Churning Out the Vote: Ben Cohen Mixes Ice Cream Pints for Politics | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Politics

Churning Out the Vote: Ben Cohen Mixes Ice Cream Pints for Politics



Ben Cohen is not shy about making his political views known.

The Ben & Jerry's cofounder is adamant that left-leaning voters must help flip the U.S. House in November's midterm elections "as a way of putting the brakes on a Trumpian assault on the values that we hold dear." That's a reference to President Donald Trump, whom Cohen says he's "ashamed to call the president."

So what's a 67-year-old ice cream icon to do? In partnership with the activist organization MoveOn, Cohen and Ben & Jerry's cofounder Jerry Greenfield have crafted a plan to help elect congressional candidates who share their progressive values. Naturally, their strategy involves the duo's signature frozen treat.

To be exact: 35 gallons — 280 pints — of ice cream, handmade by Cohen himself, using flavors dreamed up by progressive donors, packed into containers signed by Ben and Jerry.

"Pulling out all the stops is essentially cranking up the old ice cream freezer," Cohen said with a chuckle last Thursday. "That's what we can offer."

The campaign is designed to help replace seven Republican members of Congress with Democrats chosen for their progressive values: Ammar Campa-Najjar in California, Stephany Rose Spaulding in Colorado, James Thompson in Kansas, J.D. Scholten in Iowa, Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Aftab Pureval in Ohio and Jess King in Pennsylvania.

Here's how it works: Donors who gave money to any of those seven candidates through MoveOn before last Friday's deadline could submit a flavor name and ingredient profile to the contest. Cohen said he will serve as the "sole judge and jury" and select a winning flavor for each candidate.

"I produce 40 pints of that flavor on my home countertop ice cream-making machine," he said. "They get packed in special containers signed by Jerry and I, the creators."

One of the 40 pints will go to the donor who came up with the winning flavor; MoveOn will raffle off the rest to support the candidates.

As part of his contribution, Cohen also plans to travel to Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania and California to campaign with the candidates and, of course, scoop some ice cream. His first stop is Ames, Iowa, where he'll unveil the winning flavors for all seven candidates at an October 7 event.

Underwood, who is taking on GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren in Illinois' 14th district, said in an email that she was "so surprised" to learn she was on Cohen's list.

Her campaign isn't involved in running the contest, but Underwood has clearly been thinking about what flavor should represent her. Her district is "one of the largest producers of corn in the country," she said, so she imagines "a delicious ice cream inspired by our community's amazing caramel corn."

"One of my favorite name ideas so far is 'Health Caramel for All,' a suggestion from one of our volunteers," Underwood said.

While Cohen and Greenfield are using their ice cream fame to support candidates, the company they founded is staying away from the endeavor.

"At Ben & Jerry's, we don't believe corporations should endorse candidates," Laura Peterson, the company's public "elations" manager, wrote in an email. "We are fiercely political, but not partisan. We support issues and policy rather than individuals."

Edward Erikson is helping to coordinate the ice cream campaign. He's been working as a political consultant on Cohen's advocacy efforts since 2012, when he joined the Stamp Stampede campaign intended to get corporate money out of politics. Society of Stampers members use a rubber stamp to imprint messages such as "Not to be used for bribing politicians" or "Stamp money out of politics" on paper currency, according to Cohen.

"I think Ben was incredibly inspired by Occupy Wall Street and seeing all these people take to the streets to protest income inequality," Erikson said.

Is the stamp campaign in conflict with his current fundraiser? Cohen says no.

"The reality is that, in order to change the system, we need to elect people that are going to change the system," he said. "These candidates have all vowed to do that, and the reality of politics today is that you've got to raise a lot of money in order to get elected."

Cohen has also brought his celebrity to the local fight against the U.S. Air Force's decision to base F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport. In March, Queen City cops arrested him for disorderly conduct after he repeatedly violated the city noise ordinance by blasting the sound of an F-35 from a trailer full of amplified speakers.

Cohen doesn't just take symbolic stands. Since the 2016 election, he's donated about $10,000 to liberal candidates around the country and to the Wolf-PAC, a political action committee that advocates against corporate money in politics.

While Cohen is far more vocal, Greenfield doesn't stay completely out of the political limelight. The duo jointly introduced Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at his presidential campaign launch on the Burlington waterfront in 2016.

"When Bernie declared that he was running for president, Jerry and I said, 'We're gonna do everything we can to support him,'" Cohen recalled, "'because this is finally a candidate for president that represents our values and represents the best interests of everyday Americans.'"

As part of that effort, the duo froze up a special flavor, Bernie's Yearning, to support their hometown hero. They donated pints to the campaign, which held a contest among supporters for the limited-edition desserts.

"It was a media sensation," said Erikson. The ice cream showed up on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," and "We got a pint to the host of 'The View' and they ate it with Bernie Sanders on-air," Erikson recalled.

Cohen is optimistic that the new campaign will bring similar buzz to the seven congressional hopefuls. As with Bernie's Yearning, Cohen will brand the yet-to-be-named ice cream flavors as Ben's Best.

"My belief is that, potentially, Trump is the best turnout mechanism we have on the left, but we need to utilize this opportunity," Cohen said. "If we don't make the calls, if we don't make the donations, if we don't show up, we're just going to go further and further down the hole."