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Sanders’ Western New York donors cut across grass roots

You won’t find them nibbling hors d’oeuvres at former Ambassador Anthony Gioia’s house.

They aren’t posing for photos with Hillary Clinton at the Hyatt.

But you might know some of Bernie Sanders’ campaign donors.

One manages a bar in South Buffalo. Another delivers pizza. Other local contributors to Sanders include a spa worker, meat cutter, coffee shop barista and a Zamboni driver.

Across Western New York, the Vermont senator’s improbable campaign for president has been fueled by men and women who come from 135 different kinds of jobs, from accountant and chef to massage therapist and state trooper, according to a Buffalo News analysis of Federal Election Commission data since January.

Clinton, by comparison, had donors with 54 kinds of jobs. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas benefited from contributors with 32 kinds of jobs.

Wade Aldrich, 37, of West Falls, a meat cutter in Hamburg, calls Sanders “kind of a freethinker as far as Washington goes.” He has contributed $113 to Sanders: $35 in January and $39 twice in February.

“I really appreciate that he’s not using any PAC money, or any large contributions,” Aldrich said. “If nothing else, it’s sending a message to the political machine, that a lot of people believe in this and campaign finance reform.”

Whitney Kunz, a 25-year-old bar manager, donated $40 to Sanders online. She wears Sanders gear and even made a beaded bracelet bearing his name.

“I just feel, myself, feeling so much relief – and feeling sanity – that I wasn’t wrong about the things that upset me, and that made me weary of the whole system,” said Kunz, a student at the University at Buffalo. “And then I feel terrified, that if he didn’t make it, I would be so upset.”

Like Kunz, most local Sanders’ supporters have given small amounts – so small that they make Sanders the presidential candidate with the smallest average contribution from Western New Yorkers:

Fifty-six bucks.

Compare that with the average $379 donation raised by Clinton in Western New York, and the $2,116 average local contribution to former candidate Jeb Bush.

Graphic shows amount of money raised by presidential candidates in Western New York through the end of February 2016.

Graphic shows amount of money raised by presidential candidates in Western New York through the end of February 2016.

Not a typical approach

Sanders’ fundraising approach – online appeals for small contributions – has kept his candidacy viable further in the nomination process than most people predicted and makes him competitive when conventional wisdom had Clinton easily becoming the Democratic nominee.

The Sanders camp is negotiating with UB officials to arrange a rally on campus sometime next week, sources have told The Buffalo News.

His fundraising approach runs counter to the type typically found in Western New York, such as the fancy, high-price ticket events.

When Clinton appeared at a fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo in November – with admission prices of $1,000 and up – she collected around $350,000, or the bulk of what she has raised in this region so far, after meeting with some 200 people who attended.

Bush drummed up more than $100,000 from a June event at the Atrium @ Rich’s – where people paid $2,700 each to have breakfast with the former Florida governor.

In August, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio raised about $250,000 at an event in a private home on LeBrun Drive in Amherst but has since dropped out of the GOP presidential race.

That follows the pattern of events in other recent presidential campaigns, including an event during the 2012 candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney, held at the house of Anthony H. Gioia, a former ambassador to Malta, and his wife, Donna.

At that fundraiser, according to published reports, Romney supporters gave $10,000 and up each – to have a steak dinner with the candidate at the Gioia home.

Most of Sanders’ supporters, meanwhile, go to his campaign website and click the boxes labeled with $15, $27 and $50 to contribute to his campaign.

So the small contributions for Sanders poured in – from supporters infused with a sense of mission if not much political experience.

‘Personally connected’

For some of these Sanders supporters, this is the first time they have donated money to – or been excited about – a presidential contender.

“This is the first election I’ve been old enough to participate in,” said Alexander Morehouse, 20, a Depew resident and SUNY Buffalo State junior.

Morehouse, who delivers pizza for a job, made his first political contribution to Sanders in December and then made 10 more contributions through February because he was impressed with the candidate and his views. Some of his contributions were small, like $15 and $25, but he gave $100 five times. In all, he has contributed $765 to Sanders, according to federal campaign records.

“I personally connected with his policies,” said Morehouse, who studies history and social studies at the college. “I found myself agreeing with most of them.”

Kunz said this is the first time she has contributed. “I’ve never felt that way,” she said. “Every election before this was the lesser of all the evils.”

Western New Yorkers who are chipping in small amounts to Sanders’ campaign hear a message that resonates, said Erie County legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, a Canisius College associate professor of political science, who is supporting Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich for the GOP nomination.

Clinton may get bigger donors, Hardwick said, but there are fewer of them. “Sanders is getting much smaller donations – but a lot more people,” he said.

Sanders has clearly connected with people here.

“He’s appealing to the same people he does across the nation,” Hardwick said.

“The people who feel they’ve been left out.”

In some ways, his appeal is like Trump’s, Hardwick said.

“The Sanders people feel they’ve been overlooked,” he said. “And now here’s someone who’s speaking to their issues.”

Small individual donations

The small size of Sanders’ average contribution in the Buffalo region reflects the national trend.

Sanders across the country has garnered nearly $140 million in campaign funds during his primary campaign, through February. About two-thirds of the money he has raised – $92.5 million – comes from individual donations under $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

By contrast, Clinton’s campaign – totaling almost $160 million so far – has been funded largely by larger individual donations. Some 73 percent of her fundraising, or $116.8 million, has been of this type.

Kunz, the bar manager, said that she hears a message of unity and cooperation in Sanders’ message.

“He says, if we make it to the White House, that is just the beginning,” Kunz said. “That’s one of his things – not me, us.”

Bernie Sanders supporter Glenn Laben clears the ice at Holiday Twin Rinks in Cheektowaga. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Bernie Sanders supporter Glenn Laben clears the ice at Holiday Twin Rinks in Cheektowaga. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Glenn H. Laben, who operates an ice resurfacing machine at a local hockey rink, donated $27 to the Sanders campaign. It was the first time he contributed money to a presidential candidate.

He found himself surprised to be supporting a politician who’s a social democrat.

“It seemed very strange,” said Laben, 28, of West Seneca. “I wouldn’t think to part with that much money for a whim of a belief. No other election would draw that out of me.”

In all, donors from Western New York have contributed just over $1 million to the presidential candidates.

Clinton took home the biggest share of that total – about $423,000.
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Related content: Interactive database of WNY contributions to 2016 presidential candidates

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Rubio collected some $195,000 from Western New Yorkers, the second-highest amount in the region.

Bush raised about $154,000 here.

Sanders has raised the fourth-largest sum locally – more than $110,000.

In the first two months of this year, Sanders has received $4,400 from 24 college professors in the region.

He also received almost $2,000 from 12 engineers and more than $4,000 from eight lawyers. Twenty local teachers collectively gave him about $2,800.

Laben, who drives the ice resurfacing machine, said Sanders’ message hit home with him.

“It might just be that we like an underdog,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of that economic downturn, that really hits home.”

email: cvogel@buffnews.com

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