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Sanders’ local supporters look to energize local politics

Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton for president on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean all his supporters have – or that they will abandon politics now that their inspiration has conceded defeat in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

While Brian Nowak, the grassroots organizer who powered the Vermont senator’s campaign in Western New York, stopped short of endorsing Clinton on Tuesday, both he and Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, another prominent Sanders backer who now supports Clinton, said they plan to remain active and engaged in local politics.

Jeremy Zellner, the Erie County Democratic chairman, said Sanders supporters are already providing his organization with a new generation of young foot soldiers.

Sanders, a democratic socialist who ran an unexpectedly strong campaign, announced his endorsement at a New Hampshire campaign appearance with Clinton, a former secretary of state and New York senator. But afterward, Nowak said he’s not ready to publicly back Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

“I don’t want to comment on that,” said Nowak, a Sanders delegate at the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. “I’ll be much more comfortable talking about that after the convention.”

Nowak said it won’t be easy for some Sanders supporters to immediately turn around and support Clinton, whom Sanders bashed as a Wall Street-influenced establishment politician throughout their long primary campaign battle.

The Sanders coalition was diverse, consisting of independents and newly inspired progressives along with some more traditional Democrats. That being the case, Nowak said he didn’t want to give Sanders supporters any advice as to what to do in the presidential race.

“I think the most important thing is to keep people interested and active,” he said.

To that end, Nowak said local Sanders supporters will be putting together a new political organization that’s intended to influence the local Democratic Party and infuse it with progressive ideals.

“If we do that, we can have a real impact on local politics,” Nowak said.

For example, Nowak noted that he is pushing the campaign of progressive favorite Mark Sacha for Erie County district attorney.

He said it’s important for progressives to work within the Democratic Party because New York election laws make it difficult for progressive alternatives, such as the Working Families Party and the Green Party, to make the same amount of headway.

Similarly, Martin-Bordeaux – a Black Lives Matter activist as well as an early Sanders supporter – is channeling her energy into local Democratic politics. But unlike Nowak, she decided to back Clinton after the New York primary in April made it clear that Sanders would not be the Democratic nominee.

“I plan to do as much as I can to get people to support her,” Martin-Bordeaux said, noting that it’s important to progressives to defeat the likely Republican nominee, businessman Donald Trump.

She said she was pleased that Sanders pushed the Democratic Party’s platform to the left, with new provisions calling for a $15 minimum wage, college affordability and a “public option” in Obamacare.

Like Nowak, she said she hoped the Sanders campaign would inspire his supporters to remain active in politics. She said they should continue to push for criminal justice reform, prison reform and “open” presidential primaries where people from other parties can vote in the Democratic and Republican contests.

“I just see this as an opportunity to get some of these things done,” she said.

In deciding to support Clinton, Martin-Bordeaux is a fairly typical former Sanders backer. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in late June showed only 8 percent of Sanders supporters backed Trump.

The poll showed Sanders supporters are flocking to Clinton far faster than Clinton’s 2008 supporters flocked to Barack Obama, who defeated her for the Democratic nomination that year. In June of 2008, a Post-ABC poll showed that 20 percent would back Sen. John McCain of Arizona, that year’s Republican nominee.

Not surprisingly then, Zellner has seen an influx of Sanders supporters at Erie County Democratic headquarters. Many of them students, the newcomers have quickly gotten involved in the nitty-gritty of politics, collecting signatures for Democratic candidates and even, in some cases, running for spots on local Democratic committees.

“They’ve really plugged in right away,” Zellner said, adding that he expects the former Sanders activists to actively support Clinton in the fall.