Guest Column: We are Ithaca and Tompkins County for Bernie Sanders

October 24, 2015 by Becky Chambers Hennessy

A former union auto worker and longtime labor activist is one of those who've been helping mobilize Tompkins County labor around healthcare, living standards, and other areas that are under attack. Another, an accomplished musician, is bringing Ithaca-area supporters together at parties and, if he has his way, a nationwide concert fundraiser next spring. Others of us table, canvass, and otherwise do what we can to register voters and win them over to the most qualified candidate in the 2016 presidential election. That person is U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

We are Ithaca and Tompkins County for Bernie Sanders, a loosely assembled group of volunteers and other supporters from Ithaca and nearby communities, including Trumansburg, Danby, Elmira, and Van Etten. We have about 280 subscribers to our weekly “Ithaca Bernletter” and currently 15 to 20 active members who meet regularly in a donated back room on The Commons to plan our next steps in this volunteer-driven, grassroots ground game for Bernie.

Ithaca for Bernie volunteers including Rebecca Elgie tabling on the Ithaca Commons. Photo by Barbara Harrison provided.Ithaca for Bernie volunteers including Rebecca Elgie tabling on the Ithaca Commons. Photo by Barbara Harrison provided.We occasionally receive guidance from Bernie’s representatives, but we are not officially affiliated with his campaign. Rather, we write some of our own fliers, design our own posters, and sell buttons and bumper stickers that we order ourselves. We organize tabling, fundraisers, and other events because, yes, we are that excited about Bernie and his promise of significant change -- if not political revolution. One of our active members is Ithaca resident Rebecca Elgie, who recalls Bernie’s 2010 marathon filibuster against the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

“I’ve been following Bernie’s work both in the Senate and on single-payer healthcare legislation for many years,” said Elgie, who, along with her partner, is a longtime healthcare activist. “I’m excited to be involved with this enthusiastic group of people; it’s invigorating, and I’m learning a lot of new skills. I believe we have challenges and a lot of work ahead, but we will see Bernie as our next president.”

Not "Only in Ithaca"

And, yes: We do inexplicably feel we’re on an affectionate, first-name basis with Bernie (and weren’t, for example, with President Obama). But, then, so do many thousands of other fans nationwide who at the same time are acutely aware of why they support him. We support Bernie because he’s courageous and we trust him. We support him because throughout his 40-plus years in politics he’s been clear and consistent about where he stands on universal healthcare, global warming, wealth inequality, and other issues that resonate with the 99 percent.

It is well known that Ithaca voters, many with ties to Cornell University and Ithaca College, have a penchant for progressive candidates. As such, it should come as no surprise that current Federal Elections Commission numbers show local donations to Bernie exceeding those of other presidential candidates. But it would be naïve to suggest that the formidable strength of Bernie’s campaign infrastructure depends on the support of liberal enclaves like Ithaca, Iowa City, Iowa, or Madison, Wis.

Look beyond the mainstream news to social media -- Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and Instagram -- and you’ll find conversations that bear witness to Bernie’s surging popularity. From residents of West Texas to students at Indiana University to members of Friends of the Earth Action, people are talking 24/7 about how they (hashtag) “FeelTheBern” for (another popular hashtag) “Bernie2016.” One of those is group member Joe Lawrence, who volunteers for Labor For Bernie 2016, a national labor network dedicated to mobilizing members for Bernie.

Labor For Bernie’s website states that Bernie has proven his ability to focus on key issues such as pervasive racism, an escalating pension and retirement security crisis, runaway military spending and a militarized foreign policy. “He is the only candidate who is committed to union principles and who speaks directly to the core issues of wealth inequality and the powerlessness of workers facing outsourced jobs and rigged trade agreements,” said Lawrence, a former United Auto Workers member who recently created a local committee of Labor For Bernie to further the group’s goals in Tompkins County.

Musicians and other performers also are endorsing Bernie’s progressive vision for the country. Ithaca resident and group Facebook page administrator Don Bazley, who plays guitar and sings for the rock band Fly Rods, hosted a full-house watch party at The Westy for the first Democratic debate. He hopes to organize a nationwide concert and fundraiser, possibly during the primary election season. “It can be small performances or big-star arena events in hundreds of towns and cities,” he said. “I believe an event of this magnitude could make a real difference.”

But first, a marathon fundraiser at The Dock in Ithaca on Nov. 28 featuring a line-up of area bands and performers, Bazely says. And while many have expressed interest in participating, he’s concerned about the current lack of cultural diversity represented. “I’d like to see a hip-hop or reggae act,” he said. “But so far it’s just a bunch of white folks, much like the local Sanders campaign in general.”

Tompkins County: Please Vote

And therein lies the challenge: To succeed, Bernie’s campaign and independent grassroots efforts throughout the country must work harder to actively engage in conversations about racial inequality and support anti-racist activism. Bernie has met with Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists, and on the Bernie Sanders website, identifies “four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: Physical, political, legal and economic,” that urgently need addressing.

Organizers meet in a space on the Commons donated by Ian Golden of Finger Lakes Running and Triathlon Co. Photo by Becky Chambers Hennessy provided.Organizers meet in a space on the Commons donated by Ian Golden of Finger Lakes Running and Triathlon Co. Photo by Becky Chambers Hennessy provided.Of course, that is just the beginning. On Saturday, members of our group attended Ithaca’s first BLM Solidarity March and teach-in, and on Tuesday, October 27, we will hold an outreach and volunteers meeting at Southside Community Center in Ithaca. There, attendees will learn about our group’s activities and ways they can volunteer. They also will be invited to join in a conversation to identify race and other critical issues they feel Bernie and other candidates must address.

Our group must continue outreach in other communities, as well, including on college campuses where Bernie has been picking up a strong following. Cornell University sophomore and group member Justin Cray has been taking the lead with campus outreach since July’s national kickoff meeting for Bernie. He now has 50 students signed up to help with voter registration. “People are excited about this candidate because he’s so forward-thinking about the issues plaguing society,” he said. “It really is important that students register to vote and help with tabling and canvassing – be involved in this election.”

Early on, our group’s goal wasn’t solely to register new voters; it was to convince existing voters affiliated with the Independent, Green Party, and Republican parties to re-register as Democrats before the October 9 deadline so they could vote for Bernie in New York’s April 19 primary. Now one of our chief goals is to provide information to the greater Tompkins County area, letting people know that in New York, there is no winner-take-all; every vote in the primary contributes to electing more delegates for Bernie. Our hope is to convince people who normally skip the primary to cast their vote.

We also want to say this: The only way Bernie Sanders is unelectable is if we the people don’t vote.

Ithaca and Tompkins County for Bernie Sanders always is looking for volunteers to help in our quest to put Bernie in the White House. Please join us at our volunteers and outreach meeting on Tuesday, from 7-8:30pm, at Southside Community Center, 305 South Plain Street, in Ithaca. Also, join our Facebook group, follow us on Twitter at @IthacaForBernie, and e-mail us at Ithaca4Bernie@hotmail.com. Ask to be added to the Ithaca Bernletter e-mail list, and tell us how you want to be involved.

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