WASHINGTON — The Sunrise Movement is going Bernie or bust. Maybe.
The youth-led grassroots climate activism group has been debating internally for more than a month whether to make a presidential endorsement for 2020, which would change the status of the group from single-issue advocacy to a political organization. On Thursday it will announce the results of an online vote that their members held over the holidays.
If they do endorse, it’s no secret they have one candidate in mind: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The group formed in 2017 but went viral after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined their sit-in in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in 2018, helping take the Green New Deal from fringe policy idea to progressive political orthodoxy.
It stands to reason that if the group endorses at all, it will endorse Sanders, the man who counts Ocasio-Cortez as a prominent surrogate and tops the Sunrise Movement climate scorecard on the strength of his support for the Green New Deal.
But the vote could go in a different direction: no endorsement at all. That’s because some members of the group are uncomfortable with the fact that throwing their lot in with a candidate could dilute their message and morph the movement from issue-based to explicitly partisan.
“We gain some power and also lose some power,” said Natalie Rotstein, a 21-year-old UCLA grad and organizer in the group’s Los Angeles hub. “We would lose almost all of our political leverage with any other candidate, we lose our ability to push them more on the Green New Deal, and in an extreme situation there can be a chance that because we are so closely associated with the Green New Deal, they would just drop it completely.”
In December, VICE News sat in as Rotstein led members of the group’s Los Angeles hub in a debate on the topic at an apartment building in the city’s downtown just days before they began voting online.
The meeting illuminated how some of the country’s youngest and most influential activists see themselves and their movement. Some are too young to even vote in the upcoming election, but Sunrise doesn’t have an age limit, so the internal vote will be their best and maybe only chance to influence the primary.
Some members worried that if they align with a candidate, they could lose their ability to push other candidates, or even the one they endorse. Like any political group, they would have to make political tradeoffs rather than continue their doggedly independent protests, like sit-ins in front of Pelosi’s office or on the steps of the Democratic National Committee.
Other attendees worried that an endorsement could alienate members in the group who are sympathetic to the cause but might prefer another candidate or no Democrat at all. Though group leaders have promised they won’t force hubs to work for a candidate if they don’t want to, an endorsement could still cause friction between the dozens of hubs nationwide.
Influential people in climate activism are not unanimous, after all. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, has the support of Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the policy architects of the Green New Deal who has worked with the Sunrise Movement. And although most of the people at the Los Angeles discussion backed Sanders, Gaby Markley, a recent graduate of California State, Northridge, said she could see herself backing Warren, too.
“The concern that I've heard from people and I myself have expressed when it comes to presidential endorsements is that by endorsing a candidate we alienate other people who may not align with the particular candidate,” she said.
On the other hand, sitting out the primary made little sense to Ash Rosas. She’s 17 years old, so under California law, she can’t vote in the primary even though she’ll turn 18 before the general election. She wants to avoid any friction similar to the fights that divided Democrats in 2016, but said that the group shouldn’t squander its power to influence the primary.
“I feel like endorsing a presidential candidate would probably be most effective not in the general, but in the primary.”
“I feel like endorsing a presidential candidate would probably be most effective not in the general, but in the primary,” she said.
Kevin Varzandeh, a 28-year-old environmental consultant, agreed. Sporting a Sanders campaign T-shirt, he said an endorsement could help achieve one of the movement’s core missions of creating viable political coalitions that might not agree on everything but come together around core issues. He also added that one of the group’s protest chants should serve as a guiding light in making a decision.
“We sing the song ‘Which Side Are You On?’ and I think making that clear by making an endorsement, it presents a clear, like, us versus them,” he said, referring to the fossil fuel industry as “them.”
And anyway, the group has effectively already endorsed a candidate, he said. Sanders tops the group’s scorecard, so to pretend they don’t have a preference could come off as disingenuous.
“It would be very confusing to the outsider who sees this organization has a scorecard with a numerical ranking of the candidates, but we're not endorsing,” he said. “Like, yeah, right, sure. B.S.”
Cover: Sunrise Movement activists lead a chant in front of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker's office at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Dec. 6, 2019. (Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)