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Bernie Isn't Running (Yet), But the Sanders Network Is Alive, Kicking, and Organizing for 2020

With nationwide House Parties planned for this month and a reinvigorated and vast network of supporters, the grassroots movement agitating for a 2020 run by Sanders is not idly waiting

There's no announcement yet from Sen. Bernie Sanders, but the organizers building the network for him to be the next president are not waiting. (Image: Organizing for Bernie/@OFB2020)

It sure seems like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is going to run for president. And the people who want him to do so are already busy making sure the announcement they believe is coming is greased with an infrastructure and base of support that will give him a distinct advantage in what is expected to be a crowded Democratic field.

On New Year's Day, Sanders sent out an email to supporters in which, in addition to wishing people "a happy and healthy" 2019, he reiterated his belief that "fighting Trump is not enough" in the year ahead as he called for an ambitious and progressive agenda that looked very much like his previous presidential campaign platform.

"2016 was a bit of a de-centralized, and sometimes unwieldy, operation. If Bernie's going to run again, he has to have some basic infrastructure before he announces."
—Mandy Nunes Hennessey, Organizing for Bernie
With a bulleted list that included pro-democracy reforms, addressing historic levels of economic inequality, increased wages for workers, Medicare for All, a green energy transition, massive investment in infrastructure, a jobs guarantee, quality education, women's rights, criminal justice reform, comprehensive immigration reform, an end to discrimination in all its forms, and a bold new foreign policy based on peace and human rights—Sanders argued in his email that his focus in the New Year would be centered on a resolve to "fight like we have never fought before for a government, a society, and an economy that works for all of us, not just those on top."

In reaction, labor leader and vocal Sanders backer RoseAnn DeMoro declared: "Looks like [Bernie] has put on his Running Shoes this New Years morning! Very exciting, right?"

Another group that first appeared during Sanders' 2016 run, the Bernie Delegates Network, has also reconvened to assess the senator's base of support. In a poll of active members released on Wednesday, the group found that 76 percent have Sanders as their first choice for 2020, while only 5 percent say they want someone else. Nineteen percent remain undecided at this point.

"The survey results are a green light for activating our network to advocate for making Senator Sanders the party's 2020 presidential nominee," said Norman Solomon, national coordinator of the online activist group RootsAction.org, who was a Sanders delegate from California and the coordinator of the Bernie Delegates Network at the 2016 convention.

"If there's a Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, as now appears likely," Solomon added, "it's clear that he can count on support from a large majority of the people who were his delegates at the national convention. These are local leaders and activists who know how to organize effectively in their communities around the country."

But while there has been no official announcement from Sanders at this point, the grassroots movement born during his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination is already gearing up for what they believe is now a certainty.

Volunteer-run networks like People for Bernie (P4B) are reinvigorating existing members and cultivating new ones. At the same time, the recently launched Organizing for Bernie (OFB), made up of former campaign staffers and organizers, is coordinating nationwide 'House Parties' this month to galvanize those eager for (or curious about) Sanders' next move.

Scheduled for January 12, the OFB 'House Parties' are being organized online, mostly via social media, to make sure that people in their own communities can connect with others who think Sanders remains the best choice to defeat Trump, vanquish the Republican Party's grip on power, and unleash the potential of a Democratic base ready for bold solutions to key issues. Those interested in attending can find one in their community or register to host their own. As of this writing, over two hundred have already been set up in dozens of states across the country.

In an interview with Common Dreams, Kat Brezler, co-founder of People for Bernie and a public school teacher in the New York, explained that the upcoming House Parties are part of the larger "Draft Bernie" movement that exists across the country as well as an indication that the Sanders' grassroots network, born during the senator's initial run for the Democratic nomination, is being "reactivated." However, she said, "reactivated" is a bad word choice, as this vast network has remained quite active since 2016.

"You'd have to have literal blinders on to not know that the entire Bernie network was alive, well, and never went anywhere" Brezler explained.

"It is essential that Sanders' voice be prominent in a presidential election cycle that will address the most pressing issues facing the country and the world at a perilous moment in our history."
—Alan Minsky, Progressive Democrats of America
This new "gearing up," she continued, is just a reminder to the many members of the network—all doing local organizing work in their own communities—that it's time to reconnect. "Let's all come together," Brezler said, "and talk about some of the things that didn't work in 2016, some of the things that did work in 2016, and what we're going to do differently."

Mandy Nunes Hennessey, a 2016 Sanders campaign staffer and co-founder of Organizing for Bernie, says the idea behind the House Parties—and the "Draft Bernie" petition they are circulating—is to lay the groundwork for something different in 2020 if Sanders decides to run.

"I think 2016 was a bit of a de-centralized, and sometimes unwieldy, operation," she explained to Common Dreams. "But if Bernie's going to run again, he has to have some basic infrastructure before he announces."

A livestream video that will be shared during the January 12th House Parties will include top organizers from the network and some of Sanders' most ardent supporters explaining why he remains the best choice—not only for progressive voters—but for the Democratic Party, the nation, and—because they see it these terms—the world.

Since launching their effort in early December, Nunes Hennessey says there's been tremendous excitement and more people asking how they can be involved than the few people spearheading the OFB network are equipped to handle.

"People are still very passionate about Bernie," she said. "And what we keep hearing is we can't afford a gradualist when it comes to the climate crisis or Medicare for All. Bernie is the only person who's going to move these progressive policies forward in a way that is going to impact people quickly."

One goal of the project that is clearly being fulfilled already, she added, is that the reaction so far is certainly showing Sanders "that his grassroots support is still there."

Nunes Hennessey echoed Brezler by saying one of the real purposes of the early organizing remains learning from missteps or shortcomings that occurred in 2016. "What did we do well?" organizers are asking one another. "And what things could we have done differently?"

Over the past week, complaints from other 2016 staffers and organizers have centered on that campaign's poor handling of issues of sexual harassment and pay disparity between male and female staff. As both Politico and the New York Times have reported, some of those staffers who felt like their concerns were dismissed have sent a letter to Sanders asking for a meeting with him and his senior campaign team to address those concerns, whether or not he decides to run again.

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In response, Friends of Bernie Sanders, the principal campaign committee for the senator, thanked the staffers for raising their concerns about the "incredibly important" issue of sexual harassment. Addressing the criticisms directly in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night, Sanders said, "I certainly apologize to any woman who felt she was not treated appropriately, and of course if I run we will do better the next time."

In an email to the Times, Sanders' 2016 campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said "anybody who committed harassment on the campaign would not be asked back" and also expressed regret for the shortcomings of the campaign's leadership. 

"Was it too male? Yes. Was it too white? Yes," he said of the 2016 campaign. "Would this be a priority to remedy on any future campaign? Definitely, and we share deeply in the urgency for all of us to make change. In 2016, as the size of our campaign exploded, we made efforts to make it a positive experience for people. That there was a failure pains me very much."

According to Brezler, what's been most exciting about the recent organizing push for 2020 is "how many people are ready—in the beginning—to get down, do that deep dive" about what went wrong and make sure that everything about in a future campaign is run better, with more inclusion, and more thought.

While Brezler identifies as digital organizer, and she spends lots of time cultivating connections online, she says it will be crucial for the Sanders movement to get "real people" into rooms together so that they can actually meet, listen to, and understand one another, and start organizing together.

"I think it's so incredibly important to get people in rooms together," says Brezler. "The only thing that breaks the machine is a movement. And you have to build that movement through real off-line connections with real people. And as somebody who loves to get 10,000 or 100,000 shares on a great meme or an amazing video... I also am always excited to take myself to a room—even if it's an establishment Democrat room—and I make connections with real people."

The People For Bernie network, as well as specific events like the House Parties, are designed to help "new organizers" find connections and resources while providing community members hoping to plug into progressive politics with "frameworks" and "tool kits" provided by the more senior and experienced members of the group.

"The only thing that breaks the machine is a movement. And you have to build that movement through real off-line connections with real people."
—Kat Brezler, People For Bernie
"I want to just give away all of the tools [we have]," explained Brezler of the network's organizing goals. "I want you to go organize your community. We all do better when we all do better. So take these things that we know work and if you can make them better or if you don't like them, or you can use them—do all of the above."

Due to the serious consideration of past mistakes, ongoing communication about the best ways forward, the expansion of existing infrastructure, and a constant unpacking of obstacles within the network, Brezler believes the grassroots movement has put itself in an excellent position when—"not if"—Sanders announces his candidacy.

The senator himself put a large exclamation point on that question of "if" just last week, with an email that made his considerations explicit. "If I run..." was the subject line.

 "Whenever I am asked about running for president in 2020, I answer that if I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump, then I will probably run," Sanders wrote. "That is the truth."

Meanwhile, the grassroots network that's backing Bernie, said Brezler, is a place for anybody interested in finding out the answers to questions like: "How do we get Medicare for All? How do we get a Green New Deal? How do we get the kind of transparency in government that we're looking for?"

Importantly, she continued, the grassroots organizers and constituents inspired by the agenda that Sanders represents do not have as their ultimate goal his candidacy or even his victory.

The progressive movement and progressive organizers "are here now," explained Brezler. "And we're gonna do the work. We were here before 2016. We were here after 2016. We're here before 2020, we'll be here after 2020, and we'll be here for as long as it takes to get the things that we need."

To be clear, even to state the obvious, the goal of the pro-Bernie organizations is to get Sanders elected president of the United States in 2020.

Alan Minsky, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, said his group has "already called upon Senator Sanders to run, as it is essential that his voice be prominent in a presidential election cycle that will address the most pressing issues facing the country and the world at a perilous moment in our history."

Karen Bernal, a member of the Bernie Delegate Network and chair of the California Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus, believes at this point there is no other choice nearly as good. "As the standard-bearer of policies finally considered mainstream by the base of our party," Bernal said, "the importance of his presence in the upcoming presidential election cycle cannot be overstated. Without him, the resistance to oligarchy and the war machine suffers. We need Bernie to keep speaking truth to and about power."

But as Brezler explains with passion, even getting Sanders elected will not be enough to satisfy the real goals of the network and communities she represents. Referencing the new slate of progressive House Democrats—specifically Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.)—she argues that without more lawmakers like them in Congress, the kind of transformative political change they and Sanders represent will remain difficult, if not impossible.

"Without him, the resistance to oligarchy and the war machine suffers. We need Bernie to keep speaking truth to and about power."
—Karen Bernal, Bernie Delegate Network
"Bernie is just one person, and I cannot stress this enough," she said. "Ilhan and Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna and Rashida, they need more fucking friends. And while I cannot wait to run Bernie for president, I also cannot wait to run a dozen more really inspirational congressional campaigns and hopefully some really fucking savvy Senate ones, too. Because taking the White House is not enough. We gotta knock all these damn doors and that's going to take all of us."

Emphasizing the point, she continued: "Bernie is not everything. He's fucking awesome and I have followed him since I was an undergrad protesting the war and through Occupy and everything else—and he's the guy that I want for president—but if I don't get him more congressional members that believe in Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, tuition-free college, etc. then it's not enough."

So while Brezler says she cannot wait for Bernie to put his hat in the ring, she also "cannot wait to run millions of progressives" she hasn't yet met for city council, mayoral races, Congress, and elsewhere.

In the end, she said, the kind of grassroots organizing now happening is really where it's at. Connecting with people who want to solve problems is what she loves doing, she says, because being with others who are "trying and endeavoring to form a more perfect union," that is what "breathes life into the possibility of a better future."

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