U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is a passion politician who was railing against income inequality long before it was fashionable. The son of a Jewish immigrant father, he is an underdog who says he is fighting on behalf of the forgotten.
For Sanders’ supporters here in Minnesota, those attributes evoke a Minnesota legend: The beloved, deceased Sen. Paul Wellstone, elected in 1990 campaigning the state in an old green bus, the only Democrat running for re-election in 2002 to oppose the Iraq war.
Of the likeness, Jerry Gilkeson, a Sanders volunteer, said simply: “Absolutely.”
In a sign of his emerging grass-roots appeal, Sanders reported last week that he raised an impressive $15 million last quarter, about 80 percent coming in donations of less than $200. However, that still leaves him far behind the $47 million raised nationally by Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has the endorsements of most of the state’s top-ranking DFLers.
It remains to be seen whether Sanders can convert early enthusiasm into an effective campaign, but Sanders supporters hope the state called home by quirky liberals like Eugene McCarthy and Wellstone will be fertile ground for a man once elected mayor of the funky college town of Burlington, Vt., as an avowed Socialist.
Those who knew Wellstone best and who have carried on his political legacy are less sure of the resemblance.
“I don’t know if Sanders has the same understanding of how to involve and engage people in a campaign in a really deep way,” said Jeff Blodgett, who was Wellstone’s campaign manager and later two-time state director for Barack Obama. ”He’s turning people out [at events], but that’s not the same.”
The question is not academic. The organizational method preached by Wellstone has become the foundation of modern Democratic politics.
Wellstone’s background as a community organizer and scholar of the practice at Carleton College was instrumental in building the sturdy grass-roots infrastructure that helped him overcome a 7-to- 1 financial disadvantage in his 1990 upset against then-U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. Wellstone veterans and thousands of students of “Camp Wellstone,” a teaching academy based on the organizational principles, populate the political landscape, both here and nationwide.
Obama, also a community organizer, would use these same techniques, massively leveraged by new technology, to upend the 2008 Democratic favorite, Hillary Clinton.
How elections won, lost
Empirical evidence collected by political scientists such as Columbia University’s Donald Green has shown the greater effectiveness in close elections of Wellstone-style direct voter contact over less-personal methods such as expensive glossy mailers or television ads.
In short, this is how elections are won, and lost.
If Sanders, who was unavailable for an interview, can’t build an organization in the Wellstone and Obama mold, he may never be able to compete with the Clinton juggernaut, no matter how large his crowds or pile of money. Clinton’s early advantages here showed up in recent fundraising numbers. The former secretary of state has raised more than $550,000 from Minnesotans — more than 10 times Sanders’ total in the state.
At a recent meeting of Sanders volunteers, they were doing their best to “self-organize,” as the campaign calls it.
The campaign’s all-volunteer team leaders assembled around a big conference table at the Minneapolis Central Library, led by Laura Nevitt, who was Minnesota state director of the 2004 campaign of Howard Dean, the anti-Iraq war Vermont governor who drew big crowds and raised lots of money but burned out hot and fast. Nevitt said she has taken lessons learned from that campaign and tried to implement them in this campaign, with the help of new technology.
She went around the room efficiently and asked for reports from various teams like outreach, communications and data. They have been collecting names and e-mail addresses at events, including a Sanders speech here in May, giving them about 2,000 contacts of potential volunteers.
What the Sanders supporters currently lack in organization, they certainly make up for in enthusiasm.
A volunteer promised to switch to a cheaper brand of cigarettes and pledged to sell plasma: “Blood for Bernie,” he called it.
Lenell McKenzie, a human resources specialist who lives in Richfield, wants to help the campaign find black support and offered to use her connections among artists to host a music event she’s calling “Beats for Bernie.”
When Dottie and Jerry Gilkeson listen to Sanders speak, they hear Wellstone, a man they knew and loved. “You can picture Paul saying it,” Dottie Gilkeson said.
The difference so far, said the Bloomington couple who have been involved in DFL politics for more than 40 years, is that Wellstone had a mantra: “Organize, organize, organize.”
What exactly is the special sauce of Wellstone organizing?
Nick Kor, 26, illustrates how DFL organizers still drink from the Wellstone pool.
An organizer for HIRE Minnesota, which works for economic equality for women and people of color, Kor has also labored on several political and issue campaigns, most recently the re-election of U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
“It’s about developing leaders in the communities to advocate for themselves,” Kor said.
So, for instance, “Instead of a paid canvasser or organizer going out and talking to people, it’s about asking volunteers to be part of the process, to create what they want for their own community and world.”
Volunteer leaders are trained and then recruit more volunteers, teaching them to become leaders in their own right and recruit volunteers of their own, in an ever-expanding participatory universe of activists taking responsibility for their own futures.
It’s like Amway. Undergirding it all are new technological tools used to reach, teach, network and collect reams of data.
Hillary Clinton had money, endorsements and a big lead in the polls in 2007, but managed to lose the nomination to Obama, in part because of his organizational prowess.
“The Clinton campaign is not going to repeat their mistakes,” said Blodgett, who is not signed up with a candidate.
Blodgett says Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, helped her win the Nevada caucus and a handful of other states with spirited field organizations.
Lynn Wilson, an ER nurse in Rochester and a leading volunteer for Clinton, used to drive Wellstone on his trips in southern Minnesota. “I learned from him that you can do all the talking you want, but you have to do the walking and deliver the grass roots,” she said.
Wilson said she sensed this Clinton campaign is different from 2008, when she also volunteered and was a delegate to the national convention.
“If there’s anything to be learned from a scenario, she’s going to bring it forward,” Wilson said of Clinton’s capacity for learning from mistakes. “If you don’t, what kind of leader are you?”