A Bernie Island in Clinton Country
The volunteers at Bernie Sanders HQ in Little Rock know they are operating behind enemy lines, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try to change some minds deep inside Clinton Country.
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — In November, the Bernie Sanders campaign opened its Arkansas headquarters in a two-story building that previously was a law firm and also a set for an indie movie, God Isn’t Dead 2.
Call it Bernie Island—because everywhere else in this town is Clinton territory, one way or another.
A few blocks east of the headquarters, the historic Arkansas Statehouse where then-governor Bill Clinton announced his candidacy in 1991 stands with its large white columns. To the west, there’s Doe’s, a steakhouse that the Clinton campaign team made famous during Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for president. In the distance, the state capitol’s white dome glows. That’s where the Clintons earned their political stripes.
Then there’s the litany of places named for one or both Clintons—the presidential library, a street, an elementary school, a children’s library, and even the state’s largest airport.
But the denizens of Bernie Island are an optimistic bunch.
“Just because there’s this name Clinton in the state doesn’t mean we’re not going to get people,” Sarah Scanlon, the Arkansas state director for the Sanders campaign, said. “We are engaged and talking about the issues. We have a real shot to get some delegates in the state.”
On a rainy Tuesday night just days before the March 1 primary, only a few volunteers work in the headquarters.
But that doesn’t mean that the campaign doesn’t have support or volunteers. Scanlon said many people make calls and engage voters online using the campaign’s high-tech tools while sitting at home in their pajamas and drinking wine. People in every corner of the state have been seeking Bernie swag—yard signs, stickers, copies of “The Bernie Gazette” and blue rubber bracelets with “WWBD” printed on them—in droves. They even ran out of signs recently, which nearly caused a revolt by supporters.
Long before the Sanders brick-and-mortar headquarters opened, a virtual movement was already brewing in Arkansas.
“It was happening organically,” she said. “It wasn’t like I had to come in and create volunteers. It was more about organizing what was already happening.”
Scanlon, a veteran of several progressive campaigns, said that many supporters possess no allegiance to the Clinton brand.
“For every one person who has endorsed her, there are twenty who have never heard her name,” Scanlon said. “The kids, the millennials, don’t have a point of knowledge with the Clintons and they don’t have a connection to them.”
That’s the case for one volunteer, Michelle Ciesielski, 30, who drives 65 miles one-way three times a week from Heber Springs, Ark., to the headquarters. While she phone banks, she cross-stitches a portrait of Sanders.
“I love Bernie,” she said. “I believe what he says. I think he is the candidate for the job.”
Ciesielski grew up with conservative parents in Missouri who didn’t like Bill Clinton. When she moved to Arkansas, she quickly learned, though, that many people loved the former president.
“People I talk to don’t like Hillary, though,” she said.
Hillary has always struggled for Arkansans to like her.
When she first arrived in the state with Bill Clinton in the 1970s, many people saw her as a brash, feminist Yankee who refused to take her husband’s surname. Then after the Clintons left the White House in 2000, they moved to New York, where Hillary ran and won a seat in the U.S. Senate.
That abandonment didn’t sit well either.
“It’s been awhile since they’ve been around,” Ciesielski said. “So a lot of us just don’t have an allegiance to the Clintons.”
Still, Hillary has racked up several endorsements by members of the old Democratic guard in Arkansas. She also has the support of the state’s five superdelegates. The Arkansas Travelers—the loyal band of Clinton friends who recently traveled to New Hampshire on behalf of Hillary—are canvassing Arkansas and Tennessee on Thursday and Friday for her. And Hillary plans to attend an event in Pine Bluff, Ark., on Sunday ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
“There is still a loyalty and respect for their work in Arkansas and that means something here,” Mary Rutherford Jennings, Arkansas press secretary for the Clinton campaign, said. “And we have a lot of new people coming on board to help, a whole new generation who is engaged in Arkansas politics who may have never even met the Clintons.”
On that same Tuesday night, the Clinton headquarters, located in a small ground-floor office in a downtown skyscraper, was packed with high school and college students making calls on behalf of Clinton and loading yard signs for delivery.
“I’m supporting Hillary because I want a president who understands the issues that are important to me like Hillary does,” Rhianna Taylor of Little Rock said. “Hillary cares about the things I care about—like helping people pay for college and women’s rights. Her time as secretary of state shows that she can tackle many of the major international issues that the president will have to deal with in the next four years. I know that if Hillary is president, Arkansans will have a friend in the White House.”
None of that fazes Scanlon and her tribe, who think there are plenty of new voters to embrace in the Democratic fold. The Sanders camp has hosted volunteer potlucks, political trainings, and GOTV events throughout the state while building a new progressive base in Arkansas, which has become more Republican over the last two election cycles.
One key issue galvanizing Sanders’s support in Arkansas is NAFTA and other trade agreements, especially in northwest Arkansas where Walmart, Tyson Foods, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt are based. Job losses to foreign countries have hit that area particularly hard, and wages are often low for workers.
“One in five people in that part of the state works for one of those three corporations,” Scanlon said. “They have seen the corporate heads growing richer and richer and pay has remained the same for the workers. They are mad and they are feeling stuck as a lot of jobs have gone to Mexico. There’s a level of anger bubbling there.”
That resentment may be just what the Sanders campaign needs to shave votes away from Clinton on Tuesday.
“We’re not writing off any part of the state,” Scanlon said. “We have pockets of progressives all over this state, and I think people are going to be surprised at what we’ve built.”