How Bernie changed Texas

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Stories of struggle

Believing in Bernie Sanders in Texas was once — and still can sometimes feel like — a lonely pursuit. Republicans called him radical — too extreme. Democrats argued that he couldn’t win — too far left. Texas, the long-standing bastion of conservatism, could never accept such a transformative and revolutionary brand of politics. It’s too soon. Too disruptive.

Supporting Bernie, as he hoped it would be, was never about Bernie. He was a megaphone for our hopes of enacting policies to transform this country, a vessel for our fears of being crushed by a broken system, a junction for building a network of solidarity, a window for recognizing our collective and connected struggles — for feeling a little less alone.

Helping millions of people feel less alone, as poignantly addressed by Ruby Cramer, was the unspoken crusade of Bernie’s campaign for president. 

“Not me. Us,” the campaign’s rallying cry, was a reflection of this endeavor. True to this mantra, Bernie liberated a mass movement of people to not only fight to change the material condition of society, but to finally and rawly speak freely about their struggles.

“When I was nine, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, the first time, and she’s been on a 20-year cancer journey,” said Michelle Kassel, a volunteer for Bernie since 2016, who grew up in San Antonio and now lives in Austin. “How many families out there aren’t able to afford their medical bills or able to put food on the table? How many families are refusing treatment or surgeries that are life or death for them because just the price of it all? Definitely Medicare for All really spoke out to me.”

“[My mother] works in corporate, and she’s not respected, and she’s not seen, and she’s not regarded in her workplace. She’s an immigrant — people tend to make fun of her accent or people tend to put her below themselves on that basis of being female,” said Amaya Wangeshi, a public high school student in North Texas, and volunteer student organizer for Bernie. “It would be my dream if I could work, and she could stay at home because she deserves it. She came all the way from Kenya, and she deserves this life of peace. Everyone deserves peace and happiness in their life, but there’s this system — the establishment, whatever you want to call it — that’s just not working.”

For many volunteers, like Kassel and Wangeshi, Bernie brought them in by telling the authentic story of the American working class. A story that highlighted the struggles and demands of the most marginalized — the poor, immigrants, veterans, students and young people, and people of color. Demands for dignity and justice that were, heretofore, ignored.

In 2020, Bernie retooled his presidential bid to focus more on the stories of his supporters and everyday people. Ramping up town halls, rather than the impassioned rallies that defined his 2016 run, allowed him to facilitate greater audience participation. 

In a viral exchange at a town hall in Nevada, John Weigel, a U.S. Navy veteran who served for 20 years, brought a $139,000 hospital bill for his Huntington’s Disease treatment. Unable to pay off the substantial medical debt because his healthcare coverage lapsed, Weigel contemplated suicide. “I can’t, I can’t. I’m going to kill myself,” he said.

“I wish that I could say that what John just described is unique. And that he is the only person in America who undergoes that. But it’s not,” Bernie responded after promising that he would talk with Weigel in order to help him. Weigel’s struggle for his life, out in the open for everyone to see, allowed Bernie to let Weigel know that he was not alone in his plight.

After Bernie helped Weigel regain retroactive health coverage, they reunited three months later at another town hall. “Thank you for rescuing me,” Weigel said to Bernie at their reunion.

The political revolution is, at its core, intensely human. 

“Through getting involved with Bernie Sanders, it changed me because I got to meet so many other people who were teaching me things. They were teaching me about trans rights, they were teaching me about police brutality,” said Priscilla Yeverino, a volunteer for Bernie from Dallas County and co-founder of Sunrise Movement Dallas. “It’s like a mutual relationship that I have with, not just the Senator who’s speaking all these things, but all these people who believe these things and are working toward it.”

Yeverino, a daughter of immigrants who frequented her grandparent’s ranch in rural Mexico growing up, cited the struggles of her family as a powerful motivation for supporting Bernie. Her grandfather was forced to retire after being fired for attending her high school graduation because he was unable to take official time off. Her aunt was deported 10 years ago. Her mother, a domestic worker, told Yeverino stories of not being able to afford shoes or simple street food like corn dogs in her hometown in Mexico.

Yeverino made it her mission to lift up her family and community, but could not initially identify the right policies to alleviate their struggles. In 2016, she discovered Bernie’s platform had the answers. “[Bernie] was a man speaking about this, full-on saying this [inequity] is not right,” Yeverino said. “I think my life changed at that point. I never looked back.”

Priscilla Yeverino out canvassing for Bernie Sanders. She is the daughter of a domestic worker and hospitality worker from Mexico. | Photo courtesy of Priscilla Yeverino

“When Bernie came into the scene, that was something that connected all of us. That was the first time that I was actually open to talk about politics to everyone,” said Jean-Carlo Tirado, a volunteer for Bernie in El Paso, of how Bernie allowed him to speak more freely about his political beliefs. “Not a lot of people talked about politics back then. It was kind of frowned upon, and it seemed like Bernie managed to change that.”

Tirado, who grew up in Panama and moved to El Paso because his grandmother lived there, started with Bernie’s 2020 campaign as a Bernie Victory Captain, a volunteer who committed to hosting an event every week, and is continuing to organize his community for the Texas Democratic Convention. He, with the help of a few others, recruited more than 127 volunteers to run for state delegate positions for Bernie. His involvement, though, was initially propelled by America’s excessive intervention in his native Latin America, mass income inequality, and its focus on individualistic competition. “These are all things that I saw — unfair things in life, and it just made me feel that things could be better,” said Tirado.

“[Bernie] raised all the voices of the people who felt that our system was unfair. Of people who got the short end of the stick. Of people who came from privilege, but have the ability to see that things aren’t working right,” Tirado noted of Bernie and his campaign. “He’s speaking to so many people that have been trapped in a system that hasn’t been helping them.”

Jean-Carlo Tirado holding Bernie 2020 signs in El Paso. He organized volunteers across the city as a Bernie Victory Captain, and is now helping organize for the Texas Democratic Convention for Bernie. | Photo courtesy of Jean-Carlo Tirado

Building a movement that almost won Texas

2020 has been a tough election year for the progressive movement in Texas. Bernie, after charting a course toward victory from leading early vote totals, was narrowly edged out by former Vice President Joe Biden’s sudden momentum from winning South Carolina, and from other presidential candidates consolidating behind him just days before the primary election in Texas. Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney and a progressive insurgent candidate for TX-28 who sought to deliver Medicare for All and immigration reform to South Texas, would have been the youngest woman elected to Congress in history. She narrowly lost her primary challenge to a conservative Democratic incumbent who consistently voted with Trump. Audia Jones, a Harris County district attorney candidate who ran to redefine criminal justice in Houston, a city with the third largest jail population in the country, lost a primary challenge to a more moderate incumbent. Both Cisneros and Jones were endorsed by Bernie.

Hope rests in remaining candidates who have entered contentious runoffs like José Garza, a Travis County district attorney candidate and reformer endorsed by Bernie, who aims to enact deep systemic change for working people through the criminal justice system, and Mike Siegel, a civil rights attorney and congressional candidate in TX-10 who supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Before Bernie’s presidential run in 2016, though, it was unheard of to see such a strong slate of progressive candidates like Cisneros, Jones, Garza, and Siegel, in Texas.

“[Bernie] has not only empowered people to say what’s on their minds, but also saying you should vote for the progressives that are running to advocate for what we want to see,” said Sabina Mohammed, a volunteer in Houston who helped organize the Muslim community for Bernie across Texas. “He said you can make a change, and you can be who you want to be at the same time. You don’t have to pick between the two.”

“It made people be like, ‘yeah, I’m an everyday person,’” said Michelle Kassel of San Antonio and Austin. “‘If Bernie can be an everyday person getting in office and pushing these policies, then I can too.’”

Texas, a state Bernie lost by 32 points in 2016, was never meant to be a close race. In December 2019, Joe Biden was up by 20 points in Texas polls. And yet, Bernie lost the state by less than 5 points — an improvement of 27 points from 2016, the largest vote swing of any state in the 2020 Democratic primary. He won overwhelmingly with young, Latinx, and Asian voters, with sweeping victories in Austin, San Antonio, and across the border from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso.

“A democratic socialist almost won Texas,” said Priscilla Yeverino of Dallas County.

Young Latinx voters, in particular, significantly propelled Bernie’s success in Texas. A majority black, brown, and young state, Texas is almost 40 percent Latinx alone.  “A lot of us are ambassadors for our families,” said Yeverino, the 27-year-old Latina daughter of Mexican immigrants. “We’ve seen our parents, our grandparents, and our uncles, and our aunts suffer under not only how immigration works in this country, but how labor works in this country, how expensive healthcare is, and how we are the most underinsured or uninsured group in the country.” 

Bernie, the son of an immigrant himself, advocated for completely overhauling our immigration system and decriminalizing border crossings, expanding the power of labor unions, and ensuring that every single person in this country — regardless of immigration status — would receive quality health insurance for free. Universal healthcare, of course, is a right that exists in every other industrialized country in the world.

By living his entire life on the frontier of public opinion, Bernie invited his supporters to speak about what was politically unpopular or controversial. He gave people his microphone. In doing so, Bernie built a multiracial, multigendered, multigenerational, and multifaith movement in Texas and across the country.

“[Bernie] empowers those that are less powerful, and enables others to do the same. In a lot of ways, I felt politically stifled,” Sabina Mohammed, the Muslims for Bernie volunteer organizer. “He empowered me to voice my opinion whether it’s popular or not.”

Mohammed and her family moved to Houston from India when she was an infant. Inspired by her faith, the intersection of her non-profit work across different issue advocacy spaces, and her brother, who is developmentally challenged and has autism and epilepsy, Mohammed recognized Bernie as the person who would reliably stand for justice and integrity. She joined Bernie’s 2020 campaign after attending a barnstorm and soon became one of the leaders of Muslim constituency organizing for Bernie in the state and across the country. “[Bernie] chose to ally with the Muslim community when many people told him that we were a political liability,” said Mohammed of Bernie’s unalloyed support for Muslims in Texas. She further cited Bernie’s commitment to her community, despite Muslims representing less than 2 percent of Texas’s population. 

A vocal Bernie supporter since 2016, Bernie enabled Mohammed to speak what she really believed, even in more conservative spaces. “That was a choice that I had to make, and say ‘yeah, maybe I’m going to be somebody that is going to be unpopular,’” she said of being public about her political beliefs online. “I’m not just going to sit down and be quiet because everybody in my workplace and social circles isn’t going to agree with me.”

Sabina Mohammed helping a voter lookup her polling location while canvassing at a shopping complex frequented by South Asians in Harris County. She was a leader in organizing Muslims for Bernie across Texas. | Photo courtesy of Sabina Mohammed

The politics of struggle

The modern progressive movement in America is one beset with frequent setbacks, defeats, and frustration. It is defined by losing the presidency twice, losing hundreds of down-ballot races, and feeling angry that progress is coming all too slowly for the millions of people who cannot afford to wait for change. Bernie lost Texas. One month later, he suspended his final campaign for the White House.

To opponents, Bernie’s loss was faithfully inevitable. Predictable. Things are the way they are. “People are looking for results, not a revolution,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, arguing that systemic changes should wait, at a Democratic debate in March 2020.

“What do people mean, ‘life is the way it is.’ No, people in power, they’re the way they are,” said Amaya Wangeshi, the volunteer high school student organizer from North Texas. “But, we can get them out. There is hope. There is room for change for bettering ourselves, for bettering the system which is ineffably flawed. I do think that Bernie Sanders was the first big wave of, ‘maybe things don’t have to be the way they are.’”

The daughter of immigrants from Kenya, Wangeshi is a public high school student and organizer in Denton County. Despite being — or rather, because she is — 16 years old, Wangeshi has been organizing students, teachers, and school custodians around elections since 2018. Politically awakened by Bernie, students and young people like Wangeshi have taken the helm of organizing their communities in an unprecedented way. She is, like many of her peers, motivated to change a system noted as deeply corrupt. Wangedhi sees the accumulation of money and power by a select few as fundamentally unjust and incompatible with helping everyday people. “[The political system] wasn’t meant for poor people,” she said. “It was meant for people who hold capital — people who accumulate an insane amount of wealth and power.” 

Bernie was the best opportunity to change this flawed system and ‘life as it is.’ Instead, a string of losses occurred. However, that idea of expecting regular losses in the long fight for progress is the very premise of the politics of struggle. What mattered, and what Bernie successfully accomplished, was equipping his supporters with the organizing and advocacy tools they needed to continue working toward justice.

“It was bigger than an election. It was bigger than politics. It was direct, and it was personal,” Wangeshi said of why Bernie’s loss was so painful. “That’s what’s so magical about Bernie. He got people motivated and inspired. He got people ready to do something. He gave them a voice that they already had, he just made them aware of it.”

Amaya Wangeshi, a student organizer for Bernie and public high school student, was born to immigrants from Nairobi, Kenya. She attends school in Denton County. | Photo courtesy of Amaya Wangeshi

Redefining solidarity

On October 1, 2019, the leader of the progressive movement had a heart attack. The event, and a tormentingly uncertain next few days for his supporters, seemed destined to bring the campaign to a sudden end. Less than three weeks later, however, Bernie carried the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and held the largest rally of any 2020 Democratic primary candidate in Queens, New York.

In front of 26,000 people, Bernie redefined the terms of solidarity with a simple question. “My question now to you, is are you willing to fight for that person, who you don’t even know, as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” he asked. 

In changing how people viewed their struggles — displacing the sense of guilt from individuals struggling alone, to a collective fight against a rigged system — Bernie successfully weaved an expansive and interconnected web of solidarity across the country. There was a mutual understanding among believers in Bernie that your struggle is also my struggle. Your fight is my fight.

“This isn’t just about policies, this really about people’s lives. If we do what’s best for everyone, then, in turn, it will affect everyone’s lives for the better,” said Michelle Kassel, who has been actively volunteering for Bernie, almost full-time, since 2016. She initially learned of Bernie from her grandparents who volunteered for his first mayoral campaign in Burlington, Vermont in 1981 — an election Bernie won by just 10 votes, and the beginning of his career in elected office. In part because of her early awareness of him, Kassel cites Bernie’s long track record in the fight for justice and his unvarnished integrity in his beliefs as motivation for her long hours of volunteering. She further noted his commitment to lifting up educators and their students.

“To see the struggle of these parents choosing between paying $68,000 for [chemotherapy] treatment for their child versus putting food on their table. That was really heartbreaking to know that I couldn’t do anything about that,” said Kassel, a teacher for Austin Independent School District, about her students’ struggles. “Well, here’s somebody that has been fighting for this issue before I was born, to make sure everybody has Medicare for All, to make sure everybody has affordable healthcare in this country — no, not just affordable, free even. It’s just devastating as a teacher, not only just as a teacher, but as a person in this community, to have to watch this over and over again.”

Bernie, who spent his life fighting lonely battles, gave volunteers like Kassel a community to continue fighting battles with. “Coming out of it, and really being able to say, ‘yeah, I created a family’ from it, is the most powerful thing that the campaign could have ever given any of us,” said Kassel. “Bernie gave us all each other. There is nothing more powerful than that.”

Michelle Kassel, a lead volunteer organizer for Bernie and homebound teacher, learned of Bernie Sanders from her grandparents volunteering for his first mayoral campaign in 1981. She has been actively volunteering for Bernie since 2016. | Photo courtesy of Michelle Kassel

A revolution without Bernie

Kassel, who has been campaigning for Bernie for over four years, remains optimistic that the political revolution will continue to thrive in Texas. “A lot of us still have hope. We see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We are still bonded.”

In rousing the conscience of a nation, Bernie invited millions of people to take part in a new American experiment. One that would transform the economic, political, social, and environmental fabric of the country through mass mobilization of working people against corporations and special interests. When Bernie said, “I have cast some lonely votes, fought some lonely fights, mounted some lonely campaigns. But I do not feel lonely now,” he alluded to his success in growing a movement large enough to almost sweep a state like Texas. He also meant, though, that we are all now not so lonely in this fight.

In building social roads and bridges that led not to him, but connected supporters to each other, he allowed new people — particularly young people and people of color — to see politics as a force for transformation. For so many volunteers, Bernie was their first foray into politics. Not because of any inherent value in politics, but because Bernie showed that change is possible through mass political participation. 

“I almost feel silly to say that an election matters so much. But then I quickly remember this was never just an election,” said Yeverino. “Through this election, I protested, I spoke, I got my family members to vote. So many things in my life affected me, and in the same way, I affected other people who might not have otherwise been involved.”

Yeverino, Kassel, Tirado, and Mohammed will all continue to serve the campaign as national delegates for Bernie at the Texas Democratic Convention. That, however, is just the beginning. The campaign, as Bernie acknowledged, was always about more than winning. 

Bernie supporters, as we often do, will continue to speak truth to power, shed light on systemic inequities, and agitate for racial, social, economic, and environmental justice. We will continue to take unpopular political stances, but ones that we know are — fundamentally, at their core — the right ones. This time, though, we are not so alone.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, in singularity can be a revolution,” Wangeshi said about the campaign. “Bernie was not the revolution. We were.”

Movements don’t end with a single campaign or candidate. Bernie made us, as Texans, feel a little less alone. With that liberation to speak, the struggle in Texas — our collective and connected struggle — continues.

Chris Chu de León served as the Texas director for the Bernie 2020 campaign, leading a statewide grassroots organizing and political engagement operation, alongside dedicated volunteers and staff, that came within 5 points of winning — a 27-point improvement from 2016. He is the proud son of immigrants from Hong Kong and Mexico, and a native of Houston, Texas.

Photo: Chris Chu de León

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