Bernie Sanders has a lot of big ideas. He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, he wants to break up big banks, he wants to make healthcare universal, he wants to take big, dark money out of politics.
But to do any of that, he'll need Congress to go along with him.
Sanders, if he's able to win the presidency — still a long shot, given Hillary Clinton's current lead in the Democratic primary — will face the same wall Barack Obama did: Trying to govern with big ideas in Washington, DC, in the modern era. That's a particularly tough task when so many of those big ideas are premised on telling members of Congress, lobbyists, and other powers that be in Washington that the way they're doing things is morally wrong and coming to an end.
Even a Democrat-controlled Congress, which could become a possibility if Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination and damages GOP congressional candidates, won't be enough to accomplish Sanders' wishlist. The Senate Democratic leadership couldn't even get all 44 of their members to agree to raising the minimum wage to $12 last year.
Sanders acknowledges that getting things done as president will be hard. Many of his most fervent supporters are disappointed with what Obama was able to accomplish as president, and Sanders is far more progressive and outside of the congressional mainstream. Just one of his Senate colleagues has endorsed his campaign.
Sanders has talked about the problem at campaign events, telling crowds that he'll need their help to keep up pressure on politicians. But even public pressure often isn't enough in this Congress.
Last fall, Sanders stood on the steps of the US Capitol alongside almost all of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, begging the American public to put pressure on their Republican colleagues to pass some kind of gun control legislation. The emotional press conference, which came just a week after the Oregon community college shooting, got a lot of attention. But it has yet to result in law.
Even though polling at the time of the press conference showed that 86 percent of Americans favored at least universal background checks for gun sales, Congress has not passed a single gun-control measure since.
If a President Sanders wants to get anything done, he'll need that revolution that he and his supporters talk about to become a reality. And that means getting more Sanders acolytes elected to Congress. And a lot of them.
The Vermont senator took a small step in that direction this week, sending out a fundraising email to his list of enthusiastic, small-dollar supporters and asking them to contribute to the congressional campaigns of three progressive women who hope to take up his mantle in the US House.
"Change almost never happens from the top down, it almost always occurs from the bottom up," Sanders said in the email. "I will do everything I can from the White House, but what this moment requires is people in the streets fighting for change, and electing a Congress that is willing to stand with them."
So far, that means raising money for Lucy Flores, a former Nevada Assemblywoman who is challenging the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the country; Zephyr Teachout, a money in politics reformer turned gubernatorial candidate who is now running for Congress in New York state; and Pramila Jayapal, an immigrant rights activist and Washington state senator, who fought for the $15 minimum wage in Seattle and is now seeking a congressional seat there.
Although all three campaigns declined to discuss specific fundraising numbers on the record, it's clear that Sanders' supporters came through. Flores said that her campaign had seen "a very, very significant increase in contributions" in an interview on Thursday.
And Jayapal's campaign manager Aaron Bly said that their campaign was "shocked" by the response from donors across the country, many of them giving in small amounts. "We've seen a ton of new — just a ton of contributors across the board, which has been really great," Bly said, noting that the campaign had pulled in "upwards of 10,000 new contributions" in just the first 24 hours after the email went out.
Sanders isn't the first to sense the potential in these women. The liberal Nation magazine designated all three of them the "new Elizabeth Warrens" back in February. (Ironically, Warren herself, who is more ideologically aligned with Sanders than with Clinton, has not endorsed a candidate in the president race).
Flores said that she has worked closely with the Sanders campaign since endorsing him in mid-January. She has stumped for the senator in her home state of Nevada and also in Colorado and has made several TV appearances for the campaign.
Like her fellow Bernie-backed candidates, Flores has a good shot of entering the US House next year. She's currently running against Republican Representative Cresent Hardy, widely seen as the most vulnerable Republican in the country, and although polling on the general election has been light, he led her by just a single point last summer.
Flores would be a supporter of much of Sanders' agenda in Congress in 2017.
"It's very much an agenda of fairness and opportunity," Flores says of her platform, acknowledging that it is very similar to Sanders'. "For me it's about everyone and that includes corporations and the wealthiest among us paying their fair share. It's about the every day working person... to not have to work two or three jobs at minimum wage just to make ends meet."
Flores knows a thing or two about that. The Nevadan was one of thirteen children, whose mother abandoned the family when Flores was just nine years old. Her father worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat, but just one of her siblings finished high school and all of her sisters got pregnant in their teens. Flores dropped out too, joined a gang and went through the juvenile detention system after stealing a car. Two of her brothers died due to gang-related violence.
But she says that it was parole officer's faith in her that led her to turn her life around. She got her GED, became a lawyer and won a seat in the state Assembly at just 30 years old.
"My experiences and my background they really do direct me in terms of my policy agenda," she said. "Frankly, it's primarily the reason why I endorsed Bernie Sanders to begin with... evening that playing field. It's about giving every last person in this country an opportunity to be better."
Jayapal, of Seattle, has a very different story, but has come to much the same conclusion. The Indian-American came to the United States to attend college at Georgetown University, later settling in Seattle and earning her citizenship in 2000, just before 9/11. The attacks and the resulting stigma against Muslim-Americans and other immigrants, prompted her to found OneAmerica, now a leading immigrant rights group.
Jayapal first met Sanders when he came to Seattle last August, hosting a rally for 15,000 people that was famously interrupted by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement, who stormed the stage and grabbed the microphone before his speech. Jayapal spoke with Sanders after the event, speaking with him about how to integrate BLM and issues of race into his campaign. She wrote an op-ed for the local weekly, the Stranger, about their conversation and her disappointment with how the rally had played out.
"Working on race relations... that's sort of right in her wheelhouse," said her campaign manager, Aaron Bly.
The two formed a strong relationship and have been "very close" since, according to Bly. And Jayapal has appeared at several Sanders events in Washington State since, which has been a major boon to the up-and-coming politico. It's not often that state senators or congressional candidates speak to crowds of more than 10,000 people as she did at Seattle's Key Arena last month.
Jayapal is an activist, focused on building a movement, not unlike Sanders. She's running for the heavily Democratic seat held by Representative Jim McDermott, who is retiring at the end of this year. "She saw the need to really jump over and not only have organizers pushing from the outside, but organizers on the inside pushing from within," Bly said.
Up in New York state, Teachout is running a campaign that is perhaps most centered in the Sanders (and Warren) mold. As Sanders pointed out in his two fundraising emails for her campaign (Flores and Jayapal have, so far, benefitted from only one), Teachout "literally wrote the book on political corruption."
Teachout, a veteran of Howard Dean's presidential campaign, released her book, "Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United," in the fall of 2014, not long after she lost the New York governor's race to Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary.
But Teachout's surprisingly strong showing against Cuomo — she earned 34 percent of the vote despite little name recognition and scant funding compared to the sitting governor — turned her into a bit of a progressive celebrity in the state. And her primary campaign pushed Cuomo to the left, not unlike Sanders' campaign against Clinton. The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel recently credited Teachout's influence, in part, with Cuomo's decision to enact a $15 minimum wage in New York.
Although Teachout and Sanders have yet to campaign together, both are Vermonters with a strong focus on getting money out of politics. Teachout was most recently the CEO of MayDay PAC, the outside group founded by Lawrence Lessig to elect anti-Citizens United candidates to Congress. (That effort in 2014 was a disaster).
Teachout is now running in the 19th Congressional District of New York, which centers around the Hudson Valley. She moved there just 10 months ago from Brooklyn after Republican Representative Chris Gibson announced that he would not run for reelection, and has already faced accusations of carpet-bagging. But she is still heavily favored to win the Democratic primary in June and will face a tough race in the purple district in November.
Even if all three of these candidates win their races in November, they aren't likely to be joined by many other Sanders acolytes.
Although there are dozens of candidates running for Congress across the country on a Sanders platform this year, few have any shot of winning their races. They're underfunded, not well-known, running in incredibly difficult districts and, largely, completely new to politics. The Washington Post estimated in February that just four of them had any real chance of making it to Congress this year, including Flores, Jayapal, and Teachout. (The other is Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman).
Flores acknowledged that the revolution is going to take time and that obstructionism in Congress won't change overnight.
"I think that what's very very important for people to recognize is that this is not a short-term strategy. It think this is going to be a very very successful year for progressive Democrats," she said. "You're going to see a whole host of other progressive Democrats get elected... [But] the big question is how do we sustain that?"
Sanders supporters will not only have to keep up the pressure on elected officials to accomplish their goals, but they'll have to continue working to get progressives elected at "all levels of government," she said. They'll have to think about things like city council races and state legislative races to combat partisan gerrymandering and they'll have to vote, even in non-presidential years.
That doesn't really happen now, she acknowledged. But incremental victories on progressive issues, she hopes, will help voters to stay engaged.
"We're not going to see 100 percent of it happen overnight, it's going to take continuous work," she said. But by doing that work and keeping the conversation going, public perception can shift and that leads to policy changes, she said, pointing to the $15 minimum wage laws in California and New York that would have been laughable just a few years ago.
"Just because we're not going to be able to change all federal law overnight doesn't mean that you're not going to continue to see this kind of momentum for all these various issues. And what it demonstrates is that people are powerful," Flores said.
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