Kansas City-raised Michele L. Watley represents two important demographic blocs this presidential cycle.
She’s a millennial, at 32. And she’s African-American. In the first group, Bernie Sanders has done very well. And in the second, he absolutely must produce votes or he’ll perish soon after Super Tuesday on March 1.
Which is why Watley will be at Sanders’ appearance Wednesday at Bartle Hall, part of her job as his presidential campaign’s national African-American outreach political director, based in Atlanta.
Watley ditched her Missouri political work in late January, as director of the secretary of state’s Kansas City office. She’d caught the “Feel the Bern” bug, intrigued by the 74-year-old’s ability to rally people together. She became sold on the candidate after scrutinizing his platform.
Never miss a local story.
Getting others to look deeply into his stands, that’s her job now.
Poll crunchers continue to argue whether Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, won the Latino vote in Nevada. But he definitely lost to Hillary Clinton, 53 percent to 47 percent. At present, Clinton leads 502 delegates to Sanders’ 70. And South Carolina’s primary, on Saturday, looms.
In recent days, there has been more push coming from commentators, asking why Sanders isn’t more bulldog on front-runner Clinton. He’s reluctant to jab. Even though the FBI investigation over her email account and possible conflicts between her work as secretary of state and her husband’s ties to the Clinton Foundation are easy pickings for a stump speeches.
Not likely, says Watley.
The Sanders brand is more about emphasizing his positions, rather than bashing another candidate. Hence the hashtag #NotMeUs. “It’s about, what is going to bring us together?” Watley said. “It’s not about him and it’s not about her.”
Sanders is running, I’ve suggested previously, on an appeal that African-Americans know viscerally: There is no postracial America.
Woes suffered by other demographic groups are generally exacerbated within predominantly African-American communities: access to health care, inability to afford college, problems with poor-quality public schools and finding affordable housing in safe neighborhoods.
Sanders’ emphasis on class levels fits a harsh reality — the growing divide between who is born to or can attain a solid middle-class lifestyle and those who worry they will merely aspire to it.
There is a reason why poverty is so often called grinding. It beats people down, undermining and deflating their spirit. For black people, this becomes cruelly called out, pushed away from its root causes and viewed instead as a black pathology toward crime and lower achievement.
Sanders, Watley argues, gets it.
She points to the work of Michelle Alexander, author of the “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Alexander writes persuasively about the impact of Bill Clinton’s policy changes that affected incarceration rates and welfare reform during the 1990s. Both have proved detrimental to poorer communities, particularly urban black people. She wrote a piece for the Huffington Post titled “Here’s Why Black People Should Think Twice Before Voting for Hillary Clinton.”
A picture of a 21-year-old Sanders being hauled off by police emerged this week, uncovered from the archives of the Chicago Tribune. He’d been arrested protesting school segregation in 1963 as a student leader of the Congress of Racial Equality. You can’t argue that. He’s been in the fight for equal rights, for the dignity of the underprivileged, his whole adult life.
It’s a personal history that makes people curious at the very least.
Sanders’ ability to draw a crowd was apparent in Kansas City last summer during the National Council of La Raza convention. All three Democratic candidates were scheduled to appear on the same day: Sanders, Martin O’Malley (who has since suspended his campaign) and Hillary Clinton. Clinton was to take center billing, the luncheon address in the ballroom.
But it was Sanders’ smaller conference room that morning where people packed in. And several hundred more were disappointed that there was not enough room to accommodate everyone. Despite her having the keynote slot, the reaction to Clinton was flat by comparison. Sanders was the new shiny penny.
But voter interest fades quick. Momentum can turn with a few bad showings during the runup to a general election. Reckoning day for the Sanders mystique may be on the horizon with Super Tuesday.