Had she been old enough to vote in 1960, Claudia Piper would have cast a ballot for John F. Kennedy for president. She was 18 — at the time the voting age was 21 — and a student at the University of Colorado-Boulder studying journalism.
Decades later, Piper is part of a grassroots effort that has made Democrat Bernie Sanders the most visible presidential candidate around Las Cruces thus far in the current election cycle.
“Bernie engages young people the way Kennedy engaged my generation,” Piper said. “Bernie has shaken the cynicism of millennials and of old people too because he speaks to a future we can believe in.”
The group Piper helped start, Las Cruces for BERNIE, has made bumper stickers, buttons and T-shirts, and Sanders supporters display them all over the city. “We march, rally, hold monthly public meetings, watch debates and election results together, leaflet, show movies, phone bank, write letters, and show our colors in the community,” Piper said.
The group is not formally affiliated with Sanders’ campaign and can’t legally coordinate with Sanders. Because it’s unauthorized, the group also can’t technically use Sanders’ name in its own name. So the “BERNIE” in “Las Cruces for BERNIE” is an acronym for “Being Extremely Realistic Now In Elections.”
Las Cruces for BERNIE’s efforts exemplify the grassroots support Sanders is finding in communities across America that has made him competitive with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary.
In New Mexico, Sanders’ supporters are fighting an uphill battle. A poll of the race conducted for the Albuquerque Journal in late February found Clinton leading with the support of 47 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in the state to Sanders’ 33 percent. Some 20 percent said they were undecided in the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Clinton narrowly defeated Barack Obama in New Mexico in the 2008 Democratic primary, winning 49 percent of the vote to Obama’s 48 percent, and 14 delegates to Obama’s 12.
This year’s Democratic and Republican primaries in New Mexico are June 7.
Nationally, Sanders has racked up several big primary and caucus wins in recent days, but Clinton leads the delegate race — with 1,712 delegates to Sanders’ 1,004, if you include pledged superdelegates, who can support whichever candidate they want. A candidate needs 2,383 delegates to win the Democratic Party nomination.
A Sanders victory over Clinton in the primary is “improbable, but not impossible,” the news organization Politico declared after Sanders won weekend contents in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. A USA Today article stated that Sanders has momentum — but Clinton has math on her side.
‘A people’s movement’ for Sanders
Still, Sanders has already run a more credible campaign than many thought he would, and his supporters aren’t giving up.
Piper wears a Las Cruces for BERNIE button every time she leaves her house to spark conversations. She recalled once talking with a nurse who didn’t know about Sanders’ candidacy and was trying to decide if she would vote for Clinton or Republican Donald Trump.
“Now she knows there is another option,” Piper said. “I always carry extra buttons with me, and always offer them; no one has ever said ‘no.’ I’ve given them away in banks, grocery stores, at the Cooperative Extension Agency, in a shoe repair shop, book stores, on the street, in restaurants.”
Many Sanders-supporting grassroots organizations exist in New Mexico — in cities including Alamogordo, Los Alamos, Roswell, Santa Fe, Silver City, Socorro and Taos; counties including Bernalillo and Valencia; and at New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico. To date, the Sanders campaign has no formal presence in the state.
Las Cruces for BERNIE formed in June 2015 when Piper, Max Mastellone and Richard Wright organized a coffee-shop meeting that was attended by 10 people.
Today the group has 300 people on its weekly email list and 2,600 “likes” of its Facebook page. About 65 people attended each of the group’s last two rallies held at the corner of Main Street and Picacho Avenue near the Branigan Library, according to Piper.
Eric Griego, a former state senator and Albuquerque city councilor who co-chairs Latinos for Bernie in New Mexico, said the efforts of local groups like Las Cruces for BERNIE are critical.
“With millions of small donors and volunteers across the country, Bernie’s campaign is a people’s movement, not a campaign by establishment Democrats seeking to maintain power,” Griego said.
Sanders energizes “grassroots voters” because he challenges the establishment, Griego said, “and that’s why national polls show he outperforms Hillary against any of the Republican candidates.”
Many Sanders supporters believe they’re helping the candidate fight a rigged system.
“What’s happening in Las Cruces is happening throughout the state and across the nation,” Piper said. “These groups, with their local actions and media outreach, are the only reasons the Bernie campaign has been able to break through the corporate media blackout.”
Clinton ‘knows New Mexico’
Even some high-profile Clinton supporters are impressed with Sanders’ grassroots support. Former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez, a member of Clinton’s national finance committee, said Sanders “has clearly struck a chord with many, and few on the Democratic side of the aisle disagree with his sounding of the alarm on wealth inequality.”
“From my perspective, it’s clearly the principal reason why he’s still in the race and will likely remain so through the convention,” said Chávez, who was speaking as an individual, not on behalf of Clinton’s campaign. “I’m personally proud of the young people who have demanded to be counted on one of the most important issues of our generation.”
U.S. Sen Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who is backing Clinton, said Sanders has “certainly benefited from local supporters like those who make up Las Cruces for BERNIE, and I really respect their voices and how mobilized they are.”
Heinrich said Clinton is also “highly respected in the state for her service and ability to deliver for the American people.”
“While voters here in New Mexico will speak their own minds on June 7th, I think it is good for the state and our democracy when we have a healthy debate and those voices are heard,” Heinrich said.
Another Clinton supporter, former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, pointed out that Clinton has won the votes of 2 million more Democrats than Sanders thus far.
Clinton’s “endorsements, her delegate strategy, her message and her very hard work and persistence” will win her the nomination, Denish predicted.
That will include winning New Mexico’s primary, Denish predicted. The reason? New Mexicans know Clinton, who has visited the state many times, has supported local Democratic candidates, and campaigned here for Obama after he defeated her in 2008.
“I traveled with Hillary to Northern New Mexico after the 2008 primary and I watched as many longtime New Mexicans, Hispanics and Native Americans, greeted her with a warm welcome,” Denish said. “Grown men were actually weeping at the rope line.”
Chávez, who was a superdelegate for Clinton in 2008, echoed Denish’s words — New Mexicans known Clinton, and she “knows New Mexico and New Mexicans intimately,” he said. Many elected Democrats in the state have joined Heinrich in endorsing Clinton.
“I’m not sure that, other than as a tourist, Senator Sanders has ever been here, though I hope he will before June 7,” Chávez said.
Sanders hasn’t yet visited New Mexico during the campaign. Clinton hasn’t held any public events in the state, but she held a private fundraiser in Albuquerque in June. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, held another New Mexico fundraiser for her campaign in January.
In spite of Clinton’s history in New Mexico and her endorsements, Piper believes grassroots work to spread Sanders’ message can make the difference in New Mexico.
“I have admired Bernie for many many years because he seemed the most honest, progressive, and principled member of Congress,” Piper said. “I got so excited last spring after hearing his speeches. ‘This guy is the real deal,’ I thought. I immediately liked his platform, and my admiration for his integrity and determination continues to surge.”