The first time Marion, Alabama, native Jonathan Carlisle heard Bernie Sanders speak, he was sold on the progressive presidential candidate’s vision—one that didn’t rely on corporate agendas and which addressed such concerns as making student loans affordable and battling structural racism. “All around me is this idea that to be conservative in the South is to be right,” says the Morehouse College political science student. Clad in a plaid shirt and thick-rimmed glasses, Carlisle stands behind a campaign table in the former downtown Macy’s building as one of the Vermont senator’s 100,000 volunteers nationwide. “He’s the future of what American politics should look like.”
In the heart of the Deep South, hallowed ground for conservative candidates, the 74-year-old, Jewish, self-described democratic socialist senator yesterday made his first campaign stop in Atlanta, pledging to make the country fairer and more equal for all Americans—even though his presence in this red state likely won’t affect which party gets the most electoral votes in November 2016.
A little after 6 o’clock last night, Sanders gave an extended stump speech and shook hands with roughly 1,200 small-time donors—the minimum contribution to attend the event was $50, a pittance in comparison to the $2,700 minimum contribution required to attend Hillary Clinton’s first Georgia fundraiser last May—directly across Peachtree Street from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. In a drab event space with blue-and-white campaign signs plastered haphazardly on barren walls, attendees wearing Sanders shirts reading “JOIN THE POLITICAL REVOLUTION TODAY” buzzed with anticipation, some of them sipping $7 Stella Artois and $9 red wine in the back of the room.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders watch the presidential candidate court potential Southern voters. Speaking to the Atlanta crowd for over an hour, Sanders came off like a lefty economic professor with something of a dry wit, vowing to close the income inequality gap, expand the public welfare system, and reform campaign finance rules. He blasted the billionaire-driven election process upheld by the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, reminding supporters that his surprising ascent in the polls—he’s currently in a dead heat with establishment Democratic candidate Clinton—was achieved by a campaign that averages $31.20 per donation. “The American people are sick and tired of establishment politics, the American people are sick and tired of establishment economics, and the American people sick and tired of establishment media,” Sanders told the crowd. Somewhat ironically, Sanders has come to occupy a similar role on the left as business magnate Donald Trump has on the right—the outsider candidate who’s managed to shake up the status quo by ignoring the party line and speaking directly to the people, positioning himself as the best hope for fixing a broken system.
“Bernie isn’t looking for big donations,” Marietta activist Greg Ames says. “He’s talking to the common man.”
Sanders recently has gained ground in the polls, but lags behind in minority support—a fact that was highlighted last month when two Black Lives Matter activists disrupted his Seattle rally. For that reason, this week’s Southern campaign tour has been largely about courting people of color, who were few and far between amid a sea of white supporters last night. At numerous points of his speech, he emphasized the need to take action to combat institutional racism at schools, inside jails, and within police forces. “It costs a lot less to send someone to the University of Georgia than it does to send him to jail,” he said.
“When he started the campaign, he didn’t make important first moves to reach out to Black Lives Matter,” said Milton Tambor, a union representative and member of the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America. “He’s doing that now. If he continues to do that, it can change the whole movement. That’s what he needs—support from people of color and Latinos.”
Bernie Sanders hugs a support during a meet-and-greet.After Sanders’s speech and a short meet-and-greet, onlookers swarmed campaign workers to grab their very own buttons, rally signs, and bumper stickers. Jonathan Bautista, a twentysomething Latino American personal trainer, asked how to volunteer with the campaign to help Sanders make a dent in Georgia. He proudly wore a “Bernie for the Future” T-shirt portraying the Vermont senator as “Doc” Brown from Back to the Future wearing a lab coat and plastic goggles and holding a remote control—presumably to reverse income inequality levels. Though Bautista understands that the Sanders campaign is unlikely to turn Georgia blue, he holds out hope.
“Whenever you’re taking on a grassroots effort, you have to acknowledge that you’re already the underdog,” he says. “The odds are against us in the state of Georgia. But the more people that are outspoken, the more people that are in this collective, that’s more clout that we have altogether.”