THE BUZZ: Feeling the Bern

By on March 23, 2016

Despite media blackout, Sanders movement gains momentum in Jackson Hole.

Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Idaho Falls Friday. The Vermont senator attracted more than 3,000 supporters to Skyline High School, including some Jackson Hole residents. (Photo: cody downard)

Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Idaho Falls Friday. The Vermont senator attracted more than 3,000 supporters to Skyline High School, including some Jackson Hole residents. (Photo: Cody Downard)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It was well below freezing when Molly Zimmer arrived at Skyline High School. After hours standing in the dark, Zimmer saw the sun rise. Under its light, a line of Bernie Sanders supporters was illuminated.

Zimmer left her home in Victor, Idaho, at 5 a.m. to get a good spot at the Sanders rally on March 18. When she finally arrived a little after six, there were already 40 people in queue. By the time doors opened three hours later, that crowd had swelled to thousands. Approximately 3,200 people attended the Idaho Falls rally, with showings from Idaho’s panhandle, Montana, and Jackson Hole.

While the Teton County GOP is seemingly divided over a 21-19 vote that named Donald Trump the party’s chosen one (prompting GOP county chair JuliAnne Forrest to resign last week), local Democrats are coming together in the name of Sanders.

Twelve-year resident Marcus Stauffer, 38, is the front office manager at a local hotel. He was among the Jackson contingent in Idaho Falls to see Sanders. “Bernie seems completely different [from other candidates],” he said. “By not having to answer to special interests, he can focus on doing good to improve the lives of average Americans.”

Boots on the ground

The Sanders campaign has relied heavily on grassroots organizers. According to statistics released by The New York Times, Hillary Clinton has enjoyed more than double the media coverage than Sanders. Trump, meanwhile, has received almost five times as much. Sanders’ lack of coverage in mainstream media is so blatant it has been termed the “Bernie Blackout.”

Despite the lack of major media coverage, the Sanders movement is gaining traction in Jackson Hole. According to Wyoming voter registration data from the Secretary of State’s website, from January to March of this year, 42 people registered as Democrats in Teton County, nearly double the number of Republican registrations in the same timeframe.

Dr. Justin Vaughn is Boise State University’s resident expert on political institutions, specifically the presidency. He has been following the Sanders campaign very closely. “I think in some ways, the fact that there is this media blackout has reinforced the enthusiasm the younger voters have for [Sanders],” he said.

The Bernie campaign’s Wyoming director, Shelby Iseler, says Sanders’ magnetism has less to do with him and more to do with the movement itself. “I noticed this when I first started supporting the senator: it’s not about him,” she said. “It’s about a grassroots movement, a political revolution. He sends a very inclusive message. Whoever you are, you have a right to be a part of this Democratic process.”

Democratic Party members in Jackson are on the front lines of this word-of-mouth campaign as the deadline to register for the Wyoming caucus nears. After March 25, residents who have not registered to vote as Democrats cannot participate in the Democratic caucus on April 9.

Artist Aaron Wallis is part of the boots-on-the-ground Sanders campaign team in Jackson. As a volunteer, he is going door-to-door, calling people who have shown interest in the campaign, and spreading his passion for Sanders by word of mouth. “I certainly feel that Bernie is the first candidate in at least my lifetime that has the courage to take on the banks and corps that made America unlivable for so many people,” he said.

Last weekend, Teton County’s Sanders campaign organizers Nathaniel Greene and Curt Allain took over the community room at the Jackson Whole Grocer. Through their efforts, the grocery store has become campaign headquarters, facilitating hands-on training for volunteers and public information distribution. Their goal is to inform the public about campaign platforms, to make the caucus system more digestible, and to promote the absentee ballot process.

Because the Democratic caucus happens in early April when many folks will be out of town, the absentee ballot has become critical to the campaign.

Wren Fialka, a massage therapist who works in Teton Village, has been carrying absentee ballots with her everywhere she goes. “This is the most important election we’ve ever had,” she said. “I’ve always been pretty active in getting people to vote because I think we have all of these rights and privileges, and we’ve become pretty apathetic.”

Greg Epstein agreed. The head of production at Teton Gravity Research fears people are disenfranchising themselves. “Voter suppression is happening enough in our country, we don’t need to implement it by apathy,” he said.

Ensuring people have the opportunity to be heard is a key goal of Sanders advocates. The caucus system is not an easy process and Stauffer hopes to remove voting barriers through an informed electorate.

“I am doing my best to get the message out,” he said. “Mostly with people at work and with friends. I think my goal is to help people understand the confusing nature of the Wyoming caucus process in order to help people be enfranchised, or to keep them from being disenfranchised based on work schedules in the seasonal industry. For a lot of people, they leave town in April, or they work, or they just can’t afford to give up two-thirds of their day. If they’re not aware of the absentee ballot process, they’ll miss out.”

Social media: the aid and the blade

Epstein is actively encouraging the absentee ballot process as well. His venue of choice has been through social media. “You look at social media where Bernie Sanders is winning the war, and you have to look at the demographic that uses social media. It’s the younger generation. That generation is the future of this country,” he said.

Sanders couldn’t agree more. As he pointed out Friday in Idaho Falls: “We have received more votes from people under 30 than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.”

As the Sanders campaign proves, mainstream media does not dictate the newsworthiness of a candidate. Instead, social media has become the heart and soul of grassroots movements.

However, those without high-speed Internet access are left in the dark. Epstein thinks that in areas where broadband is not as accessible, there is a very obvious trend away from the Sanders campaign. “You don’t get the same access to high speed broadband in rural areas that you do in places like Jackson. There are a lot of parts of [Wyoming] that don’t get it. So are they getting their information through social media? No. Are they watching Fox News? You betcha.”

Unsurprisingly, Fox News recently published the article “Does Sanders Really Want to Win?” It questioned whether Sanders was even actually interested in becoming president. In the article, author William Whalen said that if Sanders wanted to be the future POTUS, he would need “to call out Clinton in more glaring terms. Otherwise, he’s gum on her shoe.”

Mainstream media campaigns like this make it seem like Sanders does not have a chance at the nomination. However, as Vaughn pointed out, “Bernie has won more states than Ted Cruz, but you don’t hear the media trying to get [Cruz] to drop out. There is this irony that younger Sanders enthusiasts are aware of and maybe it motivates them more.”

One percent and dissenters

Even with media blackouts haunting the Sanders campaign, Stauffer thinks the movement is finding good footing in Jackson partially because of the valley’s economic disparities.

“We are in an area where you have to see firsthand the kind of obscene amount of wealth that has been generated over the last couple decades for only a select few,” he said. With so much wealth in the area, Stauffer sees tax dodging as a flagrant abuse of the political system. “We see these people every day with multimillion dollar homes in dozens of places, but they claim residency here in Wyoming just trying to avoid paying taxes somewhere else—even though their tax load would probably be more than you and I make in a year.”

Stauffer believes the Sanders’ platforms that advocate single-payer healthcare and public universities are not impossible. There is plenty of money to make those things a reality, he said, but without the campaign reforms Sanders is demanding, the people with money will continue to be the only people with influence.

“The only way we change America,” Sanders said in Idaho Falls, “is if millions of people stand up and fight back, and that is what the political revolution is about. Conservatives as well as progressives can agree that we have a rigged economy when there are so few with so much, and so many with so little.”

Jackson is no stranger to one-percenters. Christy Walton, one of the heirs to the Walton fortune, listed her Jackson home with Jackson Hole Real Estate a few years ago for $12.5 million. In contrast, the average employee of Wal-Mart makes about $8.81 per hour, according to IBISWorld Industry Reports. Based on Wal-Mart’s full-time status of 34 hours per week, it would take an average employee more than 806 years to earn enough money to afford Walton’s Jackson home.

Sanders has made Wal-Mart itself a campaign platform. The Vermont senator sees it as the poster boy for a rigged economy. Wal-Mart, Sanders explained to the Idaho Falls crowd, does not pay its employees a living wage, leaving the middle class to pick-up the check on food stamps, Medicaid, and subsidized housing for its employees. “On behalf of the wealthiest family in America, thank you for paying their welfare,” he quipped.

All pay, no product

Today, many middle class folks continue to struggle to pay their health insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act. Worse yet, even with health insurance many are still left with staggering medical bills. Now back to Molly Zimmer, 54. She can attest to this firsthand. Recently, a member of her immediate family had what doctors classified as a panic attack. Unfortunately for the Zimmer family, however, the symptoms seemed like a heart attack. After tests and a single night of observation in the hospital, the Zimmer family accrued more than $25,000 in medical expenses not covered under their current healthcare plan.

“This was for a non-life-threatening procedure. No surgery, no stitches, just him in a bed with a heart monitor,” Zimmer said. Even with a monthly health insurance premium of $1,000 for a family of three, Zimmer will have to pay up. “I wouldn’t raise the issue if I thought [healthcare affordability] only concerned me, but nearly every family I know faces a similar situation. We’re not an isolated occurrence. It just seems like everyone on both sides of the hill is on the brink, thinking one major medical occurrence could cripple them.”

If Sanders’ healthcare reforms are passed, the senator’s goal is that, “millions of people will no longer have to choose between healthcare and other necessities like food, heat and shelter.”

According to Zimmer, many people are afraid electing Sanders will cause astronomical tax hikes. But U.S. citizens are already paying into the system through taxes currently collected. The only thing that needs to change is how those tax dollars are being spent, she said. “We understand it’s not ‘free college’ or ‘free healthcare.’ It’s our tax dollars that are being spent, but we want a better return on our investment.”

She would like to see her tax dollars used on Sanders platforms like single-payer universal healthcare and education, rather than on massive international wars and government subsidies for mega-firms like Wal-Mart.

Boise State’s Vaughn is not particularly enthused by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “It’s an incredibly compromised, flawed piece of legislation,” he said, “and either we will abandon it in favor of a single-payer system like most of the wealthy, developed world; or abandon it in favor of market-driven healthcare, similar to what we had before. Right now we have the worst possible combination of those things.” Vaughn also noted that ACA forces people to buy insurance without actually being provided healthcare.

“People are just tired,” Zimmer said. “They are tired of feeling like they’re not getting any return on their investment. They’re tired of being afraid a chisler bite will set them back $2,300 for a rabies shot. They’re tired of poor education—Idaho has some of the worst schools in the nation—, and Sanders wants to give them a better return.”

Stauffer thinks that voters in Jackson have a key role to play in the election cycle. “In [sparsely populated areas] like Wyoming, you have such a significant voice. Whether you’re voting for Sanders or Clinton, hopefully its Sanders, this is the time to let your voice be heard.” PJH

About Natosha Hoduski

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