- Marc Nadel
If Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pulls off a win in New York's Democratic primary on Tuesday, he'll owe it to young activists such as Lauren Chinault.
"I want to know I did everything I could to help him win," the 28-year-old bookkeeper said last week at her modest home in the Rockaway section of Queens. Having experienced a "political awakening" soon after moving to New York seven years ago, Texas-born Chinault views the Sanders insurgency as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring about fundamental change."
Chinault, a volunteer campaign coordinator, had just dispatched eight local residents to canvass door- to-door in the working-class beachside neighborhood hard hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Some Rockaway streets still flood in heavy rains. "The infrastructure here is laughably bad," Chinault observed. "Bernie's commitment to investing in communities like this is one reason I support him so strongly."
Young people made up most of the crowds at Sanders rallies last weekend in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem. As it is in most states that have already held primaries or caucuses, the 74-year-old senator's base in New York is built on the idealism and energy of millennials. Conversely, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton draws much of her support from older voters. That generational split appears to be playing out among African American and Jewish voters in New York, who together account for about half the Democratic electorate in the five boroughs.
"I trust Bernie on Israel," Daniel Edelstein, a 20-year-old student wearing a yarmulke, said as he waited for the start of a rally on "Bernie's Block" — the street on which Sanders was raised in a heavily Jewish part of Brooklyn. "He worked on a kibbutz, and nothing he says endangers Israel's security."
Jessica Jones, a twentysomething African American standing in the same line, also expressed trust in Sanders. "I believe what he says, unlike Hillary, who flip-flops all the time, like on gay marriage," Jones commented. "She moves around depending on what's popular."
Jones added that she's trying to convince her mother, who's leaning toward Clinton. "The thing is, a lot of African Americans don't know much about Sanders," Jones said. "The younger ones tend to know him better, and they'll vote for him."
The septuagenarian Democratic socialist is able to connect with voters 50 years his junior because "he speaks to issues important to our generation, such as student debt," said Josh Siegel, 25, a Sanders coordinator for the Working Families Party. "We were raised on advertising and the internet, so we've had to learn to think critically," added Siegel, who oversees a canvassing and phone-bank operation at the downtown Brooklyn headquarters of the progressive third party. "We're focused less on candidates' images and more on what they stand for."
But this upwelling of support for Sanders among younger New Yorkers may not offset Clinton's political advantage in the state she represented for eight years in the U.S. Senate. The Vermonter was trailing the suburban New York City resident 37 to 53 percent in a poll released on April 10. That's almost exactly the margin by which Clinton defeated Barack Obama in the 2008 New York Democratic primary.
New York has a wealth of delegates up for grabs in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. On the GOP side, homeboy billionaire Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Ohio Governor John Kasich are also campaigning for New Yorkers' votes in the primary Tuesday.
Sanders, meanwhile, though Brooklyn-born and -accented, is something of an exotic product to many in Gotham. Nina Turner, one of his most prominent black supporters, referred to the Burlington resident at a rally at Harlem's Apollo Theater on April 9 as the former "mayor of Vermont."
And Sanders did little to lessen his long-shot odds in New York with back-to-back blunders last week.
He was embarrassingly unprepared for predictable questions about his economic program and his Middle East policy posed during an interview with the New York Daily News, which has been friendly toward his candidacy. Sanders stumbled in explaining how he would break up the mega-banks he holds responsible for triggering the Great Recession in 2008. He also overestimated by a factor of five the number of civilian deaths resulting from Israel's bombardment of Gaza two years ago. "Anybody help me out here, because I don't remember the figures?" he plaintively asked Daily News editors in regard to the Gaza toll.
Even some of his backers concede that their candidate erred in attacking the former senator, secretary of state, first lady and lifelong policy wonk as not "qualified" to be president in an April 7 speech. "It's not a word he should have used," acknowledged Peter Hogness, a 60-year-old retired union organizer who was wearing a jacket festooned with "Socialists for Sanders" buttons at the Bernie's Block rally.
The churlish attack smudged Sanders' brand as a politician who does not go negative. It also damaged his standing with women who viewed his rejection of Clinton's credentials as sexist.
Implicitly admitting his mistake, Sanders reversed course in an April 10 TV interview. "Of course," he said when asked then whether he regarded Clinton as qualified to serve as president. "I want to get away from this stuff," he added.
For her part, Clinton has generally adopted the above-the-fray posture of a candidate with a commanding lead in polls. But on Monday she hammered Sanders on gun control, charging that on a per-capita basis, Vermont is the biggest source of guns used to commit crimes in New York. Clinton has employed this line of attack throughout the campaign and is betting it will prove particularly effective in New York, a state that has experienced enough gun violence to support strict controls on firearms. The issue gives her an opportunity to criticize her more-progressive-than-thou opponent from the left.
Sanders insists he can still win in New York and, even if he loses, will remain in credible contention for the Democratic nomination. But almost no political analyst believes that is so. The punditry is nearly unanimous in decreeing that a defeat on April 19 will effectively foreclose Sanders' chance of overcoming Clinton's already-formidable lead in the delegate race.
At the same time, almost no political analyst foresaw the spectacle of a senator from one of the whitest states in the U.S. making a powerful pitch for African American support in the historic Apollo Theater on Harlem's main drag. And Sanders made that appeal in uncharacteristically personal terms.
"I think most of you know I'm Jewish," he told a full house that looked evenly split between blacks and whites. "I can remember, as a kid, tears coming down my eyes, knowing that much of my father's family was wiped out by a lunatic in Germany. It was clear to me from a very early age that I had to spend my life opposing that kind of behavior."
At the Apollo, Sanders sought repeatedly to whack away at Clinton's core support from black voters. He urged former president Bill Clinton — twice — to apologize for recently defending his wife's use of the term "super-predators" in describing violent young African Americans in 1996.
Sanders also tied himself to the Black Lives Matter movement by appearing onstage with Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, who was infamously choked to death by New York police two years ago in a crackdown on the illegal street sales of "loosie" cigarettes. Harry Belafonte, the 89-year-old singer and civil rights champion, was also on hand, thumping his cane to lend cred to Sanders' claim of long-running activism in the cause of racial justice.
But the senator is still seen by many African Americans as a newbie in that arena — partly because Sanders seldom addressed race issues during his 40-year political career in Vermont. "He's not been as strong on that as he could have been," commented NanJo Lee, a Chinese American in the Apollo audience. "But I think it's fine that he represents people regardless of their color. He goes to the root, because when you fix the economy, you fix a lot of what's wrong in minority communities."
Another unusual element in Sanders' "community conversation" in Harlem was the link he made, albeit implicitly, between cutting the Pentagon budget and financing his expensive public works programs. He cited the expenditure of "trillions of dollars fighting a war in Iraq we never should have fought in the first place." He continued: "It's hard for me to understand why we don't have the money to invest in crumbling inner-cities all over this country."
Some of Sanders' New York supporters point to Clinton's comparatively aggressive foreign-policy positions in explaining their preference in the primary. Working Families Party organizer Siegel, for example, said he finds fault with Clinton's "hawkish tendencies" manifested by her "advocacy for regime change." Chinault, the Rockaway activist, suggested that Clinton is "being extra-hawkish to prove she can make the choices male politicians make."
As Clinton's husband spoke Sunday at a Latino organizing event in the Corona section of Queens, a young woman with a gray-powdered Rastafarian hairdo stood on her chair and screamed that Clinton is a "war criminal." The rest of her heckling was drowned out by audience chants of "Hill-a-ry," but the disruption was keyed to placards outside the hall deploring the then-secretary of state's support for a 2009 military coup in Honduras. The protesters linked that intervention to the recent murder of an indigenous-rights activist there.
But Clinton's foreign-policy experience is what makes her a better candidate than Sanders, according to many of her backers.
Her familiarity with international issues and leaders of other countries is "absolutely a critical factor," said Dave Gugerty, a Democratic Party official in the town of Oyster Bay on Long Island. "We live in dangerous times."
Some of the 20 or so Clinton supporters who joined Gugerty on a Sunday morning pre-canvassing hike on the grounds of Teddy Roosevelt's Long Island home echoed his claim, praising the former secretary's pragmatic positions on domestic as well as global issues.
The Sagamore Hill National Historic Site was an appropriate venue for the gathering. Emblazoned on a sign at the entrance is a quote from the 26th president that could serve as a campaign slogan for the woman who aspires to be the 45th: "Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground."
Annie Berger, a retired 74-year-old high school teacher who took part in the outing, said she admires Sanders' progressive politics. "Bernie speaks from the heart, and he speaks the truth," Berger declared, adding, "but Hillary is more likely to get things done." The white-haired Democratic Party activist also cited Clinton's gender as a reason for supporting her candidacy. "I'm in my sunset years so, yes, it's important for me to have a woman president in my lifetime," Berger said.
But some young women backing Sanders said Clinton's gender is of secondary importance. "As a feminist, I believe Bernie tries to break down the patriarchal walls," remarked Anysia Batts, a 26-year-old African American attending the Apollo rally. Arianna Mahon, an African American also in her twenties, said at the Bernie's Block rally in Brooklyn: "I'd love to see a woman be president, but not Hillary. I want it to be the right person with the right politics."
Liz Adair, a Long Beach, Long Island, resident who hosted a Sanders phone-bank event on Sunday, suggested that character is of greater concern than gender in assessing a candidate's merits. "Bernie is a good person at his core," Adair said. "He's real. He's not a bullshitter."