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Bernie Sanders’s Key to Success in Democratic Primary? Organizing in Black & Latinx Communities

StoryFebruary 25, 2020
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Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign continues to ride the wave of its decisive victory Saturday in the Democratic presidential caucuses in Nevada. Sanders’s win came with support from young voters, union members and Latinx voters, who strengthened his status as Democratic presidential front-runner. He won 73% of the Latino vote in Nevada, a remarkable victory that supporters hope will bode well heading into Super Tuesday and beyond. Through March 17, the Democratic primary calendar will run through seven of the 12 states where Latinx communities constitute at least 10% of the total eligible voting population.

We speak to the architect of Sanders’s stunning success in Nevada, campaign senior adviser Chuck Rocha. He’s a political strategist, a self-described “Tex/Mex Redneck” and founder of Solidarity Strategies, the largest Latino-owned and -operated political consulting firm in the country.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the 2020 Democratic presidential race, where Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign continues to ride the wave of its decisive victory Saturday in the Democratic presidential caucuses in Nevada. Sanders’s win came with support from young voters, union members and Latinx voters, who strengthened his status as Democratic presidential front-runner. Sanders won 73% of the Latino vote in Nevada, a remarkable victory that supporters hope will bode well heading into Super Tuesday and races in California, Colorado and Texas, where there are large Latino populations. This is Sanders addressing supporters on Sunday in Houston.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: And the reason we are going to defeat Trump is that Americans, regardless of their political views, are sick and tired of a president who lies all the time. … Trump, every day, is busy demonizing the undocumented. Oh, he just hates the undocumented. But when he was a private businessman, he loved the undocumented. He hired hundreds of them in his resorts so that he could exploit them and pay them low wages.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator Sanders speaking in Texas. Through March 17th, the Democratic primary calendar will run through seven of the 12 states where Latinos constitute at least 10% of the total eligible voting population.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by the architect of Sanders’ stunning success in Nevada, campaign senior adviser Chuck Rocha, political strategist, self-described “Tex/Mex Redneck,” founder of Solidarity Strategies, the largest Latino-owned and -operated political consulting firm in the country.

Chuck Rocha, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of the win in Nevada, what you did on the ground, and this whole issue of investing in organizing, actual organizers, respected in the community.

I think Chuck Rocha was not able to hear that question. We just lost him for the moment. We’re going to try to get him back. Chuck, can you hear me now?

CHUCK ROCHA: Yes ,ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: Great. So, I was just asking you about the significance of your win, Senator Sanders’ win in Nevada, with the majority of Latinx voters going with Senator Sanders. You had the culinary voters, I think, in seven of the eight or six of the seven major casinos, where thousands of service workers are. The rank and file bucked the leadership, in supporting Senator Sanders. But the strategy of actually investing in and paying organizers on the ground that are respected in the community, recognized as the leaders in the community?

CHUCK ROCHA: It was a big key to that. It was a big key to the success. It’s going to be a big key in moving to South Carolina and other places. We did things differently than what most campaigns have done. I’ve been organizing and doing campaigns for 30 years, and I knew what the other campaigns would be doing. And Senator Bernie Sanders’ philosophy from the beginning is getting new people to participate in our democracy. And I knew we had a green pasture with Latinos in Nevada. Because of a caucus, you have a small group of folks who had participated. In Nevada alone, 100,000 Latinos had registered to vote since the last caucus. So there was a lot of folks there, a lot of folks who generally vote in a primary. And also, these culinary workers, who are working-class folks who are trying to make a living, who really resonate with Bernie Sanders and our message.

So we went strategically in there early, eight months out. We spent money in the community. Importantly, we hired that community, and we treated that community with priority. That sounds like it’s something that should be normally done in every campaign, but it’s just not done in the Latino campaigns. It’s never done in a Latino campaign. Actually, it’s never done in diverse communities at all. Democrats show up there in the last minute. They’ll do geo TV ads. They’ll go to black churches. They’ll set up taco trucks in front of an early-vote location and think that’s their Latino or their diverse outreach program. And we did it completely different.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was different about your approach?

CHUCK ROCHA: I’ll tell you the backbone of it, is we don’t have a Latino outreach department at the headquarters or in any staff. Because we’ve had people of color at the senior level of this campaign since day one — I’ve been there since day one — we’ve integrated the people of color and diverse outreach into every programmatic thing that we do in the campaign. What I’d seen that had been done, which is a big mistake in all campaigns, is they’ll silo off the African-American outreach, silo off the Latinos. They’ll give them no budget. They’ll give them no power. They’ll use them as window dressings. And then they never really understand what’s going on holistically with all of the campaign. So, with this campaign, we did it different and made it a central part, a central theme of everything we were doing, so everyone was talking to each other. We made it a part of the overall field apparatus. In Nevada alone, the person who was running the entire field operation was a woman of color, a Latina, bilingual, from the community. So, guess what. Everything that we did filtered through a lens of cultural competency. Not only were we there early and spending a lot of money. Our products were just better, because they were made and delivered by people from the community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, I wanted to ask you. There was a New York Times article that came out today that said that so far in these first three primary states, that the turnout that Senator Sanders was predicting, a historic turnout that’s going to come in this election, that the turnout has not been really up to the level of what the campaign was expecting, that, yes, the senator has won increasing numbers of votes, but that there is really, so far, no evidence that there’s been a significant expansion of the electorate. I’m wondering your response to that.

CHUCK ROCHA: I would take exception to that. I was on the ground in Iowa and in Nevada, in a lot of the places we’ve been doing this work. It may not have been up amongst everyone, but in the places where we doubled down to grow the electorate. I would draw your attention to college campus counties in Iowa, where the turnout was more than it was in 2008, which we all know was historic because of Barack Obama. I’d also draw your attention to satellite caucuses in Nevada, where we had the first Spanish-language satellite caucuses ever. In that, you had like 500 people show up to these caucuses. We won 98% of those folks. But these are new people coming into the system because of Bernie Sanders and the work that we’ve done. And that’s exactly the kind of strategy you have to have to beat Donald Trump in the fall.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re of course moving into — well, there’s the debate tonight, and then there is the primary in South Carolina. Senator Sanders did not win the African-American vote in Nevada — it’s much smaller — but Biden took that. As for South Carolina, Biden does seem to be polling ahead, and his vote count is being — in the African-American community is being eaten into by Tom Steyer and also Senator Sanders. What is the strategy for Senator Sanders in South Carolina?

CHUCK ROCHA: Amy, I’m so happy that you asked that question. I’m super proud of what we’ve built down there. So, we’ve had people on the ground longer than any other campaign, and we’ve taken the same philosophy that we have in Nevada, and you can see what our results were. Our staff in South Carolina is over 80% African-American and over 80% from South Carolina. And we’ve had the most staff on the ground since any campaign. And the very first time we paid to advertise to voters in South Carolina, it was to African Americans. We’ve also had a robust bilingual program to Latinos in South Carolina. Our philosophy is organizing on the ground, with all the air cover to protect you, and turning out this diverse electorate by showing them respect and showing up more — or, showing up more early that any other campaign ever has. And you’ve seen the results and the fruit of our labor in Nevada. And we feel certain that that’s going to happen in South Carolina.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Chuck Rocha, your reaction or response to the entry into the race of Michael Bloomberg, the enormous amount of money he’s spending on airtime? And his percentage in the polls, and obviously polls have to be taken with a grain of salt until people actually vote, but has continued to increase as a result of this saturation advertising. Your strategy for dealing with the Bloomberg juggernaut?

CHUCK ROCHA: You know, I’ve been doing this a long time. I haven’t really done much else in my life other than organize and do campaigns. So I base everything off of, normally, mistakes I’ve made in the past or mistakes I’ve seen other folks make. I have no way to really understand how this flood of money is really going to affect the overall electorate. Look, we’re going to take it head-on. We have a lot of people. We have way more people than he does. He can go out and buy all the things that he needs to buy, and he can’t make up the time that we’ve been spending in these areas. But what we don’t know, and what I think is a little disgusting in politics, is all of this money being able to buy your way into this race. People will say, “Oh, Chuck, you’re spending money for Senator Sanders.” Absolutely, we are. And we’re getting that money $5 at a time from teachers, from plumbers, from union workers. That’s really what makes us different. We feel like we are a party of the people. It’s proud for me, as a brown man, to say every time Latinos give us $5, I’m taking that $5, and I’m reinvesting it into our community. That’s what we feel like the philosophy and the backbone of this campaign is built on. And we welcome Bloomberg into this race. We feel like it’s really good to distinguish between what he stands for and Senator Sanders. But we really don’t know what kind of impact all that money’s going to have down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Rocha, I wanted to ask you about the media’s increasing emphasis on Senator Sanders’ views on Castro. It happened on Sunday night on 60 Minutes, on Monday night, CNN town hall. But this is Senator Sanders saying that he opposed the authoritarian nature of the Castro regime but lauded Cuba’s literacy program, reiterating his comments last night on CNN.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: They went out, and they helped people learn to read and write. You know what? I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing. I have been extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world, including Cuba, including Nicaragua, including Saudi Arabia, including China, including Russia. I happen to believe in democracy, not authoritarianism.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Chuck Rocha, can you talk about the media’s emphasis on this? Of course, President Obama normalized relations with Cuba before Trump was pulling that back. And then the media going on to say he’s clearly going to lose Florida because he’s talking about Castro, which the media is asking him about.

CHUCK ROCHA: You know, I laugh, because it’s the media who just — what Bernie Sanders said is the same thing Barack Obama said just a few years ago.

The reason I love working for Bernie Sanders is not — A, he’s always stood for working folks, no matter how old you were, how young you were, what the color of your skin is, that he has been steadfast for regular folks. That’s A. B, he always says exactly what’s on his mind, and from a very honest place. He just said, “I am against all authoritarian states,” and listed every single one of them. But because he says one positive thing about putting people’s education and the things that have went on down there, like — and it didn’t fit right into that perfect little angle that the Democratic consultants and folks in South Florida, and is exactly what you want to hear, it’s just showing that he’s in first place, that we’re bringing lots of people in, that the Democratic and the corporate media folks are really nervous about Bernie Sanders. You just heard me say in the first 10 minutes of this interview that we’re doing things different by empowering people. That puts a lot of risk at a big group of elite folks who have been in power in this party for a long time. So, when he don’t fit right in that box where he’s supposed to fit about something about Cuba, they just — their hair is on fire this morning on all the TV stations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Chuck Rocha, I wanted to ask you — you’re from Texas. And Texas has always been known as a — at least now for 40, 50 years, as a Republican state, in terms of presidential races. Could you talk about what is happening in Texas, the demographic changes, and what the future looks like in Texas?

CHUCK ROCHA: I’m one of the few political consultants who actually worked in Texas. I’m old enough to remember, because I was paid to work in a race for Ann Richards, when Democrats still won statewide there. The state has went through lots of transformations, has become really red since my dear friend Ann was the governor of Texas. But what you’ve seen now is this Democrat — this demography, this whole growth of Latinos in the state. Now, what you have — and the difference between them and California is there’s been a direct investment in California to register, educate and turn out Latinos. There’s never been that kind of investment into Texas. So that’s why you saw someone like Bush, who, when he ran for governor, got 44% of the Latino vote. Like, I’ve lived there. I’ve studied this. But what’s happening now is the growth is so expedential and getting there so fast.

And guess what. Young folks, young black kids, young brown kids, young kids overall, they’re not scared to buck the system, and they really feel like there should be a real change. And guess who speaks to that real change who’s running for president. Bernie Sanders. Just this last weekend in Texas, we brought out 28,000 people in Texas for Bernie Sanders. There’s something really special going on there, because — I’ve told you what we’ve done in Nevada. Can you imagine scaling that up in Texas, investing in the community, empowering that community and then spending money talking to Latinos who have never been talked to? We’re going to take a chance in Texas, and I think Latinos are going to deliver Texas for Bernie Sanders exactly because of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Rocha, we want to thank you for being with us, senior adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Thank you so much for being with us.

That does it for the show. Tune in next Tuesday night for Democracy Now!'s Super Tuesday live special broadcast. We'll be doing it jointly with The Intercept from 7:00 Eastern Standard Time to midnight right here at and on many stations around the country.

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