Early support for Senator Bernie Sanders from the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) in 2014 may pay off twice.
Late last month, the former presidential candidate’s new national non-profit, Our Revolution, endorsed RPA-backed Richmond City Council candidates Ben Choi and Melvin Willis. They were two of 63 candidates nationwide to be recognized in the first wave of Our Revolution endorsements.
“This was just another stage in a reciprocal relationship [with the Sanders campaign] that developed over the last two years,” said local labor writer and RPA member Steve Early.
In 2014, the Senator visited Richmond to endorse and help fundraise for that year’s RPA-backed city council candidates. The three candidates Sanders endorsed—Gayle McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez, and Jovanka Beckles—all won council seats that year.
Our Revolution is now looking to replicate that effect in the 2016 elections. “We were excited to endorse Melvin and Ben based on a long relationship between the RPA and Bernie Sanders,” said Larry Cohen, the non-profit’s chairman of the board.
Our Revolution’s website promises to provide its selected candidates across the country with “unparalleled digital tools, organizing knowledge and grassroots support, which may include fundraising.”
The organization is just three weeks old, but “we’re hoping that we can shape [the November elections] as we go, in a positive direction,” said Our Revolution outreach director Erika Andiola.
David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, said that Sanders (an Independent in the Senate) is “going to try to remake the Democratic Party” by getting involved in local elections, an unusual tactic for a third party leader.
“It’s kind of a smart move” by Sanders, Schultz said.
It may be smart, but there’s no guarantee the endorsements will change voters’ minds, said Christopher Larimer, an associate professor of political science and a voter turnout expert at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
But Our Revolution’s support could draw out voters who might normally skip the polls on election day, said Larimer. “It’s more likely to have a mobilizing influence, if anything,” he said.
No matter the endorsement’s ultimate influence, Willis said he welcomed its potential to reach “the network that got engaged because of the presidential campaign for Bernie Sanders.”
“It’s an amazing thing and I’m glad that they did it,” Willis said.
Early, who initiated contact with Our Revolution on behalf of Choi and Willis, said the Richmond candidates were not put through a standardized vetting process by the non-profit prior to endorsement.
Andiola added that candidates like Choi and Willis, who worked with Sanders’ team during the presidential campaign, were at the top of Our Revolution’s list. Other candidates who did not have a relationship with the campaign were asked to fill out a standardized questionnaire to confirm their commitment to progressive platforms. So far only one other candidate in California, San Francisco Supervisor and State Senate candidate Jane Kim, has been endorsed.
Choi and Willis are running as a slate—“Team Richmond 2016”—in a transparent effort to form a progressive voting block on City Council.
Although the endorsement was welcomed by the RPA, it remains unclear how much it will influence November’s city council election.
“Local elections are probably the hardest elections to mobilize people for,” said Schultz. “This is going to be tough for his endorsement to get people to vote.”