November 16, 2018

In Southland, the Berniecrat is born

Onstage in Carson, Calif., a working-class city south of downtown Los Angeles,  Bernie Sanders was just getting warmed up when the crowd interrupted him with a chant: “Bernie or bust!”

He ignored it, but the message was clear: If Sanders isn’t part of the general election, those fans won’t be, either.

The campaign to win Sanders the Democratic nomination has outgrown the candidate himself, morphing into a liberal uprising reminiscent of the Tea Party on the right. Fusing progressive movements such as Black Lives Matter and the “Fight for 15” dollar minimum wage campaign, along with what remains of the Occupy movement, some of Sanders’ most ardent fans are dismissive of political authority, contemptuous of party leadership and ready to throw the establishment overboard.

The crowds greeting Sanders as he barnstorms California leading up to the June 7 primary have been a muscular demonstration of the voter base he’s inspired. The message to supporters and opponents alike is that whether he wins or loses, he has super-charged progressive politics.

In local elections, Democratic candidates are already attempting to capitalize on Sanders’ influence on the electorate.

In Orange County, Bao Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee and the youngest mayor in the history of Garden Grove, sees a window of opportunity to gain votes as he jockeys with two other Democrats to replace Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) in Congress.

“A lot of people are fed up with establishment politics,” Nguyen said in an interview. “And they have a lack of trust generally speaking in government and the political system. And I don’t blame them.”

Nguyen, 34, pointed out that the progressive elements buoying Sanders’ campaign — those agitating for a more humane immigration policy and affordable education, for instance — predate the cantankerous senator’s rise to national prominence. 

“What’s unique about the current environment is that Sen. Bernie Sanders has put these issues onto a national platform, which legitimizes what was once considered fringe or on the margins,” Nguyen said. 

Sanders has called for a “political revolution” to carry progressives into Congress and deliver a mandate for substantive change. Nguyen hopes to be the emissary of that revolution in Orange County, whether or not Sanders proceeds to the general election.

“I will certainly fight to support Bernie Sanders to be our nominee, but if that doesn’t happen, the work will continue,” he said. “Now, you can’t turn back on what has been in the public discourse nationally.”

Just west of Nguyen’s Orange County district, Compton congressional candidate Marcus Musante is badly outmatched by two Democratic rivals in funds and name recognition. Nonetheless, he sees an opening. He hopes having Sanders on the ticket will turn out enough progressives to carry him through the primary. 

“You have to keep what Bernie was fighting for alive, in case he loses, and that’s through me,” he said in an interview with the Jewish Journal, referring to himself as the senator’s understudy: “I’m the junior rabbi.”

“He really does look like a rabbi,” Musante added. “But it’s become a lot bigger than Bernie Sanders.”

Musante first heard Sanders speak while listening to his car radio about nine months ago; he pulled over and took out his phone to record what he was hearing.

“I knew there was more truth coming out of his mouth than anyone else,” Musante said.

A Jew with an Italian father, Musante sees the contest in the 44th California congressional district, which includes Carson, as a microcosm of the national Democratic contest, with him standing in for Sanders, and his top rival, State Sen. Isadore Hall III, standing in for Hillary Clinton. 

“The whole spirit of this ‘Feel the Bern’ is just that — it’s a spirit against establishment politics,” Musante said. “And Isadore Hall represents everything that’s wrong with the politics.”

For Musante, the Bernie moment is as much about the ethos of a scrappy underdog as it is about liberal politics. 

“That’s a Berniecrat,” he said during a recent interview at Langer’s Delicatessen in MacArthur Park, located just beyond his district’s northern border. “You just fight, man. You just fight.”

At the end of the lunch, he asked for a to-go box for the remains of his oversized salad: “I’m a boy on a budget,” he explained.

If Musante lacks the campaign infrastructure that traditionally wins races, then he’s reflective of many of Sanders’ voters and activists who are getting involved for the first time in electoral politics.

Carlos Marroquin, a letter carrier in East L.A., began participating in progressive politics after he lost his house in 2006 because of the budding financial crisis.

“I lost everything, everything that I worked for,” he said. “It destroyed my family. So it became a very personal story for me to fight against the banks.”

While he’s been engaged as a community organizer dealing with foreclosure issues, he’s never actively supported a candidate for political office. Now, he’s a leader of the Bernie Sanders Brigade, an L.A.-based grass-roots group whose motto is, “Get Bernie elected and stay connected.”

“Whether Bernie Sanders makes it or not, we have to stay connected so we can push forward as a group,” he said.

The Bernie effect can sometimes be fractious. At UCLA, the Sanders campaign spawned a Bruins for Bernie group distinct from the Bruin Democrats, who endorsed the senator, but only by a thin margin.

During a recent meeting of the Bernie group on the Westwood campus, around a dozen students spitballed about what to do with the club next year, after getting Sanders elected becomes a moot point. 

One person suggested they reincarnate as the “Progressive Club.” Another student proposed they become the “UCLA Social Democrats.”

“This has never been about a candidate,” said Gabby Martinez, the group’s nominal leader. “This has been a movement to fundamentally change the political system.”

The question is: What happens to this movement if its leader goes away?

Kaitlin Cordoba, who showed up to the Sanders rally in Carson carrying a cardboard cutout of the candidate, didn’t care to discuss that question. 

“It’s not something we’re going to talk about until we need to,” she said.