How Michigan progressives built an activist army for Sanders

By: - February 27, 2020 4:59 am

Graphic by Laina G. Stebbins. Photo of Bernie Sanders by Andrew Roth.

“Raise your hand if you got involved with politics for the first time because of Bernie Sanders.”

About 30 hands went up — roughly half the students and area locals filling the seats of the MSU classroom.

The “Barnstorm for Bernie” event organized by the Michigan State University student organization Spartans for Sanders, with help from several members of the Vermont U.S. senator’s presidential campaign team in Michigan, attracted about 60 enthusiastic supporters to Kedzie Hall on a cold Thursday earlier this month.

Spartans for Sanders meeting, Feb. 19, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Attendees shared their uniquely personal reasons for wanting to get involved with Sanders’ campaign, listened as state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) Skyped in and shared his own reasons for endorsing Sanders, signed up for numerous volunteer shifts — and, in general, “felt the Bern,” the senator’s signature campaign motto.

That was just one of many pro-Sanders organizing events that will be held on MSU’s campus every day until March 10, when Michiganders cast their ballots for the presidential primary (indeed, many already have with early voting).

Spartans for Sanders meeting, Feb. 19, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

And Sanders’ base of activists, organizers and students are ready.

Sanders has shocked some pundits by becoming the Democratic presidential frontrunner in the presidential race, but that’s less surprising in Michigan, a state he narrowly won four years ago.

Sanders has built a large, well-organized coalition of volunteers in the Great Lakes State — and that could be what propels him to another win in Michigan.

Sanders also tops the list of candidates receiving the most donations from Michiganders, with upwards of 175,000 donations totaling more than $2.8 million. He has made eight campaign stops in Michigan since the start of 2019. 

This is more than any other candidate currently in the primary field — which has now winnowed down to Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, businessman Tom Steyer and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

According to the campaign, thousands of grassroots volunteers for Sanders have organized more than 700 events so far across Michigan. Five new field offices and almost a dozen new staff hires in the state were announced recently, signaling a major expansion of Sanders’ Michigan team.

One of the newest additions to that team, Ben Mora, came under fire recently for tweeting a number of discriminatory and offensive remarks about rival Democrats and their families from a private Twitter account. The Daily Beast reported the story Monday night and Mora was fired.

“We are running a multiracial, multigenerational campaign for justice where disgusting behavior and ugly personal attacks by our staff will not be tolerated,” campaign Communications Director Mike Casca told the Daily Beast.

Spartans for Sanders meeting, Feb. 19, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Sanders has, so far, secured Michigan endorsements from Hammoud, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit); former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed; state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor); Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad; and the Young Democrats of Michigan.

But the core of Sanders’ support in Michigan doesn’t come from the traditional endorsement route, which analysts often hold up as a primary measure of success. It comes from energized activists.

And in Michigan, the energy appears to be with Sanders.

Student support 

Sanders’ campaign is the only campaign with a dedicated, nationwide student organizing plan. It also has an official mobile app called BERN aimed at funneling the powers of social media and networking into real, tangible volunteer work.

One group that exemplifies the campaign’s ability to harness young activists and students in Michigan is the Spartans for Sanders (SFS) group at MSU.

Spartans for Sanders meeting, Feb. 19, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Brendan Radtke, a 20-year-old political theory major leading SFS, decided to revive the pro-Sanders student group when he couldn’t find one at MSU’s annual “Sparticipation” event for student organizations.

Radtke had been volunteering for the university’s Warren student group, but remained undecided between the two progressive presidential candidates. He later fully switched his support over to Sanders when Warren changed her plan for Medicare for All in October.

“I was kind of between the two [before then] — but then, you know, I always did support Bernie,” Radtke said. “So I was like, well, there definitely needs to be a Bern group on campus so it’s represented.”

In early September, the leaders of the previous pro-Sanders group at MSU (then called “Students for Sanders”) helped Radtke revive their old group. They offered Radtke the keys to social media platforms they had built up during the run-up to the 2016 election, including a private Facebook group with around 750 members, a Facebook page followed by more than 670 people and a Twitter account with 300 followers.

Spartans for Sanders members gather in MSU’s Holmes Hall in February for a “dormstorm” (canvassing in residential dorms). | Brendan Radtke

Radtke took those already-established platforms and ran with them, adding a new Instagram account to boot. He says the current iteration of the MSU pro-Sanders group now has about 200 contacts, 30 consistent volunteers and a core of 15 members that show up to each weekly meeting.

Students belonging to other groups at MSU, including Young Democratic Socialists at Michigan State (YDSA MSU), Students Against Gun Violence at MSU and Sunrise Movement Lansing also regularly attend their meetings and events.

Both Sunrise Movement and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have formally endorsed Sanders as their preferred candidate.

“Actually, we had some Yang people that came to our meeting last night,” Radtke said earlier this month, shortly after businessman and former candidate Andrew Yang dropped out of the race. “We all gave them a round of applause and said, ‘Welcome.’”

Two weekends in a row before the Iowa caucuses, the Spartans for Sanders group helped organize bus trips to canvass for Sanders in rural Iowa. The groups — 49 people the first week and 36 the second week — were composed of students from MSU, students from other schools and working people from all over the state.

Stan Njuguna, Bernie Sanders Michigan field organizer, speaks at a Spartans for Sanders meeting, Feb. 19, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

“Ever since Iowa, more and more people have been getting in and realizing now’s the time to participate. … We’re just building the foundations now, when I envisioned us wrapping up around now,” Radtke said.

In addition to their weekly meetings, Spartans for Sanders organizes phone banking and dorm canvassing events every week. About 60 MSU students and members of the community turned out on Feb. 19 for a “Barnstorm for Bernie” event on campus, in which attendees were encouraged to sign up to volunteer for Sanders and Hammoud tuned in via Skype to voice his support for the senator.

“Last semester, we only knocked about 1,200 doors because we were in the neighborhood, so we were going house to house. But we’ve knocked 500 [doors] in one day [this semester],” Radtke said. “… We make sure to knock at least once every weekend. This weekend, we’re knocking every day.”

Michigan State’s YDSA chapter is another big organizing power for Bernie at MSU. The group, founded in 2016 to support Sanders while teaching students about democratic socialist principles and organizing, combined forces with the Spartans for Sanders group at the start of the spring semester.

“Students at MSU … love the idea of democratic socialism [and] really wanted to show support for Bernie Sanders, so YDSA was created,” said 21-year-old Charlotte Nana, co-chair of YDSA at MSU.

Nana, who studies arts and humanities at MSU, says it only made sense to reach out to Radtke and organize a joint event together.

“I feel like it’s not only kind of reaching back into the roots of why YDSA was created at MSU, but also just creating more opportunities for collaboration and unity across campus,” Nana said.

“There is a growing amount of energy to volunteer and take part in local organizing and local politics” at MSU, she added. “… The candidate that has the most presence here in terms of postering, propaganda, social media presence and turnout to events would be the Sanders campaign, by far.”

In addition to organizing for Sanders, YDSA also holds workshops, teaches community organizing, protest etiquette and medical training, responds to on-campus events and co-hosts rallies and protests with other local groups.

“We are a group made up of young people, most of whom are studying and working. And everybody just wants to guarantee themselves a good future,” Nana said. “… And, you know, students are ready for radical change, I think. I mean, no, maybe it’s not even so radical at all.”

The power of the rose

Activism for Sanders rooted in democratic socialism principles extends far beyond DSA’s campus-oriented branches like YDSA at MSU. The Democratic Socialists of America, which uses a red rose as its logo as an ode to its historic use as a socialist symbol, boasts more than 55,000 members nationwide. Its membership exploded during Sanders’ first presidential run and has continued to grow since.

Michigan has seven active DSA groups. Greater Detroit Democratic Socialists of America is the largest, boasting about 200 active members and more than 4,750 followers on Facebook.

Kyle Minton, a 30-year-old living in Rochester Hills, joined the DSA’s Detroit chapter two years ago.

“After the 2016 election, I felt like I needed to get involved in something,” Minton said. “I spent all of 2017 trying to find an organization to get involved in, one that was actually doing things. … Then [in] January 2018, I went to my first DSA meeting and they were putting the work in. So I joined up and I’ve been a part ever since.”

Minton now co-chairs the group’s Medicare for All working group, which holds educational town halls about health care policy in the metro-Detroit area and works to pressure Michigan’s U.S. House Democrats to sign onto supporting Medicare for All.

Detroit DSA, like DSA’s many other chapters around the state and country, regularly holds phone banking and canvassing events for Sanders. DSA chapters in Michigan made the same efforts to help elect Tlaib, a self-proclaimed DSA member.

“We were doing we were making calls in Iowa, we were making calls in New Hampshire, so we’re organized and ready to go,” Minton said. “We’ve got [literature] already crafted and ready to just be dropped. We’ve got canvasses going on, and they’ve been going on for a while now.”

Minton said that he is concerned that “the bulk of the Democratic establishment” in Michigan seems to have gone for Bloomberg, even though most top elected officials and leaders are staying neutral in the race. But he still believes that Sanders’ people power will outweigh Bloomberg’s money.

“We’re not gonna out-raise [Bloomberg] fundraising-wise. I mean, it’s not possible. But I think … the fact that we can better organize, I think we’re better suited to talk to people about working class issues. And I think that we’re, you know, we’ve been in the community a lot longer than then Bloomberg has. So I think we can kind of leverage that ability,” Minton said.

Our Revolution

Beyond support from student activists, democratic socialists, environmental justice crusaders and high-profile progressive endorsements, Sanders’ campaign also has on-the-ground help in virtually every state from Our Revolution, the progressive organization that grew from the momentum of Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid.

Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner has been the president of OR since 2017, and became a campaign surrogate and national co-chair of Sanders’ 2020 campaign last year. The organization is chaired by Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America labor union.

Our Revolution (OR) is a nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization, meaning that it can raise unlimited funds and doesn’t have to disclose donors, although its website has this listing. It is primarily for the purpose of social welfare and must spend less than half of its earnings on political endeavors. 

OR cannot coordinate with Sanders’ campaign, but it does promote issues that have been main focuses of the senator’s platform since 2016, including: supporting and electing progressive candidates in all levels of government, helping ballot measures pass, and engaging more people in the political process with activism and education.

Michelle Deatrick

Michelle Deatrick is the lead organizer for Our Revolution Michigan, the state affiliate of the national group. She is a prolific activist, former politician and writer who was Sanders’ first 2016 campaign hire in Michigan before joining OR Michigan at the end of that cycle.

“The movement started and it never stopped,” Deatrick said.

“… But the framework of the conversation has shifted, and things that were once seen as really radical or impossible are now seen as ideas that are worthy of serious conversation and achievable — if not, now, then very soon,” she said.

Since 2017, Deatrick has led three major women’s marches in Ann Arbor and has co-organized and spoke at many more rallies and strikes for women’s rights, climate change issues, fair wages and more. 

She also is a former Washtenaw County commissioner and ran in 2018 for state Senate. Deatrick’s run to represent Michigan’s 18th District gained plenty of progressive endorsements, but she narrowly lost to now-state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor).

In addition to leading OR Michigan, Deatrick now serves as the elected chair of the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Council on the Environment and Climate Crisis, which she founded in August to bring transformative change to the national party’s environmental justice platform. Her organizing efforts for the two groups often coincide. 

Bernie Sanders after the first debate | Andrew Roth

“It’s about Sen. Sanders, but it’s about much more,” Deatrick said. “There are much bigger types of change that have to happen.”

“… We want the people who came out of the Bernie movement and people who [have] entered the party newly since then, for whatever reason  … to get involved in their local party and to contribute. We’re all part of the party and we all need to contribute. That’s our way of helping to transform the party — becoming part of it and working for change from both inside and outside,” she added.

As for where Sanders is at in Michigan, Deatrick points to endorsements from Tlaib, national unions, activists, artists and the youth-led Sunrise Movement group of climate change activists as proof that the support comes from all corners.

“Michigan is going to be so important in November, along with some of the other battleground states – states that we narrowly lost, tragically lost in 2016,” she said.

“I also think that so many of the issues that are central to our country are encapsulated in Michigan,” Deatrick said, listing the examples of drinking water issues, PFAS, climate change, immigration, air quality, manufacturing jobs, crumbling infrastructure, public school funding and more.

“Democrats are doing their best to address these issues, but we need help from the top. We need help from the federal level down,” she said.

Deatrick described the energy among activists and particularly student volunteers as “overwhelming and inspiring,” adding that she has worked with Spartans for Sanders and continues to be impressed by their enthusiasm. She said this is the trend statewide, which leaves her feeling good about Sanders’ odds of winning Michigan.

Sanders’ vision “put together all of the pieces in an intersectional, inclusive way,” Deatrick said. “… It has been amazing, the way that Bernie’s been able to inspire this. This is a diverse — age-diverse too, actually — but racially diverse, economically diverse [campaign].”

She added: “We have incredible momentum in Michigan. … We have to keep working, but I am feeling very optimistic. I think we’re going to win this.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.