Share this article

print logo

Will Sanders visit translate into more Buffalo volunteers?

More than 11,000 people flocked to his stemwinder, 3,000 more than Alumni Arena could hold.

The mass rally for Bernie Sanders on Monday might lead to a more robust effort to turn out his voters Tuesday.

“We have a whole bunch of new contacts,” Brian Nowak said the next day.

He’s a Sanders coordinator in Buffalo and a delegate for the candidate in the 26th Congressional district.

Most of Erie County’s elected Democrats support frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Their campaign regiments report to the party’s high command in the quest to grant her the greatest share of New York delegates.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Sanders forces lack the same power to turn out their voters.

Or do they?

“They might not be as disadvantaged in that regard as you might think,” said Michael Haselswerdt, a Canisius College political science professor excited that New York’s primaries are relevant this time around.

“They have been doing a lot through social media,” Haselswerdt said of the Sanders camp, “organizing in sort of an unusual way whereby people seem to be taking initiative on their own with not a ton of direction from a central headquarters. It seems to be an interesting way of organizing grass-roots activities.”

It’s hard to say how many local volunteers are out there for Sanders because they can place phone calls on the candidate’s behalf from home or drop leaflets on front porches without ever stepping into the “Buffalo for Bernie” office at 404 Grant St.

Then there are the labor unions that back Sanders — the Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, the American Postal Workers Union — who coordinate their members’ efforts.

In a late-March blitz organized by the Buffalo office, about 50 volunteers knocked on doors in Hamburg, Orchard Park, West Seneca, Lancaster and Depew, Nowak said. Other people have called the office to say they would like to circulate materials.

Before Sanders’ visit Monday, Nowak figured he had about 70 volunteers he could call on. After the Sanders speech at the University at Buffalo, he expects many more.

Sanders trails Hillary Clinton in the polls. The most recent Siena poll put Clinton ahead of Sanders 52 percent to 42 percent among likely Democratic voters.

But he can find support among all demographics, Nowak said. Consequently, Nowak sees potential volunteers “across the age spectrum,” from young people voting in their first presidential election to seniors in their 60s and 70s who backed Eugene McCarthy in 1968, then left political activism behind.

Team Sanders has been building the local ranks since summer. Through social media they have drawn newcomers to meetings, fundraisers, a parade and rallies. The volunteers have knocked on doors and teamed with University at Buffalo students to register some 1,100 new voters.

New York runs closed primaries. Only party enrollees can vote in their party’s contests. Sanders has done better in states with open systems. But the Buffalo for Bernie volunteers believe Sanders has momentum.

Social worker Jaime Barnes said she knew back in October that she would want to vote for Sanders in the Democratic primary, largely because of his social justice message. She was an “independent” voter and made herself eligible by enrolling as a Democrat before an October deadline.

Barnes, interviewed in the Buffalo for Bernie office days ago, said she started out working about 15 hours a week for the campaign and now figures she invests about 30. She makes phone calls to people who have already gone online to signal their support for Sanders to see if they’ll invest time in various efforts. Using a second database, “the Bernie dialer,” she calls voters in any state with a coming party contest to urge them to vote for the senator. Volunteers across the country can tap into the data and make similar calls from their homes.

How many calls has Barnes made?

“Probably in the thousands,” she said.

Lisa Allen of Cheektowaga became a Sanders volunteer after attending the campaign’s “barnstorming” event at the Buffalo Irish Center. Allen likes Sanders’ support for single-payer health care and his pledge to make higher education affordable by lowering the cost of student debt and making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

“I used to live in England,” Allen said. “So I know what it’s like to have a national health care system, and that’s important to me. It was fantastic. I have a daughter who has been diagnosed with diabetes since we moved back to the U.S. And she cannot afford the medical care.”

As for the cost of college educations, her two oldest children have student loans, and she is still paying off the loans she took out to pay for law school.

Eric Shortt is so new to the Sanders fold he is registered as an independent voter, not a Democrat, and will be unable to vote for Sanders in the primary on April 19. Shortt had Henry Kissinger in mind when he became a Sanders volunteer.

While Clinton sought the former secretary of state’s counsel when she was the nation’s chief diplomat, Sanders in a February debate called Kissinger “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.”

Shortt rattles off a couple of reasons why he thinks Sanders is right: the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile, two undertakings of the Nixon administration, which Kissinger served.

Nowak, the local coordinator, became aware of Sanders in 2006, when Vermont elected the democratic socialist to the U.S. Senate. Nowak was studying history and social studies at SUNY Buffalo State and considered himself a democratic socialist. Think “New Deal Democrat,” he says.

Nowak, now 29, said that when Sanders last year announced he would run for president, “I pretty much knew what I was going to do for the next year and a half of my life.”