is “very, very” excited about both Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

Thompson represented Sanders on the platform committee at 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where she and other progressives rallied around ideas like a $15 federal minimum wage, Social Security expansion and Medicare for All. 

“It’s nice to have more people talking about these ideas than just Bernie, because he is really not saying anything new this time around,” she said. “I could still say his stump speech in my sleep, because I’ve heard it so many times around.”

Supporters take photos of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

Progressive prospects

Progressive candidates pushing the party left have had a mixed track record in Michigan since Sanders' surprise narrow 2016 win over eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. 

Endorsed by Sanders, former Detroit Health Director Abdul El-Sayed lost last year's Democratic gubernatorial primary to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But at the party's endorsement convention, activists successfully propelled progressive Attorney General Dana Nessel to a win over establishment favorite Pat Miles. 

El-Sayed, who remains a key player in Michigan progressive politics, has not yet endorsed for 2020 but is pleased that Democrats are having "an extremely robust primary."

"I think it’s really great to see how ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and running without taking any corporate money that really came out of the progressive movement have become mainstream in this presidential primary," he said. 

Sanders and Warren both bring bona fide progressive credentials to the race, El-Sayed said. 

"Sen. Sanders comes with an infrastructure that he’s already built from the 2016 campaign and is activating, so you’ve got a lot of grassroots energy here," he said. "I think a lot of the ideas that Sen. Warren is bringing to the table are really energizing folks and allowing us to envision what a progressive future could look like in our state and in our country."

Thompson lost some progressive friends in 2018, when she backed Whitmer over El-Sayed in the primary. She had already grown wary of some of Sanders' more militant followers on social media and has cut ties with some in real life.

“The game was changed” in the midterm election, Thompson said, noting historic turnout numbers and Democratic victories in Michigan and other parts of the country.

 “You can no longer say, ‘Young people don’t vote. Black people don’t vote,’” Thompson said. “Everyone voted in 2018, and women won — women won everywhere.”

Whitmer, Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson swept the top of the ticket in Michigan, while now-U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin flipped Michigan GOP seats in Congress.

“People have permission to say no old white men,” said Thompson, who is black. “They have permission to say that now within the party.”

Thompson credits Sanders for giving Democrats the language to talk about issues like income inequality in a way that resonates with “pissed off” voters. But his repetitive mantras do not impress her the way they once did.

“I would rather have someone who’s having a conversation with someone, not preaching at them,” Thompson said. “Elizabeth (Warren) is a professor, so she knows how to take complicated information and get it out there, and then Kamala (Harris) is just a badass.”

Grassroots network reactivated

Sanders already boasts a large grassroots network in Michigan because it never really went away. After the 2016 election, his campaign morphed into a group called Our Revolution that continued pushing his agenda across the country.

Local activists stayed engaged through two separate groups, Michigan to Believe In and Michigan for Revolution. When Sanders officially launched his campaign, more activists returned to the fold through groups like Michigan for Bernie and Metro Detroit for Bernie.

Local chapters have set up information tables at public events, hosted watch parties and set up phone banks to connect with likely voters, Pernick said.

Elayne Petrucci of Trenton is a grassroots organizer with Metro Detroit for Bernie.

"I think it's probably safe to say that Bernie has the strongest grassroots organization of all the (Democratic primary) candidates," he said.

Reid acknowledged she was among Sanders supporters who felt "really burned out" after he lost the nomination in 2016. But after she and others "took a little time to lick their wounds ... they were back at it again," she said. 

Petrucci, who helps run Metro Detroit for Bernie, said the group has 40 to 50 volunteers showing up at its meetings. They’ve been touting Sanders at public gatherings, including Detroit’s Eastern Market and art fairs.

“We created our own literature,” she said. “We didn’t wait for the campaign to do it ourselves. We have button makers to make our own buttons.”

While they describe Warren in respectful terms, Sanders supporters quickly noted she stood on the sidelines for most of the 2016 primaries, declining to endorse Sanders before publicly backing Clinton heading into the party’s national convention.

“Personally, I think she is great at calling out hypocrisy among the Republican Party and the nastiness, but she will not call out her own party, which I think is a crippling factor,” Petrucci said.

“You need to be able to call out corruption among everyone. Bernie is stronger in that regard. If he sees something, he’s going to call it out.”