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'Super Volunteers' Try To Expand Reach, Influence Of Sanders Presidential Campaign

An adult and a child stand across from each other in a blue-painted room.
Peter Hirschfeld
Isiah Smith, standing right, role plays a voter interaction with his son, Matteo, for the people who came out to his "Organize Your Friends for Bernie" event. Smith is among the "super volunteers" trying to deliver Sanders a win in California's primary.

In 2017, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders published an instructional guide for regular Americans on how to organize social movements, and his strongest supporters are now using his manifesto as a playbook for the 2020 presidential race.

A half dozen people hung large Bernie Sanders posters from a chain link barricade on a pedestrian bridge over the 101 Freeway in the North Valley of Los Angeles last Friday evening. The Sanders volunteers who organized this spectacle called it a “banner drop.”

Their audience? The bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic speeding below.

“There’s still a narrative out there that’s being pushed, you know — Is Bernie electable? Is there real support for him? Can he grow his base? —  all these questions that feel a little offensive to those of us who have recognized the massive movement that he’s building,” said Sanders supporter Michelle Manos.

Manos said banner drops are meant to counter that narrative. She’s part of a network of Sanders volunteers in the Los Angeles area that has also orchestrated phone banks, neighborhood canvasses, flash mobs and even a float at the Rose Parade.   

“We are the Bernie Sanders Metro Squad,” Manos said.

Two people stand in front of a fence over a highway with a "Bernie" sign.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Michelle Manos, right, and another Sanders supporter wave to passing cars at a "banner drop" over the 101 Freeway.

She added that Sanders’ unsuccessful run for president in 2016 lit a fire that burns even hotter today.

“Those of us who had showed up for the first time in the activist community because of Bernie Sanders, we didn’t just go back home, go back to our job, go back to sleep, you know, we really made a concerted effort to push for the values,” Manos said.

That concerted effort is now focused squarely on delivering Sanders a victory in the California primary on Tuesday. Manos said she probably dedicates 30 to 50 hours a week on Sanders volunteerism, “if not more.”

“Many of us put paid work aside, we ask our relationships to sort of be on hold, temporarily, while we work really hard for this,” she said.

Manos and her fellow Metro Squad members are what the Sanders campaign refers to as "super volunteers." Think of them as radio repeaters, who receive the signal from its original source, and then retransmit the message to broaden its reach.

"Those of us who had showed up for the first time in the activist community because of Bernie Sanders, we didn't just go back home, go back to our job, go back to sleep, you know, we really made a concerted effort to push for the values." — Michelle Manos, Sanders campaign volunteer

Or, there’s this analogy from Isiah Smith:

“I’m sure you guys are very familiar with the Evangelist movement, how well that’s done, and … What it’s accomplished. And it should work for a political, social movement that people are interested in that will lift everybody, right? 99%, right?”

Smith said this while addressing the five people who showed up to his “Organize Your Friends for Bernie” event on Saturday morning. He sat in the blue-carpeted community room at his condominium complex in Compton, wearing running tights with an American flag design and an oversize “Bernie” tee-shirt pulled over a bright purple hoodie.

Smith said the political movement Sanders is building isn’t all that dissimilar from religious movements that came before it.

“The best way to build a movement, the best way to grow an idea, is through small groups gathering together, where people feel as though they’re part of something, part of a unique group of people that know each other, that are pushing each other,” he said.

A "Bernie's Coffee Shop" menu in a glass window.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
"Bernie's Coffee Shop" in Los Angeles is a gathering place for Sanders supporters in southern California.

At the event Smith organized, the blueprint for that movement came in the form of a script from the Sanders campaign. It had tips for phone banking and knocking on doors:

“People want to feel heard and understood.”

And most importantly:

“Never debate ... Research has found that when two people enter into a debate, both sides usually leave more committed to their prior beliefs than before.”

Smith told his new friends they’re trying to move public opinion toward Sanders, not entrench the opposition.

“You are attempting to persuade,” he said. “People may need that.”

Smith said he spends his evenings and weekends trying to mobilize support for Sanders in his community. He’s even taken days off from work. It’s new calling for Smith, 38, who said he’d never really been much for politics in the past.

“But when I heard this guy Bernie talking this stuff that he was talking back in 2015 … $15 minimum wage, health care for everybody, free public college education for anybody that can get in … I got interested,” Smith said.

He said he understands there are other candidates in the Democratic presidential primary that check those same boxes. But Sanders, he added, is the only one who’s been talking about those issues for decades.

"You are attempting to persuade. ... People may need that." — Isiah Smith, Sanders campaign volunteer

“Bernie opened the door, and I think he should walk through it, and that’s kind of how I feel about it,” Smith said.

This past Tuesday, I was sitting at Gate 36 in Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport, waiting for my flight home and transcribing some tape from that phone-banking how-to that Isiah Smith organized.

A few feet away, I heard a man reciting lines from the same Sanders campaign script.

Masoud Yeganagi, who lives in Toronto, Canada, told me he uses a lot of his free time to phone bank for Sanders. Campaign finance law prohibits foreigners from donating to U.S. candidates or working as paid campaign staffers.

A paper with writing on it.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
The Bernie Sanders campaign script for volunteers.

“But the FEC website specifically stipulates that I’m allowed to volunteer — that’s the only way I can help,” Yeganegi said. “And the reasons I’m helping is, I have a niece who’s American, who’s five years old. I have a nephew who’s a few months old, and these are issues that’s going to affect their lives as they grow up.”

Issues like Medicare for All, Yeganegi said, or a $15 minimum wage, or, most importantly for him, climate change.

Volunteers like Yeganegi helped the Sanders campaign log five million calls in the first two weeks of January alone.

“That’s why he’s the best chance we have to create change in America, because he has this grassroots movement that no other candidate has,” Yeganegi said.

Sanders will find out on Super Tuesday whether that movement translates into electoral success.

This is the second of three reports from VPR's Peter Hirschfeld, who recently traveled to southern California to cover the Sanders campaign. Stay tuned and check back on our Campaign 2020 page for more.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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