Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is taking “grassroots” to a whole new level with hundreds of groups nationwide working to spread the word, raise money and get Sanders on the ballot. And Michigan is no exception.
With groups like Lansing-based Michigan for Bernie Sanders and Lansing for Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator has received an outpouring of local support.
“The thing about this movement is it’s all grassroots,” said Kelly Collison, a Lansing resident and a founder of the Michigan for Bernie Sanders movement. “This is all grassroots supporters, putting in their own time, their own money, their own efforts and not getting compensated at all. They’re all doing it because they just want a better country.”
The group, which promotes the candidate in the Lansing area and throughout the state came to be shortly before Sanders announced his candidacy back in April. When Collison helped first form the group, she had her doubts. “I thought I was the only person who even knew who Bernie Sanders was in Michigan, because I asked so many people and no one knew who he was,” she said with a laugh. “People asked me if he was a football player.”
But that changed in June, when she organized the movement’s first statewide meet-up. “People came from Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, Detroit, Ann Arbor. It was wild,” Collison said. “After that, those people went home and started building groups in their own areas, and it pretty much just flourished from there.”
That meeting attracted a turnout of 65 — and the number’s only grown since then, with one Lansing event in late July drawing a crowd of more than 200. Now, the group’s Facebook page has 6,500 members.
Collison says the biggest goal is name recognition for Sanders, an independent but running as a Democrat. It dispatches out to events like the recent BluesFest, where supporters distributed fliers and talked about Bernie’s platforms.
The issues include addressing income inequality and raising minimum wage, taking action against climate change, improving veteran’s programs and women’s and LGBT rights, lowering prescription drug prices and making college education free.
Sanders also opposes trade acts that would move jobs out of the US.
The Michigan and Lansing for Sanders groups also hold their own events, like their fundraiser, Jam for Bernie, with live music.
Collison hopes the movement will help Sanders to a primary win over Clinton and other candidates in Michigan’s March 8 election. She has been working to become a delegate to make that happen.
A different kind of candidate
Spencer Austin, a member of Lansing for Bernie and a supporter of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 election, said Sanders just has something other candidates don’t. “The biggest thing is the transparency of his campaign,” Austin said. “He’s transparent with what he wants to do in his campaign, he’s on key with his points and doesn’t run a negative campaign — we need people like that.”
And Sanders has the track record to back it up, he said. Sanders, 73, a self-described democratic socialist, has served as a Ver mont mayor, state representative and senator over 34 years. Before entering politics, he was a Civil Rights protest organizer who participated in the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. He’s had a long track record of supporting gay marriage and taking money out of politics.
“I think that for the first time, people feel that there’s real, legitimate hope, because he’s had that history,” Collison said.
In Iowa, whose caucuses in February will be the first test of candidates, the gap has begun to close between frontrunner Clinton and Sanders, with Real Clear Politics, which averages polls, showing Sanders within 6.3 points. The same group shows Sanders averaging an 11-point lead in New Hampshire, which in February will hold the first primary.
In Michigan, where primary elections are still six months away, Clinton leads at 35 percent, with Vice President Joseph Biden at 28 percent and Sanders at 22 percent, according to a mid-September poll by Fox 2 Detroit.
Sanders is also catching up to Clinton nationally in donations, with $26 million to her $28 million.
He’s broken the record for the most individual donations, with 1.3 million from 650,000 donors — the large majority being everyday people, according to his official campaign website.
While Clinton has received a number of donations from corporations, Sanders has refused to accept any kind of support from big businesses.
“For the first time, we have someone who says I’m not going to accept money from big corporations,” Collison said.
Students for Sanders
Younger generations have been a large part of Sanders’ demographic, and Michigan State University is no exception. The campus’ Students for Sanders program was founded about two months ago by political theory and constitutional democracy major Brieann Sauer.
“He’s addressing some of the issues students actually care about,” said Sauer, a sophomore. The group holds biweekly meetings and attends campus events to get Sanders’ name out and encourage fellow students to vote. Encouraging other students to vote — whether they support Sanders or not — is a major priority, Sauer said.
“A huge section of his supporters are millennials. They usually don’t get out and vote, and we all believe that’s really important,” she said. “So we’re spending a lot of our time and effort on voter registration. Even if you’re not voting for him, we just want you to come out and vote.” Sauer and Collison support Sanders’ plans for social program reform, including a universal healthcare system.
“I feel like this country needs to care about human beings again,” Collison said. “It’s something that almost any ordinary person can really get behind, he just hits every nerve that I think most Americans have been really frustrated about and despair over,” she said.
Michigan for Sanders will hold a viewing party on Tuesday for the first Democratic debate and plans least one event per week thereafter.
MSU Students for Sanders will continue to hold meetings. Interested students can check out their next gathering Oct. 20, or check their Facebook page for more information.
While the official campaign hasn’t announced any plans to visit Michigan yet, both Collison and Sauer expect Sanders to make a stop in the Mitten State sometime early next year before presidential primary.
Sauer said Sanders has so much appeal because he is genuine. “The president should be the voice for us, for the people,” Sauer said. “He’s for the people. And while some people say some of his ideas are a little extreme or out there, that they can’t happen, our generation is realizing this pain. He’s the only candidate that really has the millennials’ backs.
“He really wants what’s best for the people, and cares about these issues that other people don’t necessarily want to address.”