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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Alcantar

City Hall Bernin’: Why some local officials in the Southland are backing Bernie (and why some aren’t

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

By Kevin Flores and Joe Brizzolara, FORTHE.ORG (copied from original article linked below)

At a rally in Santa Ana last month, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stood atop a stage erected between the hoops of a high school basketball court. 

“This is a hell of a turnout,” he told a heavily Latino audience of over 4,000 with more blue, purple, and green hair than gray. One man—who nearly evaded detection—donned pink hair that was fading to his natural white.

“We will defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country,” Sanders continued.

Watching him from the crowd was Santa Ana Councilmember Vicente Sarmiento, who voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the last primary.

“All of us who are Democrats kind of followed the more conventional wisdom: Go with a moderate candidate; even though it wasn’t very inspiring. Everybody thought we just wanted the best path to win. But now, look, that’s all out the window,” Sarmiento said as Sanders bellowed in the background to cheers.

Sarmiento, who is running for mayor in Santa Ana, says he was disappointed that none of his council colleagues decided to attend the rally, believing they’re still in “2016 mode,” wanting to go with the “safe” candidate. He says he’s hearing a lot of support for Biden among his circle of electeds. 

Clinton won Orange County in 2016 with 52% compared to Sanders’ 47%. The county typically leans toward the moderate wing during Democratic primaries. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made a push for the county, setting up three offices there, and securing the endorsement of blue-wave rider (and Rohrabacher-slayer) Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach).

But the groundswell of support for Sanders in communities like Santa Ana, which has a 70% Latino majority, may have an outsized effect this time around.

“Latinos have a bigger role because Sanders has made by far the biggest strides in reaching out to them. When the other candidates figure this out, they will probably catch up, but they won’t before Tuesday,” said Raphe Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State University, Los Angeles. 

Sarmiento says Santa Ana’s large undocumented population is a central reason for his support. 

“Our families and children are scared to go to work, go to school, just be out in public,” he said. “And I think if (Sanders) were president, there’d be a lot of people coming out of the shadows feeling like they’re safe.”

Though high-profile endorsements made big splashes on the eve of Super Tuesday, local officials in the greater LA area have also been weighing in and hitching their wagon to a presidential hopeful in the Democratic primary. We spoke to some and asked them why they chose to pick a horse in the race and what they hope to gain.

With California joining the mix of states that vote today, the holiest day of the primary season, when more than a third of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination will be allocated, Sanders, now the frontrunner, is looking to solidify his delegate lead. If polls are any indication, he will handily take the Golden State.

In 2016, he didn’t even have an endorsements page on his campaign website. Today, he boasts 43 endorsements on his site from LA-area city and school officials alone, many of whom are under 40 and Latino. A list provided by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) campaign named 7 endorsements by Latino city and school officials in the region. Sanders’ closest rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, doesn’t seem to be tallying ground-level endorsements on his site, though he has run up the numbers in the nationwide count of big-name backers with a total of 358. 

Those numbers, however, don’t account for councilmembers, school board members, college trustees, and commissioners of all stripes. 

Elizabeth Alcantar, who at 26 became Cudahy’s first Latina mayor earlier this year, canvassed for “Tío Bernie” in her small but residentially dense community. She says the reaction she’s received to Sanders has been overall very positive. The two topics that come up most often are his plans for Medicare for All and student debt cancellation.

“It was also not only the people (I spoke to) that were excited, but it was their parents (too),” said Alcantar.

It was a theme, though anecdotal, that reappeared when talking with neighboring Mayor Eddie De La Riva of Maywood: younger folks are winning over their relatives on Sanders. 

“He appeals to younger generations. And then that in turn helps us influence our parents. My parents are big Bernie supporters. My parents don’t know much about politics, especially (with a crowded field of candidates). But they know Bernie because I tell them about Bernie,” De La Riva said.

Both Cudahy and Maywood have issues their mayors believe could be improved with a transformation of the federal government in Sanders’ vision.

Alcantar spoke at a Sanders rally in East LA in November and touted the comprehensiveness of his immigration policy. Being the mayor of a community with a high number of undocumented immigrants, she likes that Sanders’ programs don’t distinguish between undocumented and citizen. 

“Bernie Sanders’ plans focus on including everyone, including the most vulnerable immigrant community, which are undocumented immigrants,” she said, citing Medicare For All, which would provide universal access regardless of citizenship. 

De La Riva also thinks a single-payer healthcare system would have a huge impact on his community, which contains healthcare insecure residents.

“You know, I hear from some local clinics, they get people with no insurance,” he says in El Cafecito, a small coffee shop in Maywood. “Even though there is the Affordable Care Act, it’s still not affordable for a lot of people. There’s people going to Tijuana for dental work, for medical work because it’s just cheaper.”

Like Sarmiento, intimidation of undocumented communities in the Trump era is a problem on the mind of Anaheim Councilmember Jose Moreno. After President Donald Trump took office in 2016, his city’s staff saw a precipitous drop in use of city services. Moreno believes it stems from fear of deportation.

“From December 2016, which was a month after (Trump’s) election, to December 2017, we saw a drop of eight to ten thousand library patrons monthly,” he said in a phone call. “Our librarians said to us that the drop they saw was largely with Latina immigrant moms.”

A poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California last month shows 53% of Latino voters in California plan to cast their ballot for the 78-year-old Brooklyn-born candidate—a number far higher than the 32% he picked up among all voters.

About half of the 14.5 million people expected to vote in the state today will be white voters, compared with about 26 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian-American, and 6.5 percent black voters, according to a forecast by the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative

“I don’t think the backgrounds are so different. He grew up the son of immigrants, he grew up in a working-class household, and those two experiences have informed every policy decision that he’s ever made,” Sanders spokesperson Anna Bahr said. “We have campaign materials in every language under the sun. That very much includes Spanish, and it is incredibly important to this campaign to meet people where they are and connect with them in the language that they speak.”

A significant sign of solidarity with Anaheim’s working class came in 2017 when Sanders lent his voice to Disney employees seeking a minimum wage of $15, a campaign Moreno also supported and that was ultimately successful.

“When Senator Sanders came out to speak to people in Anaheim it really made it feel like, ‘Hey we have a big dog on our side too.’ It’s big media attention, it was a national voice, a national blow horn, so to speak, to bring to light what’s happening here in the happiest place on earth,” said Moreno.

One county over, in Long Beach, one of the most diverse cities in the nation, the head of the local Our Revolution branch, a group that grew out of Sanders’ prior presidential run, said the senator’s success in the state can be attributed to his campaign’s ability to connect with voters on the day-to-day issues they face.

“Bernie is definitely tapped into the issues happening locally because his campaign is built from the ground up. And so the issues happening on the ground rise to the surface of the national discussion,” said Our Revolution Long Beach Chair Cesar Armendariz.

Long Beach Councilmember Jeannine Pearce, who is an OG Berner from 2016, is again behind the Vermont Senator.

Meanwhile, Long Beach Councilmember Rex Richardson prefers Warren, the other progressive in the race, pointing to her “track record to get things done.”

He’s hosted multiple canvassing events in the city, including one with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who joined Warren’s team after ending his own presidential campaign.

“(Warren) has plans that would increase affordable housing across the nation, something sorely needed in Long Beach. She has plans around maternal health that would complement our programs here, such as the black infant health network. Her goals align with the work that we have been working on to assist Long Beach families and help them thrive,” Richardson said in an email.

With black women much more likely than white women to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, Warren has said that she would “hold health systems accountable for protecting black moms.”

Richardson joins the company of some of Sacramento’s progressive intelligentsia, such as state senators Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), and Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), in backing Warren.

Warren is polling at 16% in California, according to the RealClear Politics polling average. She trails Sanders who is at 35% and former Vice President Joe Biden who is at 23%, and has also found acolytes in Long Beach City Hall.

On Monday, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia fired off seven tweets from his personal account about the presidential primary before the day was through, seemingly excited by the growing line of moderates forming behind former Vice President Joe Biden on the eve of Super Tuesday.

A K-Hive worker bee earlier in the primary, the mayor served as the California state co-chair for Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign, taking multiple trips out of state to stan for her. But after Harris’ campaign went kaput, Garcia switched teams and began putting in hours for the Biden camp. The two met up in Long Beach two months ago and toured the Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement Project.

“He is going to be a great partner in ensuring the economy of Long Beach grows and stays strong,” Garcia told the Long Beach Press-Telegram in January.

Long Beach Councilmembers Suzie Price and Al Austin are also on the Biden train, as is Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (who decided against a run last year).

Further west, at another coastal city, this one predominately white, Redondo Beach Councilmember Christian Horvath, who said he donated to Warren’s campaign early on in the primary, is now firmly backing Sanders because he would like to see the federal government reorient its priorities and make large investments in housing, infrastructure, and public transportation.

“We need to go back to what they did in the FDR, Truman, Eisenhower years. We are at a point now where America needs reinvestment,” he said. “If we were to cut our military budget, fractionally, I’m not saying just erase it, but just cut it fractionally over a period of time, you would all the sudden see a vast amount of resources that could go towards things that are extremely necessary in all corners of the country.”

He says that in the current funding drought, cities are relying more on public-private partnerships to get projects done.

If elected, Sanders has said that he would invest $2.5 trillion to build about 10 million permanently affordable housing units and put $300 billion into public transit.

Southgate Vice Mayor Denise Diaz agrees with Horvath that cities in the Southland are desperately seeking ways to move forward on much needed upgrades to their infrastructure.

“We’re fighting for grants left and right,” she said. “So federally, there isn’t a plan for modern, green public transportation, or to be able to pave those potholes. Where are we going to get that money as a small town? There’s sometimes when I have to take out a bond but that bond is going to fall on my residence who are working two, three jobs to make ends meet.”

But unlike Horvath, Diaz endorsed former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg whom she met with in December on a campaign visit to various Gateway cities. She said she believes Buttigieg has a deep knowledge of the needs of cities.

“He said, ‘I come from South Bend, an early industrial community that was thriving, that also had General Motors just like the City of Southgate. The City of Southfield was once a thriving community, because of all that industry. We had a Firestone plant, General Motors, then they left us,” Diaz said.

But with Buttigieg dropping out of the race on Sunday and endorsing Biden the next day, it’s unclear who Diaz is now backing. She did not immediately reply to our inquiry.

With 415 delegates at stake in California, the state has the potential to make or break the remaining Democratic presidential campaigns. Whether or not endorsements from local officials presage tonight’s result, it’s clear we’re witnessing a moment of bottom-up change. Young, up-and-coming local officials in the region, many of whom are Latino and have come into office in the last four years, are vocally cheering on the presidential campaign of democratic socialist who promises to fundamentally realign the Democratic party and federal government around working-class people.

“The congressional caucuses are not supporting Sanders, they’re supporting Bloomberg or Biden and they’re so disconnected from what is on the ground,” said Moreno. “It’s really unfortunate because the local electeds on the school boards, on city councils, you see much more of them supporting Bernie than in 2016.”

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