Over 30 members of the Whitman and Walla Walla community gathered on Thursday night in Wildwood Park to organize in support of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
The event, coordinated by locals Jessica Portas and Andrew Johnson and Whitman senior Harrison Wills, provided a space for Walla Walla Sanders supporters to talk strategy and ideas. According to Johnson and Portas, the goal of the meeting was to get started on community projects that spread awareness of Sanders’ candidacy.
“Bernie Sanders needs our support because he’s not going to get the attention he deserves,” said Johnson. “My hope for this group is that we can share critical ideas with each other, and put the word [about Sanders] out there.”
Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, has proved to be more than a fringe candidate in his campaign thus far. The Vermont Senator, long known for his fight on income inequality and his self-described democratic socialism, has narrowly eclipsed Hillary Clinton in recent Iowa and New Hampshire polls. Essential to his campaign is a refusal to accept money from super-PACs, and focus instead on contributions from individual supporters.
Sanders’ fundraising strategy drastically differs from that of other candidates. His views on campaign finance have drawn in thousands of his supporters, including many of the attendees of Thursday’s event.
“He’s not just talking about public financing, he is publicly financed himself,” said Wills, who passed out voter registration sheets at the meeting. “He’s been so consistent in his politics- I feel like I can trust him as a candidate.”
Thursday’s event was structured as an invitation for Sanders supporters to begin local projects that spread awareness of Sanders’ candidacy in Walla Walla. Ideas included a screening of the Oct. 13 Democratic candidate debate at Whitman, getting letters supporting Sanders in local publications, advertising downtown and campaigning at the upcoming Balloon Stampede event and the Downtown Farmer’s Market.
Attendees split up by project in what Portas and Johnson called “leadership groups.” They began talking about ways to both establish a strong local Sanders’ campaign presence, and to increase outreach to get existing local supporters involved with the group. The state’s primary will be held next March.
“This is just to get us off the ground,” said Portas. “We’re trying to start something right away, especially with the upcoming debate in mind.”
Portas started organizing for Sanders in Walla Walla in August, when she created the Walla Walla for Bernie Sanders Facebook page. Though she’s never been active in political campaigns previously, she said that she believes he is the only candidate who can effectively confront national inequality.
“Everyone can agree that there’s a huge income inequality problem in this country. Bernie’s the only one addressing that,” she said.
Though Portas, Johnson and Wills planned the event, they emphasized that they want to create an open space for discussion. Talking about issues, and brainstorming about ways to effectively advocate for Sanders in Walla Walla, are their priorities with the group.
“While we put this together, we don’t necessarily see ourselves as the leaders of this group,” Johnson said.
In regards to official ties with the Sanders organization, Portas said that campaign materials are posted on his website and across internet support communities. The idea for the “Leadership group” structure was something she first encountered in official Sanders campaign materials.
Walla Walla is generally politically conservative in election results, something that many attendees mentioned as a potential obstacle. Despite this, Sanders polled well-above Hillary Clinton in a July 4 straw-poll event, and at the Walla Walla County Fair last month.
Wills and other supporters noted that, for students especially, registering to vote in Walla Walla rather than another county in Seattle or a different home state can make a significant impact. Senior Lena Goss registered to vote with Wills during the Leadership group breakouts.
“I’m really happy I came [to the event], said Goss. “The hardest part is getting involved, but once you’re here, you see that a little thing, like registering to vote, can make a difference.”
Johnson and Portas emphasized their excitement at attendance, which they said was higher than expected. Sanders’ grassroots emphasis came through during the course of the evening: a plastic Halloween jack-o-lantern designated as an idea-bucket sat next to a signup sheet. Leadership groups shared contact information on Moleskine notebooks, and a few Bernie Sanders 2016 shirts were spotted in the audience.
Portas doesn’t buy the frequent media quip that Sanders is too radical to beat more mainstream candidates. Ultimately, she said, it’s about getting the word out.
“I know he can win,” she said. “Most people are aligned with him, they just don’t know it yet.”
If you are interested in becoming involved with Walla Walla for Bernie Sanders, sign up for their email list on their Facebook page.
Editors note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Washington’s primary will be held in May. It will be held on March 26.