After Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders suffered a heart attack in October, more than a few bettors on political horse races wrote off the 78-year-old second time presidential hopeful as a viable contender.
They’ll have to revise their talking points. Leftist warhorse Sanders, with his message of improved Medicare for all, free college tuition and a $15 an hour minimum wage, has soldiered on and appears to be thriving in a season of heightened discontent with Republican President Donald Trump, who awaits trial in the Senate after being impeached by the House of Representatives for an alleged abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The white-haired democratic socialist even believes he has a shot at winning the California primary on March 3, Super Tuesday.
From there, the White House seems in reach to him, that is if he maintains his commanding lead among Hispanic voters, the largest voting bloc in delegate-rich California and also across the nation. In the US, there are about 32 million Latinos projected to be eligible to vote in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Sanders clearly has taken note.
“Brothers and sisters, it’s not a great secret that California has more delegates to the Democratic National Convention than any other state,” he said last month to cheers at a Fresno campaign stop covered by Vice magazine. “That candidate who wins California has an excellent chance to win the nomination. And with your help, we are going to win California.”
On Dec. 5, his goal didn’t seem like a pipe dream. Sanders, who talks of a political revolution, had moved way ahead of centrist Joe Biden in the Golden State, according to a poll conducted for the Los Angeles Times by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. It showed Sanders leading the California Democratic pack at 24 percent, Elizabeth Warren in second place at 22 percent (a statistical dead heat), and Biden third at 14 percent.(South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, practically pubescent in contrast to the three septuagenarians, was fourth at 12 percent.)
None of Sanders’ top-tier Democratic rivals come close to surpassing his popularity among Latinos, whose votes may determine the next occupant of the Oval Office. An estimated 74 percent of the approximately 7.7 million registered Latino voters in California, the nation’s most populous state, are expected to cast ballots on or by Super Tuesday. Many will be spurred by their belief that racism and white supremacy are a threat to the country, according to a press release issued by the Latino Community Foundation in San Francisco, which commissioned a statewide poll of Latino voters conducted by Latino Decisions, a political opinion research company in Seattle.
Their findings in November marked the 25th anniversary of the infamous Proposition 187, a California ballot initiative that voters approved in 1994 that would ban non-emergency public services like health care and education to undocumented immigrants. It was challenged within a day and soon struck down as unconstitutional in federal district court, but the aforementioned poll found that Latinos have been motivated to vote and run for office because of it.
Recognizing this immense demographic and its sentiments, the Sanders’ campaign in California has opened more field offices (five, including one in East Los Angeles) and collected more money from Latinos than any of his competitors — and three times as much as former President Obama did in 2008, according to The New York Times.
Latinos generally liked Sanders four years ago when he arrived on the national campaign circuit virtually unknown outside of Vermont and his native Brooklyn, New York. But he didn’t have the numbers to carry him over the top against Hillary Clinton who beat him for the Democratic nomination and in the California primary by 53.4 percent to Sanders’ 45.7 percent.
These days, however, there’s a real fervor for the now famous progressive pol. Some who adore him may have been influenced by fiery young left-wing Latinas like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez who endorsed the elderly man sometimes affectionately called “Tio (Uncle) Bernie.” Or they may have been inspired by pop singer Ariana Grande, who claims to have registered 20,000 voters at her concerts. She posed with Sanders at one of them, calling him, “My guy.”
“The youth are coming out stronger for him” this time around, said Rafael Navar, California state director of the Sanders 2020 campaign in a phone conversation. “When you look at the problems in 2016, they’ve worsened with the inhabitant in the White House. We’re facing a crisis of trust and no candidate has deeper trust than Bernie. We’re focusing on young people and on all working class people. If you’re working class, you’re going to be with Bernie Sanders.”
Navar said the Sanders’ campaign in California has developed a “formidable infrastructure” on the ground that has made his candidate accessible at numerous events across the state, including a large noon rally May 31 for Sanders at the cavernous Pasadena Convention Center. People packed Exhibit Hall B, said to hold more than 2,500 seats. NBC reported that some of Sanders’ supporters lined up as early as 8:30 a.m. Danny DeVito was there to warm up the crowd.
Older Latinos involved in Sanders’ California campaign also clearly “feel the Bern.” On Saturday, Dec. 7, Lu P. Cruz, a 64-year-old special education teacher in Montebello, drove to Alhambra to canvas the neighborhood and “to knock on doors on Main Street” to promote a vote for Sanders with a community group called San Gabriel Neighbors for Peace and Justice.
“I’ve been doing this for three months and I’m passionate about it,” she said. “People all across the state are knocking on doors and calling people just for him. Bernie is awesome,” she continued. “We have a flag. We have a placard. And we show up for two hours. People honk for health care, for his Medicare for all (plan).” Cruz noted that Sanders’ call for free college tuition and eliminating college debt appealed to her daughter “who’s worried about paying off her student loan. She figures at this rate, she’ll finish paying it off when she’s 62.”
As for her personal feeling for Sanders, Cruz said: “He’s the first candidate that I ever met who truly cares for other people. You have candidates who come here, shake your hand, go to where they have to go and then they forget you. They don’t seem to care about the homelessness and the high cost of living in California.”
Cruz’s boyfriend, Jim Vega, 62, a real estate broker, shares her belief that Sanders can win the presidency. “I think he has real strength,” Vega said. “And now he has greater name recognition — among Latinos especially and now blacks. So I’m hopeful we have a shot at grabbing California on Super Tuesday.”
Long-time Pasadena resident Robert Nelson, a retired senior research scientist at JPL, has been active in the local Democratic Club for 30 years and was twice a delegate to national conventions. He currently sits on the state Democratic Party’s executive board. He makes it plain that Sanders is not going to have a walk in the park in his quest for the presidency.
“It isn’t going to be easy,” said Nelson, an occasional opinion writer for this newspaper. “There will be a host of problems because the Democratic Party has a strong Wall Street component and they will do everything they can to stop him. They want to see Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg (win). They fear a wealth tax. (Sanders) is going to have many Dems who think it may be better to vote for Trump a second time around. That’s what we fear.”
Others fear that Sanders will be red baited by extremist right-wing Trump supporters not known for gentility.
Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo,who supports Sanders but has not formally endorsed him, said ugliness is to be expected from Trumpworld.
“No one is safe from lies and slander from Trump and his acolytes,” said Cedillo. “It doesn’t matter if you’re leftist or centrist or just a Democrat. But Bernie Sanders has a core constituency. It’s very enthusiastic, very working class. It’s solid. These elements are key. We’re not in 2016. We know how to win.”
Cedillo pointed out that the socialism advocated by Sanders and his supporters is “the socialism of Sweden and Denmark. It’s about free education, equality, affordable housing, health care — like all the other industrial nations have.”
Even so, Jamie Ragaldo, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State, Los Angeles said that socialists historically have had a hard time getting elected by US voters. “The odds are stacked against a socialist so it’s going to be daunting for Sanders,” he said. “But if there was any time to look at an alternative, including a socialist, this is the time.”
Ragaldo said that California Sen. Kamala Harris’ recent departure from the presidential race might not translate into many black votes for Sanders, noting that African American support has largely gravitated to former Vice President Joe Biden. “If either Elizabeth or Bernie can’t crack into the black vote, that spells trouble” for them, he said. “They need the Latino vote. And Bernie does much better there than Elizabeth, and better than Buttigieg.”
He noted that Warren has received backing from progressives who supported Sanders in 2016 and could split the progressive vote. “But Bernie has done a good job in keeping his youth base across the country and in California. It’s hard to imagine that youth who were with him four years ago and who were alienated and angry with the political status quo would not come back.”
Montebello City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Salvador Melendez is 29 and one of about 80 elected officials in California who reportedly have expressed support for Sanders. Melendez, who is also a law student, voted for Sanders during his first run for president “because he was talking about issues that nobody else was, and now they all are,” he said.
Added Melendez, “I support him because of what he stands for.”