Exactly one week after Hillary Clinton’s drubbing in the New Hampshire primary, a group of about 15 women gathered in the Pace Landing section of West Islip for yet another examination of the tumultuous campaign for the Democratic presidential ticket.
But those who assembled on this Tuesday night aren’t the type of people you might expect to find in the living room of such a tony neighborhood, considering the generation gap between some of them. It’s not age, economic status or familial ties that brought this group together. Instead, it’s their political ideology that united them in common belief and action. Although the majority of them were left-leaning women, they were not there to discuss the virtues of the female Democratic presidential contender who could make history as the first woman elected to the White House. These were Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) supporters.
Their gathering came a week after Sanders, a self-proclaimed “Democratic socialist,” routed Clinton in New Hampshire and battled to a near-tie in Iowa. With Sanders rising in the polls nationally and in states like Nevada, where no one ever imagined Clinton would be in a nail-biter, the potential that Sanders could actually walk away with the nomination has emboldened his already rambunctious supporters.
“Bernie talks about everything that has either happened to me in my life or has come out of my mouth at some point,” 34-year-old Melissa Peters, an active member of the Facebook group “Long Islanders for Bernie Sanders,” told the circle. “From being poor, which I’ve been, from education–student loans have killed me, just wanting the best for my children, watching the opiate problem in our neighborhood and having it personally affect me in my life–literally, everything he says hits me or somebody in my life.”
Like many of Sanders’ backers, Peters believes the Vermont Senator speaks to her personal experiences in a way no other politician before him ever has. That’s why she is actively campaigning for him, keeping her car well-stocked with bumper stickers and campaign buttons. Her children, ranging from 6 months to 6 years old, are well-known on the Long Island campaign trail, knocking on doors and singing Sanders’ praises.
The discussion centered around the issues central to their beliefs: opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, support for a single-payer healthcare system, and rebellion against the establishment and politics as usual. Gatherings like these have been popping up all over the country as grassroots support of Sanders has usurped what had once seemed like a surefire nomination for Hillary Clinton. Indeed, exit polls taken at polling sites during this month’s New Hampshire captured what, at the surface, appears to be shockingly high support for Sanders among women, a coveted voting bloc that overwhelmingly favored Sanders by a margin of 55 to 40 percent in New Hampshire.
It probably didn’t help Clinton’s efforts that feminist leaders Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright recently chastised younger women for what they perceived as their dereliction of duty to support her campaign to be the first woman elected president.
On Feb. 5, feminist icon Gloria Steinem suggested on Bill Maher’s HBO program that women have been coming out in droves for Sanders not because of their appreciation for the candidate, but out of a primal attraction to men.
“When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,’” she told Maher. (She later released on apology on her Facebook page.)
Two days later, it was Albright, another former Secretary of State, who got into the mix while stumping for Clinton in New Hampshire.
“We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done,” Albright, 78, said. “It’s not done. There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”
A laughing Clinton applauded Albright’s biting critique, which many Sanders supporters perceived as flippant.
“A special place in hell?” Peters wrote on her Facebook page with a link to Albright’s comments. “Albright and Steinem must think they can insult women into voting for their girl…That itself is insulting to any feminist.”
The women who gathered on Tuesday said that Sanders’ message simply resonates more with them than Clinton’s.
Their collective enthusiasm stemmed from discovering pockets of like-minded people on an Island that seemingly runs a deep red. The recognition of their commonality has been fostered on social media and cemented through organizing and participating in Bernie-centric events, such as the upcoming march for Bernie in New York City on Feb. 27. Their passion was reminiscent of the groundswell of grassroots support that propelled then-Sen. Barack Obama to the White House in 2008. Yet, they were disappointed by what they perceived as Obama’s abandonment of the progressive agenda once he was elected.
Wendy Hoder is a 57-year-old activist and former Democratic committee person who was practically raised from birth to be politically active by her libertarian father, who used to take her as a child to protest such initiatives as the Stony Brook sewage treatment plant, which was polluting Port Jefferson Harbor. Disillusioned with the crop of Democratic candidates, Hoder had decided to sit out the current election—before Sanders threw his hat in the ring. Then everything changed.
“When I heard he was running, I was like, ‘Viva la Revolution!’” she said to the laughter of the Bernie-enthusiasts surrounding her.
Revolution, however, was something close to the heart of Sandra Garay Avila, whose family fled El Salvador following a bloody civil war. She has seen firsthand the political upheaval that comes from a vast disparity in the distribution of wealth.
“It was something like 14 families owned 60 percent of the land,” said Avila. “I always compare it to this country. I see everything that’s going on around here. I look around and say this country’s not headed in the right direction.”
Sanders’ message of combatting income inequality speaks to the heart of Avila’s fear in a way that Clinton–or any Republican–does not.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what the future of the Democratic Party will look like if Bernie gets the nomination,” said Terry Kalb, a retired teacher from Wading River, referring to Long Island’s Democratic Party, which unequivocally supports Hillary Clinton.
“There are plenty of people hurting on Long Island,” Kalb continued. “There are plenty of people barely clinging to an existence on Long Island. It’s not just the Gold Coast Democratic Party. So the same kind of revolution that has to happen in Washington is going to have to happen in our smaller communities and in the party system in New York.”
They believe Sanders is just the candidate to reshuffle the political deck as we know it.
(Featured photo credit: Bernie Sanders presidential campaign)