Master of Public Affairs Candidate 2016
What interested me most about the Master of Public Affairs program here at the Leo T. McCarthy Center was the promise of gaining real-world, hands-on experience during my education and study at the University of San Francisco. To have active participants in public policy, with connections to a network of actual movers and shakers in San Francisco politics, guiding and directing your learning, as the professors do here, is invaluable to the kind of knowledge and perspective that one truly hopes to gain in an education. Opportunities for public service and the common good are truly what the McCarthy Center offers. So when Professor Nicole Derse of our Grassroots Advocacy and Mobilization class asked if anyone would be interested in volunteering on either of the democratic campaigns in the Nevada caucus, I leaped at the opportunity.
There were six of us students who volunteered to travel to Reno and spend five days canvassing and phone-banking for the Nevada democratic caucus. I was the only one to volunteer on the Bernie Sanders campaign. My mother had always told me that what is right is not always what is popular. I also voted for Ralph Nader three times. Nevertheless, I am a big advocate of campaign finance reform and I believe that Bernie is the only candidate who will truly address our disastrous campaign finance system by fighting to overturn Citizens United and pushing for full public funding of elections. This is the first presidential election that I have donated money to. It’s also the first one that I have donated my time, or anything else for that matter, other than my vote, although I have volunteered for smaller electoral and issue campaigns. However, when I set out to lend a hand in the grassroots organizing of the Bernie campaign, I had no idea just how much I would be involved in the grandeur and chaos of what is the Nevada democratic caucus.
From the outset I could see the stark differences between the two democratic nominees’ campaigns. Whereas Clinton had paid staffers on the ground in Nevada before she even announced her candidacy, the Sanders’s camp was making an earnest plea for out-of-state volunteers to come and canvas in rural precincts that laid outside targeted media efforts. To encourage turnout, activists had created an app called RideWithBernie, so that volunteers could both find and offer rides to Nevada. They also invented an app called BernieBnB so that Bernie supporters could both find and offer a place to stay while in Nevada. This was grassroots innovation and I took advantage of both.
I was able to find a ride to Nevada with a couple of fellow “Berners” named Michael and Kristen. We spent the five-hour drive sharing stories and talking politics of course, increasing each other’s excitement and anticipation for what was to come. We had all agreed to go wherever the campaign needed us most and so we ended up in a small town called Fernley, about a half-hour drive east of Reno. We arrived at the Bernie campaign headquarters in the late afternoon as they were closing up. After introducing ourselves and greeting everyone, it was decided that we would come back in the morning, when we would be treated to an inspirational speech by actress and activist Frances Fisher before spending the day canvassing door to door.
In the meantime, I set out to meet my BernieBnB host. His name was Larry, and as luck would have it, he was a state democratic party chair, and the Nevada State Director for Veterans for Bernie. Larry and his wife were two of the kindest and pleasant folks I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Not only did they open their home to me, but they fed me and provided the most intelligent conversations. Larry had happened to be going to a caucus procedural training session that night for precinct chairs and captains, and he asked me if I would be interested in going. Of course I was.
The training session was held at a Black Bear Diner in Fernley and was attended by about twenty individuals. After spending two hours going through the procedural packet and learning the various formulas for viability and delegate allocation, and after the inevitable questions which followed, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) instructor began to hand out precinct packets with all the necessary materials. Included among these necessary materials was a deck of playing cards, for Nevada caucus rules indicate that ties should be decided by luck of the draw. As one Nevadan quipped to me, “This isn’t Iowa, we don’t leave important decisions to a silly coin toss. We draw high card.” As far as I know, only one delegate in Nevada was assigned by high card. Though luck was a lady that afternoon as it went for Hillary Clinton, just as all six coin flips in Iowa did weeks before.
The Nevada caucuses have only been around since 2008 when party members decided that the primary needed a state in the west that was representative of the country’s changing demographics. Needless to say, they have not quite mastered the process. Here it was three days before polls opened and yet hundreds of precincts around the state had not been assigned a precinct captain. As the instructor assigned precincts and handed out packets after the training session, there were several volunteers who had to double-up on precincts. “Who are you?” He asked me. “I’m just a volunteer from California. I came to observe.” I replied. “You want to be a precinct captain?” I was nodding in affirmation before I could even get the words out of my mouth. Are you kidding me? I thought. This was exactly why I came to Nevada, to help out as much as I possibly could. I never thought that would entail being a precinct captain. I guess that was just the luck of the draw.
I spent the next two days knocking on door after door canvassing for Senator Sanders. As the neighborhoods I walked through changed, so did the people making up those neighborhoods, as did their stories, hopes and concerns. I met many wonderful people and was invited into more than a couple of homes for tea and talk of shared values. Though there were some disagreements, it was quite a pleasant experience and I like to think that I reached and convinced a number of folks to come out to caucus and throw their support behind Bernie Sanders. Being that the Nevada caucuses are fairly new, and given the unfortunate disorganization of the democratic party, many people I talked to had no idea where their precinct locations were or what day or time the caucus was taking place. So when I heard so many enthusiastic confirmations from folks telling me they would be there, I knew that I was truly making a difference.
On Friday I caught another lucky break when Larry asked if I would be interested in volunteering at a rally in Reno at the Nugget Resort and Casino where Bernie Sanders himself would be speaking that night. I couldn’t believe it. After seeing and being inspired by Senator Sanders’s speeches at televised rallies and debates, here I would be given the opportunity to hear him speak live, and feel the energy and motivation that I could see was present from watching the television.
I was selected to be part of crowd control, and again lucky enough to be placed right in front of the press rise, merely 30 feet from the podium where Bernie would be speaking. Though first the crowd would be warmed up by the one and only Susan Sarandon. After getting everyone excited with why she thought Bernie was the best candidate and what she thought he stood for and what he would be able to do as president, she introduced the man himself to resounding and thunderous applause. Sanders has said that his campaign is the vehicle to usher in a political revolution, and let me tell you, from the energy and passion present in that room, and the feeling of comradery and duty that we all left with, if you were there you couldn’t help but believe him.
On caucus day I met Larry at the Fernley High School where eleven different precincts would all meet and vote together in one gymnasium. We got off to a late start due to some internet connection problems preventing us from checking in voters. When we did begin the line was already reaching out around the building. I checked in dozens of voters and registered a handful as well. Once everyone was checked in and the doors were closed, we began the actual voting. Short staffing was still an issue and I had to take on responsibility of being chair for a second precinct. It was complete chaos and yet the thrill and rush of the process kept me enthralled as I determined viability and then apportioned delegates accordingly. In the end, I was even instructed to call into the state party and report the results. Within my two precincts, Bernie won five delegates and Secretary Clinton won two. After calling in my results I reflected again on just how much I was doing to make a difference, having these opportunities presented to me, and playing my part in the political revolution.
As we drove back to the Sanders campaign office in Fernley, Larry and I could not contain our excitement and optimism as Bernie had virtually tied with Clinton in the eleven precincts we had oversaw—which were located in a very conservative and right-leaning part of the state. However, when we got back we were greeted with the fact that the Associated Press had already called the race for Secretary Clinton. Our grief and disappointment did not last long however as we realized just how close the election came considering Senator Sanders was down 30 points just a month earlier. We were encouraged as we assured each other that it was because of efforts and hard work like ours that made up that difference and has given reason to believe that we could still make a difference in the coming weeks and months. We spent the evening celebrating the gains that we did make. Celebrating the friends that we made. Celebrating the motivation and inspiration that we generated. This had been a grassroots movement in progress – much like we talked about in our Grassroots Advocacy and Mobilization class. In no way were we defeated. This is an ongoing process, and one that I intend to continue after graduating with a Master of Public Affairs degree. With hard work and shared efforts, a little luck and opportunity will go a long way in this primary.
*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Leo T. McCarthy Center or the University of San Francisco.