Sanders delegates in Philly: There may be protests thanks to Clinton's VP pick, but we'll have to wait and see

The vice-presidential choice, superdelegate system and the open primaries all matter

Published July 24, 2016 8:30PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton   (AP/Matt Rourke)
Hillary Clinton (AP/Matt Rourke)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Hillary Clinton announced her pick for vice president, Tim Kaine, on Friday night, and Sanders delegates have taken to organizing among themselves to respond at next week’s Democratic Convention.

The highest-profile decision made by the Clinton campaign recently has been the VP pick, and Sanders’ 1,900-member delegation has already made its opinion heard. Prior to Clinton making the announcement, one self-organized group, the Bernie Delegates Network, has been in contact with more than 1,000 delegates and found, among the several hundred who responded to their poll, that the great majority would loudly reject a pro-corporate running mate like Kaine.

“By last Sunday, a survey of Bernie delegates showed that less than 3 percent of delegates considered Sen. [Tim] Kaine as an ‘acceptable’ Democratic vice-presidential running mate, while 88.5 percent responded ‘not acceptable,’” a Thursday release said. “Nearly 200 delegates said that if Hillary Clinton chose a corporate-oriented running mate deemed unacceptable, they would 'seriously consider participating' in an action nonviolently and emphatically protesting in the convention hall during Clinton’s acceptance speech.”

Northern California’s Norman Solomon, who helped create the network, said the press release “vastly understates the interest in protest action on the floor because it says 200 people, but that’s in ratio to less than 300 people who did the survey — if you follow me. So if you looked at percentage, it’s a very high percentage of delegates, more than half, who are willing to vocally denounce or want to protest.”

The vice-presidential choice is not the only likely trigger for protests or other attempts at floor action. Yesterday, the party’s Rules Committee met to consider two changes that matter deeply to the Sanders delegation. The first is ending the Democratic Party’s system of superdelegates, which account for about one-sixth of the delegates nominating their presidential candidate. The second is requiring state parties to hold open presidential primaries, meaning that any registered voter, not just those registering as Democrats, can vote.

Last week, Sanders held a nationwide conference call with his delegates in the evening after he endorsed Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. Sanders said he did not think their stances that did not win a majority at the platform hearings could become party policy. But he did say there was some support for eliminating superdelegates and closed primaries.

What’s unclear is just what podium moderators will allow to unfold during next week’s convention. It is very possible that Sanders delegates will want to try to amend platform stances, such as specifically opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, or have a wider debate on party rules that pertain to superdelegates and primaries. In recent decades, the party hasn’t allowed anything resembling that kind of debate and vote at a national convention. Instead, it’s been a parade of speakers, almost all officeholders from around the nation, talking about their party and its nominee.

What the Bernie Delegate Network is doing, against this backdrop, is trying to play a role akin to what used to be called a floor whip, which was to facilitate or coordinate audience responses. Solomon said more than 400 Sanders delegates took part in a conference call Tuesday, where among other things, they agreed to text each other as events unfold.

“The Bernie Delegates Network is not trying to tell anybody what to do, but we’re doing something that nobody else had done — no other group, the news media, the campaign — which is to survey people… and we will continue to do that in the next few days and then turn it around and let everybody know,” he said. “As I said to people in our call, we want to provide almost real-time information, so delegates are not reliant on their own silos, state delegations or the corporate media. We have information across the delegation about what people’s basic outlooks are, what options they are looking at, what actions they’re seriously considering on the floor and elsewhere.”

Not just organizing protests

But interviews with other Sanders delegates revealed that there are a wide range of opinions about the best way to have an impact next week.

What many Sanders delegates seem to share in California and other states, Sacramento’s Karen Bernal said, is that “people are upset about the TPP and also about fights regarding amendments to the rules over primaries, the superdelegates, even voter registration requirements for the primary — all the things that we know were a source of complaints during the primaries.”

“The idea of contemplating direct action is out there — there is a common desire, I think, that’s one that a few states share, not just California,” she said. “I have heard of people walking out, especially on Thursday when Clinton gives her speech… But if you see expressions of, say, disapproval or dissent, it is going to be of a sort that is perhaps visual or perhaps audible, but it is not going to cross a line, because they want to keep their credentials.”

Yet Bernal was quick to say that many delegates want to make progress on specific issues and aren’t looking at protests or confrontational approaches.

“There are some plans, in terms of trying to advance some sort around the TPP, by trying to do some things that quite frankly are unsexy, like reaching out to Clinton counterparts with positive statements like, 'Hey, 85 percent of the Democratic base is against the TPP, would you join us in taking a picture saying you are against the TPP?'” she said. “And doing things like that, which isn’t scorched earth, but very much about being unified in a message. There are plans like that.”

Bruce Jones, another Sanders delegate from California, is taking that approach. He wants to make sure that climate change is front and center in the party and has proposed creating a permanent “climate council” in the Democratic National Committee.

“We have a grassroots effort that started in California district 14,” he said. “It was my idea and then Gus Peterson, my co-delegate, when we saw the official schedule of events, we didn’t see a climate council on it. We just started pushing around, seeing if we could get space and form one. The DNC has actually helped us to reserve space at the Philadelphia Convention Center. We’ll have sort of a climate council roundtable. We will have our list of speakers and it may be more of a pass-the-microphone thing. And we formed a Facebook group, Climate Change Delegates.”

Jones said his priority is to have a lasting positive impact, especially after seeing the way the Republican Party ignored climate change at its convention in Cleveland. “I’m watching the Republican Convention right now and I’m noticing that West Virginia is all about ‘Trump digs coal.’ And Alaska is all about ‘free our acreage so we can pump oil out of it,'" he said. “Nobody there is talking about the fact that 2016 is the hottest year mankind has ever seen.”

Does he think the DNC is taking this initiative seriously enough?

“I am at the moment trying to be very positive,” he replied. “My plan as a Bernie delegate is not to be protesting. My plan is to be working with the DNC to formally recognize a climate committee and eventually have a motion for this and everything. I don’t know — they don’t tell me their plans. I am not in those discussions about how next week's events will go. But I assume the goal is to nominate a presidential candidate and to successfully tell the story about elevating that candidate. And they’re going to include what they will to increase the number of people to vote for our candidate.”

The differing comments from Solomon, Bernal and Jones underscore that there’s a wide range of temperaments and strategies about what to do in Philadelphia.

“Bernie led with integrity on issues and found a bunch of principled people that would like to make principled progress,” Jones said. “And do it in a way that brings trust back to government. I am proud of that and that is why I am in this. I wasn’t declared to any party four months ago. Bernie woke me up and I’m trying to make progress on what I think is the most important issue to humanity, which is climate change. And I think it is absolutely criminal that people are trying to continue the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of our grandchildren or children. I see it daily, when I watch the news, I see death by climate change."

Jones said he doesn’t want to end up as a “30-second soundbite” on the evening news that will soon be forgotten. But other Sanders delegates, like Solomon, who has previously run for Congress, say the signal sent by the vice-presidential choice cannot be underestimated, especially if it is a politician with a pro-corporate resume.

”That’s where the Clinton people and their choice will be critical,” Solomon said, “because you can bullshit all you want as a candidate or an operative, but who they choose will tell us a huge amount. And we’re ready, we’re ready to protest, if they make the choice that it seems like they are going to make.” And we know now that Clinton did make that choice.

Bernal, however, did not think a majority are going to Philadelphia to be disruptive.

“It’s a minority, still, so far,” she said. “A lot is going to depend on what happens from the end of the Rules Committee going all the way through up to Thursday, depending how the Bernie delegates feel they were dealt [with]. If they feel they were dealt a crappy hand, or a less than ideal hand, I think you will see some discontent. But I don't think the average Bernie delegate is looking to go in there to just pick a fight. I think what they are doing is kind of a wait and see.”

By Steven Rosenfeld

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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