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Bernie Sanders has a message for his most dedicated supporters. Unlike in 2016, when he was also the runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, he will not be leading a long march to the convention. This time he is working with Joe Biden and wants to get him to the White House.
This is the message he will convey Wednesday night in a phone call with some of the more than 1,000 delegates he won during the primaries. But he will also outline areas where he hopes his supporters will continue to push the Democratic Party establishment to the left on a host of issues, while also telling his backers, in the words of someone close to the Vermont senator, that they have already “accomplished a lot” and made “constructive gains” on that front.
But for some of Sanders’s most vocal supporters, including former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, their work is far from over, and progressives must be prepared to keep pressure on the party even after a Biden win.
“We’re also organizing to have the progressive wing of the party in the ready should Biden win,” Turner told Yahoo News. “From the day he’s sworn in ... not giving him a moment’s rest. You’re not going to have any more honeymoons.”
Sanders plans to participate in a formal acclamation releasing the delegates he won in the primary to Biden following the roll call at the convention next month, which is mostly taking place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday evening’s call, he also plans to tell his supporters and delegates that he feels Biden’s team has been “pretty respectful and decent” toward him and the resurgent progressive movement he’s led since 2016.
It’s a marked contrast from 2016, when Sanders continued his presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton well into the summer, long after it was clear she had the votes to win the Democratic nomination. Relations between the Sanders and Clinton camps were acrimonious, and many Sanders supporters engaged in vocal protests against Clinton — including on the convention floor.
It’s a bitter memory for Clinton and other establishment Democrats who blamed Sanders supporters for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, particularly since Trump won by razor-thin margins in key states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.
This time, following a strong showing in the early states, Sanders ended his campaign in April after heavy losses. And since then he has largely marched in lockstep with Biden in an effort to keep the party together and focused on beating Trump.
Earlier this month, Sanders praised recommendations drawn up by a Democratic Unity Task Force as a compromise that “will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR.” And — in part due to the pandemic moving the convention online — some Sanders diehards who planned to protest Biden will be staying home.
Still, some of Sanders’s most influential and prominent backers have been organizing opposition to the Democratic Party establishment ahead of the convention.
Turner was a high-profile surrogate for Sanders in 2016 and became a co-chair of his presidential campaign this year, making her one of his most visible allies. Now she’s a strategic delegate adviser to RootsAction.org, one of three groups sponsoring the Bernie Delegates Network — an organization dedicated to working with the representatives to the Democratic convention that he won in the primary to keep the party’s left wing active and influential despite Biden’s victory.
In a conversation with Yahoo News earlier this month, Turner said the group includes people who were elected Sanders delegates in 2016 and 2020 as well as leading progressive activists who may not have previously been involved in internal Democratic Party politics. She describes the coalition as made up of what she calls “Berniecrats.”
“They really care from a humanistic point of view about what is going on in this country and in this world. And they want to see wholesale systemic change. They do want that revolution,” Turner said of the Berniecrats, adding, “They don’t really care about the party; they care about the issues.”
Turner and other leaders of the Berniecrats aren’t satisfied with the Unity Task Force that Sanders is set to praise Wednesday night. The task force compiled a long list of policy recommendations that, in some cases, were cribbed directly from Sanders’s campaign platform. But Turner noted that the policies were simply suggestions.
She also said that elements of the Berniecrat agenda — including nationwide marijuana legalization, the ending of America’s wars abroad and large reductions in military spending — were not backed by the task force.
“OK, they put out the damn task force. You know, they’re pretending like it’s kumbaya. The major issues that we care about are not anywhere to be seen,” Turner explained.
Norman Solomon, the national director of the RootsAction group and a Sanders delegate, likewise said progressives “can’t be satisfied” and must “keep pushing” for their policy goals.
“We’re not going to be satisfied ... until health care as a human right isn’t just rhetoric, it’s a reality — and we have many other topics,” Solomon said.
Despite his early exit, Sanders won seven states during the primary, including major victories in Iowa, New Hampshire and California. The primary will officially wrap up next month after a final vote in Connecticut, but so far Sanders has earned more than 1,070 delegates. Biden, meanwhile, has more than 2,600 delegates. But those numbers ensure that Sanders’s supporters are in a position to be a prominent voice at the convention.
Turner and other progressive activists are eager to use that clout. And they are working to draft what she called a “manifesto” of items they hope to see adopted as part of the Democratic platform.
The Sanders wing of the party has scored a few victories since the Vermont senator left the race. Rep. Ro Khanna, another prominent Sanders backer, has been selected to co-chair California’s delegation to the convention, along with progressive Rep. Barbara Lee and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, a Biden ally. That will give Khanna and Lee a significant degree of influence in the crafting of this year’s Democratic platform, which Sanders’s supporters hope will be the most progressive in modern political history.
“It gives the power to be able to go into the convention and flex,” Turner said of Khanna’s appointment.
Party platforms are nonbinding and in many ways largely symbolic documents used to promote unity within the ranks. Nevertheless, a platform is valuable as a statement of what the party’s voters want from their candidates. And data shows elected members of a given party largely tend to vote in line with the positions outlined in a platform.
The Biden campaign responded to the Berniecrats’ platform push by stressing that the former vice president is eager to work with progressives.
“Uniting the party and bringing people together is core to who Joe Biden is, and the goal of our campaign has always been to build the broadest, most diverse coalition to beat Donald Trump,” a Biden aide, who requested anonymity to discuss campaign deliberations, said.
For its part, the Democratic National Committee has stressed progressive elements of the party’s platform and the fact that it was crafted with Sanders’s input. A DNC official said a draft of the platform, which was sent out to party leaders on Tuesday evening, was crafted through “unprecedented collaboration between representatives of Vice President Biden and Sen. Sanders.”
The DNC official, who requested anonymity to discuss the process, noted that the platform draft included “strong actions toward achieving universal health care” along with steps for addressing climate change and “revitalizing American diplomacy.”
Along with the platform, the Berniecrats are pushing to keep rule changes that will be ratified at the convention. While Turner said Sanders has not been involved with the Bernie Delegates Network so far, he plans in his call on Wednesday evening to urge his supporters to ensure that reforms he pushed for after the 2016 race are reinstituted ahead of the 2024 campaign.
Those rule changes included measures that limited the influence of unelected superdelegates — a group of party insiders who are automatically made delegates regardless of who wins the most votes during the primaries.
“[Sanders] wants to make sure that there’s a level playing field for future candidates and preserve those same reforms. We’d like to make sure that’s high on the agenda,” the source close to Sanders said.
Sanders also plans to express support for the efforts to push the party platform to the left, although the source said the senator won’t delve deeply into specifics, since he doesn’t want to “micromanage” the process.
Even with Sanders himself emphasizing his collaboration with Biden, the prospect of his supporters and activists agitating ahead of the convention likely conjures up some bad memories of 2016 among those who continue to blame Sanders for Clinton’s loss.
Turner dismissed concerns that more moderate Democrats might have about the progressive push. Those moderates, she said, want left-leaning voters to “take a blood oath to a party, where Berniecrats care more about actions and getting things done.”
Turner also rejects the premise that agitation from the Sanders wing of the party is a boon to Trump. She said the Berniecrats are simply “making demands for a better life,” and the onus is on Biden and the party to effectively respond to those concerns.
“What enables Trump to win is if the Democratic Party does not seize this opportunity to say to the American people that once our party members of our party are elected, you’re going to see a material difference in your life,” said Turner.
Solomon, RootsAction’s national director, argued that the progressive efforts will actually help Biden defeat Trump. He pointed out that young voters who have been somewhat unenthusiastic about Biden largely back a progressive agenda and cited the fact that Sanders’s Medicare for All universal health care plan enjoys widespread popularity.
“We’re trying to save the Biden campaign from itself,” Solomon said. “We’re trying to help Biden win by moving him in a more progressive direction.”
Ultimately, Solomon said, “I completely support defeating Trump and I completely support voting for Biden.”
“RootsAction is going to work very hard to get Biden elected,” he added.
But the Berniecrat delegates aren’t only targeting the convention. On Monday, over 140 of Sanders’s California delegates sent an open letter to Biden urging him to pick a progressive running mate.
Specifically, the letter called for him to choose from among three black women: Turner, Rep. Barbara Lee or Rep. Karen Bass. None of the three are among the names widely believed to be leading Biden’s shortlist.
That move underscores another Berniecrat aspiration, which is to raise the profile of progressives who might one day take up the Vermont senator’s mantle, such as Khanna, Lee, Bass or Turner. The three members of Congress touted by the Berniecrats did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
However, Turner, who has been out of elected office since she lost a bid to become Ohio’s secretary of state in 2014, said she was “highly honored” by progressive calls to have her on Biden’s ticket, although she was otherwise coy about her future plans.
“We shall see. I always hold open, on my list of next pursuits, running for office again,” Turner said. “There are many people who would love to see me run again.”
Cover thumbnail photo: John Minchillo/AP
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