Sen. Bernie Sanders endorses Portland's minimum wage proposal

Nov. 3—U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is the latest well-known name to endorse Question D, the citizen-initiated referendum to raise Portland's minimum wage and eliminate the tip credit.

In an email to supporters Thursday, Sanders said Portland "has the potential to pass the most progressive, inclusive minimum wage initiative in the history of the United States — Question D."

He urged voters to sign a petition to show their support.

Sanders is the latest in a flurry of last-minute endorsements secured by One Fair Wage, a national group focused on eliminating subminimum wages that allow certain workers, such as restaurant servers, to earn less than the standard minimum wage.

Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and actress Jane Fonda also endorsed Question D within the last week.

Neither Sanders' campaign nor his office responded to inquiries Thursday asking for more information on his support for the ballot measure. Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, said the senator has been working with that organization for years on minimum wage issues.

'NOT SOMETHING MY CREW WANTS'

Opponents of Question D have focused on the elimination of the tip credit, saying it could reduce tips, lead to increased costs and unintended consequences such as restaurant closures or more automation.

Matt Marks, a spokesperson for Enough is Enough, which opposes all 13 referendum initiatives, said he doesn't think the endorsements will make a difference. What's more important are the voices of local workers, he said.

"The people we've brought forward are all from here," Marks said. "They're working here. They have businesses here. They vote here ... What truly matters is the people affected by this — the restaurant workers or ride-share drivers. They're people who usually aren't political but are stepping outside their normal boundaries to make sure their voices are heard."

One of those people is Becky Rand, the owner of Becky's Diner on Commercial Street. Rand recently appeared in an ad for Enough is Enough and said Thursday the recent endorsements were made without input from businesses. She said she and her staff are opposed to eliminating the tip credit.

"It's not something my crew wants," Rand said. "That's what's disturbing to me. They're trying to fix something that's not broken."

DO ENDORSEMENTS MATTER?

In general, endorsements tend to make less difference the more well-known and national the issue or position at stake is, said Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington.

"Where an endorsement is more likely to matter is in a local race like this where voters don't have as much information and you don't have parties on the ballot," Melcher said. "In this case, voters may be looking for information and it's harder to find out how to vote. There's no, 'I usually vote for a Republican,' or 'I usually vote for a Democrat.' "

In a lower turnout election, an endorsement from someone well-known can be effective in getting people's attention, he said. It's unlikely an endorsement would boost turnout by 20%, but it may bring out a few more voters.

"For younger voters, somebody like Bernie Sanders might spur them to pay more attention," Melcher said. "A more moderate Democrat might look at what Hillary Clinton is saying and say, 'Maybe this isn't so radical. Maybe this might work.' "

There is a risk, however. "You might see some pushback from people saying, 'What do these people who don't live here know about us?' " Melcher said, adding that kind of reaction is more likely in a statewide election.

"It's another piece in the puzzle," Melcher said. "An endorsement probably won't swing a single voter a particular way, but if it's going to matter in any kind of race, this is the race where it will matter."

'PART OF SOMETHING LARGER'

Question D was put on the ballot by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America's Livable Portland campaign, which has said it's expected to raise wages for about 22,000 workers across the city. Jayaraman said the recent wave of endorsements isn't meant to replace local support, but rather to augment it.

"Portland workers have been talking and working on this issue a long time," Jayaraman said. "They initiated it, not Bernie Sanders or any of these people. These people are expressing support for the local folks that are doing it."

Wes Pelletier, chair of the Livable Portland campaign, said he hasn't been surprised by the endorsements because eliminating the subminimum wage is a national issue. He said the endorsements should boost turnout.

"It's exciting," Pelletier said. "People feel like they're part of something larger, because this is a larger part of the fight for labor rights nationwide."