As a high school student in Sebastopol, Natalie Higley urged fellow students to support Barack Obama in a mock election. She registered as a Democrat once she turned 18, but she never voted, disappointed by Obama’s presidency and dismayed by her party’s candidates.
That changed this year, when she cast her first ballot for Bernie Sanders. In July, she is heading to the Democratic National Convention, still hoping to help the Vermont senator win the party’s presidential nomination.
“I really want to be part of it, I want to be able to say I went and nominated Bernie,” said Higley, 23, of Lakeport. “Regardless of what people are saying, we do still have a chance. It’s not a huge one, but we do have a chance. There are also huge party changes we want to make if we are to continue to be part of the party.”
Higley is one of more than 200 Sanders delegates certified by the state Democratic Party on Sunday at a meeting in Long Beach. The California group will have a large voice at the Democratic National Convention, making up more than 10% of Sanders’ delegation.
Those unbound delegates have been a major point of contention in the 2016 race. Their overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton, coupled with her winning a majority of the delegates allocated in primaries and caucuses, led to her being declared the party’s nominee June 6, the night before California and five other states voted.
Clinton has about 500 more delegates than the 2,383 needed to claim the nomination, including the superdelegates, while Sanders is about 500 short. She also beat Sanders in the popular vote and the number of states won.
But many of Sanders’ delegates here refuse to accept that, arguing that the race was fixed, that superdelegates backing Clinton could change their minds, or that new revelations in Clinton’s email scandal could force her to leave the race.
And although Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said publicly several days ago that the campaign no longer is trying to change superdelegates’ minds, officials with Sanders’ campaign, addressing their delegates during a standing-room-only meeting here Sunday, did nothing to quell such thoughts.
“If there’s a chance, we want to be in a position to go for it,” said Javier Gonzalez, Sanders’ Western states deputy field director.
The delegates are also taking their cues from the candidate, who has not endorsed Clinton and has not ended his campaign.
“I’ll wait till the convention, as Sen. Sanders has suggested we all do,” said Robert M. Nelson, a retired NASA scientist from Pasadena. He last attended the Democratic National Convention in 1992, as a delegate for Jerry Brown, who refused to endorse Bill Clinton after the then-Arkansas governor clinched the nomination.
During a tense environmental caucus gathering Friday evening, as Sanders delegates urged the crowd to remain true to the insurgent candidate, chairwoman R.L. Miller told the crowd that Clinton’s nomination was inevitable.
“I’m a supporter of Bernie Sanders, but I’m also a realist,” she said. “There’s a point we have to accept what’s happening…. Bernie Sanders is not going to walk out of the convention as the winner.”
The crowd booed and people walked out as others screamed, “Why?” and “You don’t know that!”
It was a constant throughout the state Democrats’ three-day gathering. During Saturday’s general session, as vice chair Alex Rooker called for party unity, a man in the crowd yelled out, “There’s no nominee yet!” Rooker responded that it was a big deal, using an expletive.
Party chairman John Burton harked back to his heartbreak after Eugene McCarthy’s loss at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. He and other McCarthy supporters didn’t truly help Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, and the result, Burton said, was the election of President Nixon. He warned Sanders supporters not to make the same mistake.
“Now is the time to suck it up and do what we can do for this state, these [legislative] majorities, for the country,” he said. “Getting people enthused who have had their spirit and their heart broken is not easy. I was, like, there…. We can’t let that fallen dream bring us Donald Trump as president of the United States. We cannot and will not allow that to happen.”
Among many Sanders delegates, the words fell on deaf ears. Despite polling that shows most of the senator’s supporters will vote for Clinton in the fall, nearly every delegate interviewed here demurred or said they would not.
Asked if she would support Clinton, Shawnee Badger, a community college student and actress, changed the subject and said she had set up a GoFundMe fundraising account to raise the thousands of dollars the trip to Philadelphia will cost.
“I just really want to get Bernie the nomination, and that’s why I’m going to the convention,” said the 22-year-old Valencia resident. “I also want to shed light on the nominating process that disenfranchises voters and push for a progressive platform.”
Among her priorities: single-payer healthcare. She doesn’t have health insurance. Others mentioned free tuition at public colleges and universities, and climate change. Nearly all mentioned campaign finance reform and changing party rules, especially about superdelegates.
Valarie Martin, 63, a potential Sanders delegate who leaned on a walker as she protested outside of the Democratic meeting, said she wept when she learned that the state resolution calling for fewer superdelegates would probably pass.
“This is what democracy looks like,” she said.
Martin’s family was politically active, and as a young girl she met John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie in Richmond, Calif. The then-presidential candidate shook her hand, while the future first lady kissed her cheek and whispered in her ear: “Never lose your passion.”
Martin said she had been a consistent Democratic voter, but “since Kennedy, I have not felt this deep connection and need to support. Until now.”
She was on the cusp of winning a delegate slot, and she won’t know until all of the ballots in Sacramento County are counted. It doesn’t matter; Martin is headed to Philadelphia regardless.
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