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Freewheeling, outspoken, and not always on message: The risky role of Bernie Sanders’ surrogates

Cornel West in NYC protest
Cornel West has been an outspoken advocate for Bernie Sanders, especially in demand at college rallies. 
(Eduardo Munoz / European Pressphoto Agency)

When Bernie Sanders takes the stage or gets behind a microphone, he seldom surprises — the presidential candidate’s policy-heavy script is so familiar that crowds at his rallies often know what line is coming next.

Not so with his eclectic troop of surrogates.

“No, no, I’ll boo,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan declared from an Iowa stage a few weeks ago as a moderator tried to discourage booing when the name “Hillary Clinton” came up.

The incident — which was followed by an online Tlaib apology — created an awkward moment for Sanders, who has determinedly sought to position himself as presidential: above petty attacks and conspiracy mongering.

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That task is made more complicated time and again by his field lieutenants.

No other campaign has so many big personalities empowered by the candidate. They include the filmmaker Michael Moore and actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. Activist and scholar Cornel West is routinely on the trail berating the “milquetoast neo-liberalism” of the Democratic Party, and “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon recently joined the roster.

Their sometimes startling riffs and freewheeling broadsides against the establishment have played a large role in swelling the Sanders movement. But as Sanders has moved from an outsider candidate to the front-runner and potential nominee, his campaign now must grapple with whether to infuse some message discipline into the mix.

“The more he consolidates his front-runner position, Bernie is going to have to realize he has to reach out to the rest of the party to be able to unify and lead it,” said Mark Longabaugh, who was an advisor to Sanders in his 2016 presidential run. “He needs to be careful that his surrogates reflect that effort.”

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The surrogates are showing no sign of toning it down.

“I’m a black woman in America, and I do have a thought outside of what I do for Sen. Sanders,” campaign co-chair Nina Turner said Thursday in a brief interview in Las Vegas.

She had just been asked about a South Carolina op-ed she wrote that accused former Vice President Joe Biden of having “repeatedly betrayed” black Americans. Sanders had to distance himself from the article during a televised debate.

Turner is a master orator and a crowd favorite who can energize a room better than most anyone on the stump, candidates included. But she’s not always in lockstep with the campaign. The senator also found himself keeping his distance from her when she charged that Democratic Party officials had timed their call for a recanvass of caucus results in Iowa to hurt Sanders.

“That’s not my impression at this point,” Sanders said when asked on CNN if he believed the same.

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Renegade surrogates are certainly not unique to Sanders. For as long as campaigns have been deploying surrogates — the practice goes back at least to the days of William McKinley, a poor speaker who in 1896 dispatched 1,400 more charismatic speakers to campaign for him — surrogates have been adding heartburn to presidential bids.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously caused a stir in the last cycle by declaring, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” as she introduced Clinton at a New Hampshire rally during her 2016 primary versus Sanders. Outrage followed.

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Days later, Albright wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “My Undiplomatic Moment.”

Even in 2016, however, the Sanders stable of surrogates more persistently drew awkward headlines. There was the moment Robbins belittled the entire state of South Carolina, calling victory there as significant as winning Guam. Sarandon’s “I don’t vote with my vagina” remark was not all that helpful, nor was rapper Killer Mike declaring “a uterus doesn’t qualify you to be president of the United States.”

This year, all three are back on the campaign trail with Sanders.

“Bernie’s fiery, passionate surrogates are powerful because they have their own following of people who know they are going to speak their mind,” said Krystal Ball, a progressive strategist who co-hosts “Rising,” an online broadcast popular with Sanders supporters.

“It is worth any potential blowback created for views not shared by Bernie. These are authentic voices vouching for him.”

Other campaigns may keep a tighter grip, Ball said, but “I don’t think that caution serves them. It is not in touch with the times we are living in. It is the difference between a movement and a traditional campaign.”

In the days leading up to the Sanders victory in New Hampshire, surrogates were a big draw at his events. Michael Moore enthralled a packed Rochester Opera House with a 25-minute riff that bounced from media incredulity at Sanders’ success to Pete Buttigieg’s cartoon-watching habits to a comparison between Sanders and Jesus.

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Volunteer door-knockers packed into a field office to hear West, who most certainly did not follow a script.

“It’s hard to find more humanity on the canvas than Rembrandt,” he said, to vigorous nods and some confusion. “‘The Jewish Bride.’ You all know ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son.’ All those great paintings. It’s very much about what this campaign is about: the deep human connection and wanting to be a force for good.”

He then ricocheted into his bleak forecast for the Democratic National Convention in the summer: “When we get to Milwaukee — whooo!” he said. “The Holy Ghost is going to have to hold my reins. I might be a Christian, but I am not a pacifist.”

Premium ice cream slingers Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield joined Sarandon to scoop Cherry Garcia for students at Colby Sawyer College and offered a side of sexual innuendo.

“Feb. 11 is going to come around, and you are thinking: ‘Hey, I’ve got a chance for a hot date’ …Vote? Hot date? Vote? Hot date?” said Cohen. “Take your date to the polls, and do it in the booth for Bernie. Do it in the booth for Bernie! Do it in the booth for Bernie!”

At one of the larger rallies in New Hampshire, writer and activist Shaun King was very much on point with the campaign in an eloquent tribute to Sanders’ work in the civil rights movement and his authenticity.

But a conspiracy theory King amplified days later to his large social media following was another matter. King suggested the Buttigieg campaign could have had a hand in the vote counting mishaps in Iowa.

“These kind of things become a larger and more meaningful headache as the Sanders campaign moves toward trying to unite the party around him as the front-runner,” said Dave Karpf, a political scientist at George Washington University who focuses on grass-roots movements.

The off-script musings play well among die-hard Sanders supporters, he said, but risk repelling the voters the senator still needs to lure his way.

“Sanders having to spend time and energy walking back and correcting something a surrogate said doesn’t help him emerge as a consensus front-runner,” Karpf said.

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report from Las Vegas.


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