- James Buck
- Nick Clark, Ashley Andreas and David Zuckerman
A handful of young Bernie Sanders supporters convened on a riverbank in White River Junction last Wednesday evening. As the burgeoning politicos grilled hot dogs and hamburgers from the local co-op, they chatted about something that doesn't usually come up during a summer barbecue: the best techniques to identify likely voters.
These Sanders followers are doing exactly what the independent Vermont senator who energized legions in his run for the Democratic nomination for president urged them to: They're getting involved politically.
Two of the assembled twentysomethings — Ashley Andreas and Nick Clark — have been so motivated by Sanders' message that they are running for the state legislature. Kicking aside any notion of waiting their turn, both are taking on incumbent Democrats who support many of the same policies they do.
Clark and Andreas aren't the only young Sanders supporters putting themselves out there. But they and a third member of their circle, Dave Hinckley, a House candidate in Springfield, stand out as Bernie-born political activists who are taking the most direct route from campaigning for their hero to campaigning for themselves.
Other young Vermont lefties are eyeing runs for school boards and selectboards, Clark said. Still more are getting involved in grassroots groups such as Rights & Democracy, an organization seeking to elect local candidates who will push for higher wages, universal health care and other Sanders-sanctioned causes.
Clark and Andreas express impatience that those in power now aren't enacting changes quickly enough.
"The tone Bernie set was, 'This is your government,'" said Clark, a quietly intense 28-year-old former web developer who grew up in Norwich and lives in Thetford. "He turned my despair and the sense that the system is rigged into, 'We can do anything if we do it together.'"
Seventy-four-year-old Sanders has emboldened Clark and other young people to demand that their generation be heard.
"That's the voice that's missing in the legislature," Clark said.
And so it is that Clark is running in a two-seat district covering Thetford, Norwich, Sharon and Strafford. He'll face incumbent Democrats Jim Masland and Tim Briglin in the August 9 primary.
Clark insisted he's not running against those two incumbents but for the issues he thinks are being ignored, including a higher minimum wage, affordable housing and cheaper college tuition.
Elected Vermont Democrats — most of whom cringe at the notion that they could be considered the "establishment" — are on one hand glad to see young activists get involved. On the other hand, these brazen young upstarts are getting under their skin. The newcomers exhibit enough political naïveté to make them both charming and irritating.
"I welcome the energy," said House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), who noted that she challenged an incumbent Democrat the first time she ran.
But the 46-year-old Copeland Hanzas took issue with the suggestion that incumbents aren't paying attention to issues that affect young people. "I'm sending my second kid to college in a couple months. To say I don't understand the cost of college tuition is not true," she said.
"They're certainly entitled to run," said Masland, 67, of Thetford, an 18-year Democratic legislator. "I suggested the usual — that they run for selectboard, get on a committee, find a way to build a track record."
But Clark doesn't seem inclined to climb the political ladder rung by rung. He recalled that while working as a Sanders volunteer in New Hampshire last winter, he saw a statement from the candidate on Facebook: "It's better to show up than to give up." It's become his mantra.
A 2016 Community College of Vermont graduate, Clark calls himself a full-time volunteer, for now. His girlfriend brings in the household income. Clark started a group called Upper Valley Young Liberals in February, two weeks after the New Hampshire primary.
The way the group conducts itself reflects Clark's seriousness. The Young Liberals follow Robert's Rules of Order. Executive committee members have to be under age 35. They endorse candidates, but only if there's unanimous agreement at two consecutive meetings.
So far, that's yielded a limited number of endorsements: for Sanders and a smattering of Vermont Democrats, including Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne, Andreas, Clark, Hinckley, 27-year-old Windsor state Senate candidate Conor Kennedy and — surprisingly — Rep. Gabrielle Lucke (D-White River Junction), one of Andreas' rivals.
Although 56-year-old Lucke belongs to a different demographic, she serves on the House committee that handles labor issues. She won over the Upper Valley Young Liberals for her work to pass mandatory paid sick leave legislation and extend first-time home buyer tax credits, among other achievements.
The group's organizational efforts have paid off. Using phone banks to lobby 600 potential Democratic decision makers across the state, it helped two of its members — Andreas and Noah Detzer, a 25-year-old Hartford High School teacher — win seats as delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Clark just missed out on a slot.
Andreas, also a 2016 CCV grad, is a 23-year-old single mother who lives in Wilder, just outside White River Junction. Her 2-year-old, Daliah, was with her onstage at the May 22 Democratic State Convention when she gave her 30-second speech to win a seat as a delegate.
That Andreas' babysitter fell through helped. "Daliah was a factor," she said of her victory. But Mom was also motivated. She invoked Sanders in a speech she delivered at her graduation earlier this month.
A one-time Occupy Wall Street activist who believes money has too much influence in politics, Andreas said she got turned off after that movement faded. Sanders' presidential campaign reignited her faith in politics, though she's never met the man.
"Bernie's changed my life and how I view my ability to enact change," said Andreas, who works full time as the front desk clerk at CCV in White River Junction. "When you talked about money and politics before Bernie, you were a conspiracy theorist."
Ken Dean, 61, is also a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and has attended seven others. The Montpelier resident said he's been waiting decades to see the kind of enthusiasm Andreas, Clark and the other young Sanders supporters are showing. "They make my heart sing and sing," he said. "These folks want to get on the field and play."
But will they give up the ball? Last week, even as Sanders himself conceded that he was unlikely to win the presidential nomination and would vote for rival Democrat Hillary Clinton, Andreas was unwilling to imagine such a scenario.
"I'm not going to say Bernie Sanders is going to be the nominee, but there is still a chance," she said. "Hillary Clinton, right now, is not the nominee."
Andreas' lack of enthusiasm for Clinton was palpable, and she was one of several Sanders delegates who refused to attend a meeting about convention unity in Burlington last Friday with Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. But, she conceded, "If Bernie Sanders told his supporters to get behind Hillary Clinton, we might be willing to do that."
This never-say-die commitment to Sanders and political change is what's driving Andreas to run for a House seat. She's one of four Democratic candidates competing for two seats in the August 9 primary.
Last Thursday night, she beamed from the stage at Higher Ground in South Burlington as she won the endorsement of Rights & Democracy, along with Clark, Hinckley and 28 other legislative candidates, young, old and in between. The endorsement means they met R&D's commitment to raising the minimum wage, fighting for universal health care and tackling climate change, among other issues. Twenty-one of the endorsees for House and Senate are nonincumbents.
The group didn't select Lucke or Rep. Kevin Christie (D-White River Junction), the other incumbent in Andreas' district. Jeff Arnold, owner of a local daycare center that Andreas' daughter attends, is the fourth Democrat vying for the party's nomination.
Andreas conceded that she is the only one of the four who has never served on the Hartford School Board, putting her at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding education policy. The incoming legislature will likely get right to work on Act 46, Vermont's controversial school consolidation law, which needed an 11th-hour fix at the end of the last session.
"I'm still learning," she said. "I don't think anybody goes into the legislature right off knowing what needs to be done."
Christie, a six-year legislator who sits on the House Education Committee that helped craft Act 46, has served for years on the Hartford School Board. "Coach," as he's called, owned a gas station, earned his nickname by coaching high school football and track, was Vermont Teacher of the Year, and served on the state Human Rights Commission, among other résumé-builders. He's also one of only two black lawmakers in the 180-member legislature and is himself a Sanders delegate who hasn't conceded anything to Clinton.
Christie delicately pointed to his experience while also welcoming his young challenger.
"It isn't necessarily that you have to start at a certain level and work your way up, but being cognizant of how the process works is important," Christie said. "I've done enough things that it's easier for me to navigate."
Christie might not be the sort of incumbent Andreas would like to oust, but he happens to be one who represents the district where she lives. "I'm not running against Kevin Christie or Gabrielle Lucke," she said. "I just want a chance to run ... This is about new people stepping up."
But her presence in the race is putting Christie on the defensive about his own record and experience.
"I'm not exactly a renegade in the House, but I've not always followed a certain path," he said. This year, he fought for and won an amendment to a privacy bill, thereby limiting police use of information collected from automated license plate readers. In taking that amendment to a floor vote, he said, he flouted House protocol.
Lucke conceded that running in a crowded field of candidates means she'll have to work harder, but she said she welcomes it. "Bernie has started a revolution," she said. "I'm thrilled."
Clark, too, has his Thetford incumbents working harder to defend their records. They've heard his arguments that sitting lawmakers aren't paying attention to issues that affect young people.
Masland argued that lawmakers are working on increasing funding for state colleges, raising the minimum wage and creating affordable housing.
"When you dig into it, it's not that we're not doing anything," Masland said. "The problems are far more complex than they appear to a twentysomething."
Briglin, a 50-year-old first-term House member, has been involved in Vermont politics for decades, including as a staffer for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "I will certainly talk about my experience," he said. Two years ago, he noted, he also competed in a three-person primary race. At that time, he said, he was the youngest of the candidates.
There's another aspect of politics that young Sanders supporters such as Clark and Andreas are challenging. Just like Sanders, a lifelong independent running in the Democratic presidential primary, they are disinclined to adhere to party lines and traditions.
Both Andreas and Clark are running in the Democratic primary but are also listed on the Vermont Progressive Party's website as candidates. Which team are they on?
The answer matters, said Conor Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.
"When you are elected and it comes to Tuesday afternoon, who are you caucusing with?" Casey asked, referring to the weekly meetings House Republicans, Democrats and Progressives hold separately. "We are distinctly different parties."
Andreas said she would caucus with Democrats but added, "I think Democrats and Progressives have to work together, because the Republicans are the real issue."
Asked if she would run as a Progressive if she loses the Democratic primary, she said, "I don't think so" but added, "it would really depend" on who wins and how close the results are.
Clark was similarly uncomfortable acknowledging the two parties. Of the caucuses, he said, "Ideally, I'd go to both."
Trouble is, they usually meet concurrently.
Win or lose, Clark and Andreas both said they wouldn't lose interest in politics.
"There are two kinds of Bernie supporters: One kind is going to be people who return to being apathetic; the other kind is people who've had their lives changed by Bernie Sanders," Clark explained. Echoing his young political colleague, he said with certainty, "Bernie Sanders changed my life."