On Capitol Hill, the ground-game for presidential votes is well underway. Campaign volunteers for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton say they’ve just started canvassing this week following office openings and the arrival of paid staffers, along with ramping up phone banking, caucus trainings for volunteers, and general organizing efforts. Both campaigns say they’re attempting to contact renters in hard-to-access apartment complexes either through canvassing or phone banking and neither would say how many paid staffers they had in the state.
With the March 26th Washington Democratic presidential caucuses just two weeks away, the campaigns have ramped up operations across the state, in Seattle, and, here on Capitol Hill. The Sanders campaign opened its central Seattle office on Capitol Hill over the weekend and, earlier this week, the Clinton campaign formally opened its Seattle office in Interbay with speeches from local elected Democrats.
But in predominantly white and lefty Seattle where we have a re-elected unabashed socialist on the city council, the Sanders camp feels like they’re particularly strong and established, especially on Capitol Hill.
“I’ll wear a Bernie shirt around and people will say ‘Yes! feel the Bern!’” says Tara Rayers, a 26-year-old Seattle transplant fresh from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Sanders campaign volunteer who now works out of the E Pike street office. “There’s a huge amount of momentum happening here. We’ve had to tell people at our phone banks that they couldn’t join us because we were just totally over capacity,” she said.
Both campaigns opened a slew of campaign offices across the state earlier this week. The Sanders camp has the largest spread geographically, with an office as far north as Bellingham—a sleepy liberal college town and through and through Bernie territory—as well as Spokane, Yakima, Vancouver down south, and three Seattle locations: the Capitol Hill office, one in Northeast Seattle at 15th Ave and 120th NE, and a third just south of the Central District on 31st street adjacent to the I-90 overpass. This location, however, will serve more as a storage site for yard signs and the like.
The Clinton campaign, by contrast, has mostly clustered its offices along the densely populated and vote-rich I-5 corridor, with locations in Everett, Seattle (in Interbay), Renton, Tacoma, and then the outlier in Spokane. But the team feels it has had a head-start — the Washington director for the Clinton campaign said that they’ve had paid staffers in the state since January.
Not so fast. According to Laura Dean, former Wisconsin field organizer for the 2008 Obama general election campaign, a on-and-off Capitol Hill resident since 2001, and a current Sanders organizing guru on Capitol Hill, informal grassroots networks of volunteers have been holding meet-and-greet events and organizer trainings since summer of last year, powered Facebook groups like Ballard for Bernie and Capitol Hill for Bernie. Dean herself has thrown 16 events herself, including a “artists for Bernie,” art show of portraits of the Vermont Senator—solicited from friends—at the Vermillion gallery on Capitol Hill.
It’s these kind of robust, pre-existing volunteer networks that the Sanders campaign is relying on to carry Washington. “We have a really strong volunteer network and that has helped us win in many states like in Colorado. There’s a lot of similarities [with Colorado]” said Dulce Saenz, the new Sanders campaign state director. The previous director, Joan Kato, just got promoted.
When asked whether Washington and Colorado being predominantly white states with lefty, Democratic primary voters helps win them for Sanders, Saenz conceded “you could make that argument.”
Clinton holds a hefty delegate lead over Sanders due to both his heavy losses in southern states where he had trouble attracting minority support, especially among African Americans—and superdelegates, of course.
For Dean, like other local Sanders supporters, Bernie’s appeal comes from his leftist platform of waging war on Wall Street and corporate America and his perceived ideological purity and progressive record.
“While I think Obama was a great candidate and is a great president, he tends to be more centrist,” said Dean. “Bernie Sanders, I would say, is the first candidate in my lifetime that has really captured a lot of the values that are really important to me across all issues; across social justice, environmental justice, food, corporate welfare, the minimum wage, health care, you name it, it’s across the board.”
Rayers agrees. “Backing a president who practices what he preaches? That’s incredible for me. The second I heard his platform I was behind him,” she said, citing his focus on income and wealth inequality and fighting “pay to play politics” as highlights.
Without a campaign office smack-dab in the middle of the neighborhood, the Clinton campaign may seem almost non-existent. But they exist. And they’re passionate. They see a resilient political insider who can work the system to benefit the working class and minority groups. Meet Charmaine Slye: a gay, 63 year-old Capitol Hill resident, lifelong Seattleite, and current Clinton campaign volunteer. She volunteered for both of Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“I like Bernie in that he has some fabulous things to say, but we all got fabulous things to say,” she says. “Unless you’re an insider and you know Washington politics—and she does—we’re not going to get anywhere.”
“I was that age in the 70’s,” she said, referencing young Sanders voters. “I thought i could change it all too but I realized the wisdom in finding that middle road.”
Slye points to Clinton’s defense of President Obama’s legacy and Obamacare, as reason to rally, wary of Sanders’ calls for a universal public healthcare system. “It saves lives,” she said of Obamacare, pointing to a time when her partner’s niece had a baby with health issues at birth. The niece could afford the hospital charges due to Obamacare. “We can’t just keep tearing it up everytime.”
Slye has been hitting the phones for the Clinton campaign for the past month or so, targeting voters across the state. She says she doesn’t canvas much anymore because of her age and the geography of the Hill, not to mention her experiences with racism while doorbelling in the neighborhood.
“I’m African American so people aren’t really super excited to talk to me. People like to think it’s super groovy up here but it’s not always like that,” she said.
Slye added that while she doesn’t think that Capitol Hill is a write-off “Bernie Town,” she says she does think it will be hard to win over the local precincts. “Frankly, I’m a bit nervous about it.”
Jett Johnson, a 32 year-old Capitol Hill resident as of two years who recently completed his masters in teaching at the University of Oregon, has ‘been with her’ since her failed clash with Barack Obama in the 2008 democratic primary. “For me the stakes are really high in this election. I believe Hillary is a fighter and a champion for people who often don’t have a voice. She’s been fighting for women and children her entire career.”
“I’m a person of color, I’m part of the LGBT community. I appreciate the campaign that Sanders is running and I think he’s raising some really important issues around wall street but I want a candidate that is well rounded and focused on all of the issues,” he said. “[Hilary] knows how to work across party lines and get legislation passed.”
Johnson didn’t want to make any predictions regarding the Hill’s eventual leanings on caucus day, though he did say he personally has been finding support for Clinton among African Americans in Seattle’s Central District.
At the Seattle Clinton office opening in Interbay, local democratic elected officials threw their hats in for the former Secretary of State. Retiring congressman Jim McDermott of Seattle’s 7th District (a hot contest is underway to decide his replacement), speaking after King County Council members Joe McDermott (a candidate to replace Jim) and Rod Dembowski, echoed similar arguments.
“There is an authoritarian mood, movement, whatever you want to call it in this society, that wants a strong leader that says I’ll make America great,” he told the packed loft space of young Clinton volunteers and older supporters. “What we have to put up is an alternative to that and Hilary is that alternative. She’s thoughtful and quick and smart and willing to trade and knows how much you can push.”
Clinton also has the support of other Washington elected bigwigs like Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
Freshly wounded from Sanders’ upset win in Michigan on Tuesday night, on a Wednesday morning conference call with reporters, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook played up the delegate lead that Clinton holds over Sanders.
“The delegate math dictates that senator sanders must expand his map and compete in more states than he currently is. And he needs to not just win those states but win those by very lopsided margins to catch up,” he said.
Capitol Hill Sanders volunteers recognize this, but still see their efforts as important. “The better he does in the primary, the more his values as a candidate and his platform get publicized which will help future voters ask more of candidates up and down the ticket,” said Dean.