On March 1, registered voters in Massachusetts will go to the polls to select their party’s candidate for the 2016 presidential election. With this date rapidly approaching, Somerville’s Bernie Sanders supporters, headed by a group called Somerville for Bernie, kicked off their campaign to help elect the Independent Senator from Vermont on Jan. 19 at The Uniun in Somerville.
Attendance at the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, was estimated at over 50 people, with five elected officials taking part as guest speakers. The speakers, including State Representative Denise Provost (D), State Senator Patricia Jehlen (D) and local officials such as Somerville Ward Five Alderman Mark Niedergang, Ward One Alderman Matt McLaughlin (LA ’13) and Ward Three School Committee Representative Lee Erica Palmer, all spoke about their reasons for supporting Sanders.
“I am here for the same reason you are. [Bernie] is the candidate we can believe in,” Niedergang said. “It’s sad that we didn’t have many candidates like that, but we do have one now, and I’m delighted that we are all going to do what we can to get him elected.”
The event was organized by McLaughlin, who said that, as the city captain for Somerville for Bernie, his aim was to find volunteers. He explained Sanders‘ stances on several issues and the campaign’s strategy for mobilizing support in Somerville. An Iraq veteran, McLaughlin hoped to use the event to find people interested in helping the with the local campaign.
“I am organizing this event with my friends and allies, and the event today is all about getting volunteers,” he said. “We need volunteers for phones and doors.”
According to McLaughlin, the core team of Somerville for Bernie consists of 10 people, with one city captain and a ward captain in each neighborhood.
“What you want to do is you knock [on] the doors and make the phone calls, finding out who’s voting for Bernie, and on the election day, you just call them over and over again and make sure they vote,” he said. “We have scripts, so the scripts tell people…a framework for what to say. I like to encourage people to give their reasons for voting for Bernie because I think it’s more personal than reading off the page.”
McLaughlin said he supports Sanders mainly because of the senator’s stances on the Iraq War and Wall Street reform. Sanders voted against the war in Iraq in 2002 and is vocal about his efforts to break up too-big-to-fail banking institutions.
For some voters, the connection with Sanders goes back further than his entry into the 2016 presidential campaign. Joyce Shortte, who has lived in Somerville for 23 years, explained that she spent the day prior to the event calling Sanders’ supporters to ask whether they’d be interested in volunteering to help secure votes.
Shortte said that before she came to Somerville, she spent some time living in Burlington, Vt. while Sanders was that city’s mayor.
“I feel like Bernie is saying the very same things now that he said 25 years ago,” she said. “They were important then, and they are important now; he’s for real people.”
Shortte, who said that she was working to improve childcare in the city at the time, said that Sanders was an effective mayor.
“I was involved in community efforts in Burlington and so was my daughter, who was a teenager at the time. [Sanders] helped the teens establish the youth center that is still going,” she said.
Michael Ruggiero, who ran for Medford City Council last year, was also in attendance and expressed a strong inclination towards Sanders’ policies as his reason for supporting him. He came to the event to find out how he could help the campaign.
“I believe in many of his proposals, from taxes all the way down to healthcare,” he said. “I think Bernie Sanders’ tax policy is much more geared to create a system that is fair to Americans. Right now, there is a huge section of wealth that is going to a smaller minority of people.”
Ruggiero contrasted Sanders with his opponent Hillary Clinton; he doesn’t like that rather than working to break up the big banks and reform the financial sector, Clinton has received big money from donors like Goldman Sachs and has many connections with Wall Street firms.
“Many of her policies are about supporting Wall Street big banks, and I find it is very off-putting,” Ruggiero said. “I think their large financial institutions are destroying America, so making sure we are regulating big banks [is very important] … I don’t see Hillary Clinton as a real actor in that.”
Besides disagreeing with Clinton’s policy on Wall Street, Ruggiero does not agree with her trade policies. He said that he is against large trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Ruggiero also supports Sanders’ proposed Medicare-for-all healthcare system and disengagement from foreign conflicts.
“Healthcare should be much more focused as [a] single payer system in all of…America, and we should not get involved in large-scaled wars,” he said.
Ruggiero, who used to be a teacher in Shanghai, suffered a skull fracture on the back of his head during his stay in China. He pointed to his experience there to prove that healthcare costs in the United States are higher than anywhere in the world.
“I needed to have an MRI, and it [costs] 150 RMB [about $22 USD],” he said. “The whole experience cost me like 500 RMB [about $75 USD] … At least for a foreign teacher, it’s not a lot of money.”
Ruggiero explained that for the average person in Shanghai then, such an operation was far less costly than for a patient in the United States.
He said that while he appreciates some of Clinton’s policies, he doesn’t think she represents the values of the Democratic Party.
“I do have a lot of respect for Clinton, and I don’t think she’s a monster, but at the same time, I am not very excited about her campaign, since there are many of her policies that I can’t stand behind as a Democrat,” Ruggiero said. “Many people see her as a Republican lite, you know.”
Alderman McLaughlin said that while Sanders is a lesser-known candidate nationwide, community-level movements like Somerville for Bernie will be the key to getting the word out.
“What’s great about Bernie Sanders’ campaign is a lot of people taking [it] upon themselves to volunteer and organize in the community,” he said. “Bernie has less name recognition right now, so that’s what we are trying to do, to get his name out there.”