Bernie Sanders’s political revolution is predicated in part on mobilizing the public to change the direction of the country. Naysayers carp, and not without reason, that this is impossible, with Republicans having a lock on the gerrymandered Congress for the near future. But to change that state of affairs, you need Sanders Democrats—progressive leaders willing to compete for marginal seats and battle from inside the Capitol Building.
The army is out there. This past week, I interviewed three candidates for Congress, all running in seats currently held by Republicans, who have endorsed Bernie Sanders. They may not all win—some might not even represent the Democrats in the general election—but they exemplify a new energy in the party, expressing pride in liberal ideas instead of fleeing from them, ready to work the levers of the system to achieve progress wherever possible. The greatest gift Sanders—the longtime independent—has given to the Democratic Party is to inspire a progressive revolution from within.
Zephyr Teachout went from an unassuming law professor to a political rock star when she challenged New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary in 2014, faring better than anyone expected. Now she’s running for Congress upstate in the 19th Congressional District, an open-seat swing district where she beat Cuomo in all but one county, typically by a wide margin. Within a week of announcing her candidacy on January 25, Teachout attracted more than 3,000 donors and took in close to $100,000 in contributions, a signal of her continuing grassroots strength.
The low-dollar surge isn’t just an election strategy, but a commitment: Removing big money from politics is one of Teachout’s top issues. In fact, she highlights corporate concentration of power as the primary economic and political problem. “In the conversations I’ve had, people don’t love big cable companies, they don’t love big banks,” Teachout says. “People know something is deeply wrong, and they’re open to all kinds of different solutions.”
Teachout believes she can connect workers, small businesses, and small farmers (who have experienced a collapse in this part of New York) to build a coalition that fights for more decentralized power by reviving antitrust policy, restricting high-risk trading by deposit-taking banks, and enacting public financing of elections. And Sanders’s focus on big ideas, giving voice to longstanding frustrations with the current system, makes it easier for Teachout’s platform to resonate. “People understand Washington is pretty broken, and they are well aware of the challenges facing a congressperson,” she says, suggesting that supporters will give her plenty of slack if she’s elected. But Teachout believes she can use a congressional seat as an organizing tool to give voice to real concerns in the country. The key, she says, lies in preparing a suite of ideas in advance, and making the most of legislative opportunities.
“What I saw in the wake of the crash, Elizabeth Warren has this (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) proposal ready, but on the whole, an incredible opportunity to do something big was wasted,” Teachout says. “You’re not going to win any fights you’re not in. Democrats and Republicans haven’t been in the populist fight.”
If you’re looking for a populist fighter, John Fetterman belongs in your corner. Ten years ago, the six-foot-three, 300-pound, heavily tattooed, Harvard-educated Fetterman settled in and became mayor of Braddock, a steel town outside of Pittsburgh on the brink of oblivion. One-third of Braddock residents lived in poverty when Fetterman arrived, and the city was depopulated and desperate. Now there are signs of life, and Fetterman wants to build on the success story by challenging Republican Pat Toomey for the U.S. Senate.
“Pennsylvania has dozens of forgotten cities and communities,” says Fetterman, who’s an underdog in the Democratic primary against 2010 Senate nominee Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty, former chief of staff to Governor Tom Wolf. “In those cities lay inequality, racial disparities, things that have roiled the Democratic Party and the country as a whole. You look at the Flint water crisis, that’s the logical conclusion of a city that’s been abandoned.”
Fetterman’s work in Braddock has garnered national acclaim. Crime is down, access to health care is up, and infusions of art and culture have summoned hope from the bleakness. But Fetterman says he was always brutally honest with voters. “When I was first elected, I said, I can’t bring 14 furniture stores back to Braddock,” he says. “Same with Congress, one senator won’t run the show. I’m a big believer in talking to voters like the intelligent, rational people they are. But that doesn’t mean you’re not able to make things happen.”
If elected, Fetterman says he would use the Senate as a bully pulpit, much the way Sanders and Warren amplify their issues. He wants to draw attention to the inequality of geography, how “the zip code you’re born into has an overwhelming effect on how your life turns out.” He gets emotional talking about opportunity for all, from immigrants seeking a better life (his Brazilian wife is undocumented) to unemployed factory workers looking for a chance. “At meet-and-greets, I say, who here is successfully living on nine bucks an hour? Nobody raises their hand. So why do we pretend that it’s possible?”
While Fetterman has been preaching this gospel for years, Sanders’s platform gives it high-profile validation. Fetterman says he endorsed Sanders for president because he represents “the best of where the Democratic Party is and what we should aspire to,” despite being an independent. Fetterman recoils from candidates who run away from the party’s principles. “If you’re going to go down, go down with your boots on,” he says. “Let’s get out there and move the needle instead of letting the needle move us.”
“I refer to myself as an accidental politician,” says Lucy Flores, a candidate for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District, currently held by Republican Cresent Hardy. Flores’s mother left when she was nine. Two brothers were murdered in gang-related violence. She went into juvenile parole at 15 and dropped out of high school. If it weren’t for a parole officer who made her believe in herself, Flores believes she would have continued down that misbegotten path. Instead, she graduated from law school and joined the state legislature in her twenties.
“I feel like I was given a second opportunity,” Flores says, “and I want to ensure that everyone’s outcome is not dependent on luck.” Flores sees this same commitment in Sanders; it led her to endorse him by telling an unusually personal story on Facebook about an impoverished boy she met in South Central Los Angeles. “I knew the odds were against him, just like they were against me,” she wrote. “And I knew I was powerless to do anything about it. Until I realized that I wasn’t.”
Flores wants to express her—and Sanders’s—vision of the future through something more visceral than a policy document. She believes voters respond to a defiant stand on principle for a bold agenda. “How many times was I told that I couldn’t make it?” Flores says. “I say look what I was able to overcome, let’s have the courage to move forward with a bold platform.”
Her main issues align with Sanders’s—a higher minimum wage and access to education, in particular debt-free college. “How is it that you can break a cycle of poverty to end up in a cycle of debt?” she says. Like Sanders, she sees these as winning issues, citing ballot victories on the minimum wage and marijuana legalization in red states during a midterm dominated by Republicans in 2014. To those who say big ideas have no chance in Congress, Flores counters that small ideas don’t, either. “The GOP has voted 60 or 70 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” she says. “I can’t see Republicans working with Secretary Clinton on some small improvement when they did the opposite with President Obama. We should be trying to move forward a progressive agenda. There is nothing to lose.”
Flores’s theory of change, much like Teachout’s and Fetterman’s, is to energize the public through ideas that display stark differences and inspire progressive voters to turn out in midterms instead of staying away. In 2014, she says, “Democrats across the country wouldn’t even admit to voting for Obama.” Reverse that, offer a choice, take gains where you can get them even in the polarized environment, and you can propel change, Flores says. “We have to leverage the belief of people that government can work for them.”
There are more Sanders Democrats running this year, like Tim Canova, the Federal Reserve expert challenging DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a House primary in Florida. Victory is not assured for any of them. But their perspective is starting to win inside the party. It’s focused on taking pride in bold ideas, and on a hard-nosed belief in doing the difficult work of building coalitions to advance them. The legacy of the Sanders moment, no matter the fate of his presidential campaign, will be captured in the fortunes of those who carry it forward at all levels of government.
“In New York, we built the Erie Canal,” Zephyr Teachout says. “People have a sense of possibility. For a while that was shut down, and now it’s open again.”