Feet on the ground: Sanders, Warren supporters mobilize local Democratic voters ahead of the March 3 primary election



Inside the small community room at Maramonte Park in Santa Maria, about 10 classroom-style chairs are arranged to make a semicircle.

As people and members of the press trickle in around 7 p.m. on Feb. 20, they're greeted with smiles from women wearing Warren for President T-shirts, who sign them in at a folding table and ask them to find a seat. Blue and white campaign signs that read, "Win with Warren" and, in Spanish, "Juntos con Warren," decorate the room's white walls.

VOTER ENGAGEMENT Alexandria Wilcox (left) and Maria Martinez (middle)— staffers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Massachusetts) presidential campaign—join Goleta Unified School Board Trustee Luz Reyes-Martin (right) in hosting a Latinx voter engagement forum in Santa Maria on Feb. 20. - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • VOTER ENGAGEMENT Alexandria Wilcox (left) and Maria Martinez (middle)— staffers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Massachusetts) presidential campaign—join Goleta Unified School Board Trustee Luz Reyes-Martin (right) in hosting a Latinx voter engagement forum in Santa Maria on Feb. 20.

Just 12 days before the highly anticipated March 3 California primary election, where nearly 500 delegates are at stake for the Democratic Party's presidential candidates, two staffers from Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Massachusetts) campaign have flown here from Boston. Their objective is to engage with Latinx voters in the smaller-sized, working-class, and often overlooked cities of California, like Santa Maria.

"[Campaigns] almost never come into the smaller cities," explains Maria Martinez, the national Latinx community engagement director for Warren's campaign. "We need to prioritize those cities—they're important—and recognize that Latinos, Latinas, and Latinx play a huge role in the upcoming elections. We wanted to prioritize those cities and hear directly from all of you."

Though this forum draws only about seven or so local voters, that doesn't discourage the group from starting a wide-ranging discussion about the presidential race and its stakes for the Central Coast. Economic inequality, immigration reform, and education are all discussed as core concerns.

"My concern about the next president is they need to do something about better wages for the working class, better benefits—all those issues—and immigration, of course," says a local named Jesse, who grew up as a farm laborer in Guadalupe. "There's not a whole lot of jobs. Most of the folks I grew up with ended up either north or south for employment."

While some attendees are already committed Warren voters—a few are even regular volunteers for the Warren campaign—others are still deciding on their candidate. Victoria, a member of the military currently stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, tells the group that she's just there to listen and learn.

"I just wanted to come out and be educated on my vote, and see what [Warren is] all about," she says.

As Democratic voters across California make up their minds about who they will support in a crowded 2020 presidential primary field, the candidates and their most dedicated local supporters are mobilizing to win the Central Coast blue vote. They're hosting forums like Warren's in Santa Maria, canvassing neighborhoods, phone banking, and throwing debate parties—all in an effort to energize San Luis Obispo and Northern Santa Barbara county voters.

Much of the campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts locally have been in support of Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont)—the two most progressive candidates of the six highest-polling contenders, which also include former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While all six of these candidates are sure to get shares of the Central Coast vote, Sanders' and Warren's supporters are especially active and enthusiastic locally, coordinating closely with their national campaigns to help build momentum and boost turnout in the region.

With California playing an extra pivotal role in the primary this year due to its earlier election date (for the prior decade, the state primary was held in June, after many states already voted), New Times caught up with local organizers to get the story behind their activism amid a historic race.

"It certainly is consequential," said Michael Latner, a political science professor at Cal Poly. "It's the largest state, and it's one of the most fluid. I haven't seen this level of fluidity in a Democratic primary in quite some time. ... It really boils down to who's mobilized and who's down there hitting the pavement."

Feel the Bern 2.0

Live music breathes life into the patio of Bliss Cafe on a sunny Sunday, Feb. 16, in downtown SLO as roughly 75 locals, young and old, find their way to the creekside restaurant and start mingling.

BOOST FOR BERNIE About 75 local voters attended a "Bernie Barnstorm" in downtown San Luis Obispo to support Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) for president on Feb. 16. - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • BOOST FOR BERNIE About 75 local voters attended a "Bernie Barnstorm" in downtown San Luis Obispo to support Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) for president on Feb. 16.

While they nibble on plant-based appetizers and sip on smoothies, SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon is maneuvering around the crowd, wearing both a determined expression on her face and a blue mechanic's jumpsuit that has "Bernie Sanders oligarchy response team" inscribed on the back.

Harmon is the lead organizer of this "Bernie Barnstorm," a festive orientation for locals who are interested in volunteering for the Sanders campaign. After listening to a few speakers, including one of Sanders' California campaign staff members, the attendees will pair up and canvass neighborhoods for the 78-year-old senator who nearly led the Democratic ticket in 2016.

That 2016 primary race against Hillary Clinton is still an excruciating subject for many of the Sanders supporters at Bliss Cafe, but especially for Harmon, who ran his campaign in SLO and served as one of his delegates at that year's Democratic National Convention.

"I left that convention brokenhearted. Broken. Hearted," Harmon tells the restaurant crowd over a microphone. "I felt so betrayed by my whole family of the Democratic Party. The DNC [Democratic National Committee], I felt, had really stolen that election."

To his original supporters, Sanders' resurgence in 2020 represents a historic opportunity at redemption—a chance to follow through on a nationwide progressive movement that he helped start five years ago.

"It's great to have the band back together," Harmon says, "to do what we did, I feel, in 2016, but now will be made real. And that's to elect Bernie Sanders to be the next president of the United States of America."

Harmon continues, touching on the positive momentum that's taken place across progressive politics since 2016, referencing her own impromptu run for mayor and other recent outsider runs, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens) in New York.

"I was just one of many candidates that were inspired by Bernie's run," Harmon says. "This is why I'm so excited and supportive of Sen. Sanders as our next president. Because it is not about Bernie—it's about me and you and all of us."

Harmon's excitement turns to apprehension when she alludes to the burgeoning candidacy of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, and his $250-million-plus TV and radio advertising blitz.

"I'm so excited ... but aware that this is all very fragile," she says. "There's a lot of powerful forces out there and monied interests at stake. There's a lot of people who think that their money is the pathway to essentially buying this election."

Sanders' appeal on the Central Coast reaches beyond the patios of events put on by local political leaders like Harmon. In 2016, while Clinton won California as a whole by a comfortable 8 percent voter margin, Sanders took both SLO and Santa Barbara counties by six percentage points.

Locals attending the Bernie Barnstorm told New Times that they support Sanders over the rest of the Democratic field in the upcoming primary because of his long record of progressivism, and his focus on Medicare-for-all health care, economic inequality, and climate action.

"I really appreciate his experience," said SLO resident Dolores Howard. "He's worked at it for his whole life. I really admire and trust his integrity."

Anne Pederson, a young mother and medical professional, said she was torn between Sanders and Warren before she decided that Sanders could be most trusted to make climate action a top priority.

"He takes the climate crisis more seriously than any other candidate," Pederson said, while holding her 8-month-old child.

Betty Faas, 84, of Santa Maria, told New Times that she feels he's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of candidate. The retired teacher explained that Sanders understands how unfettered capitalism has allowed corporations to acquire too much wealth and power in the country. As a people, she said "we've allowed things to get way out of hand."

"We wait a lifetime for people like Bernie, who are authentic and have spent their lives advocating for justice, people, and the country," Faas said. "Bernie is the first person who's spoken openly and spoken truth to power. ... He's got everybody after him to destroy him, and it's at a point where they're going to have a hard time doing it."

As the primary race moves quickly toward the March 3 Super Tuesday election, Sanders holds an early delegate advantage and also led California polls as of New Times' press time. Polls show Sanders' support in the mid-20s percentage range, and he's trailed by Biden, Warren, Bloomberg, and Buttigieg in a congested mix around the mid-10s.

One Sanders' rival who's also received considerable local buzz is hoping that a strong March 3 showing will revive her nomination odds. And her Central Coast supporters are trying to help make that a reality.

Progressive with a plan

About 20 Elizabeth Warren supporters huddle in the back room of Libertine Brewing Company's SLO restaurant on the evening of Feb. 19. The big screen TV up at the front has the room's undivided attention as it broadcasts the Democratic presidential primary debate from Las Vegas.

After posting disappointing results in Iowa and New Hampshire, Warren needs a game-changing debate performance tonight to keep her hopes alive. Those stakes are tangibly felt inside Libertine—conversations and banter are sparse as people's eyes are anxiously glued to the screen.

DEBATING Local Warren supporters convene at a debate watch party in Libertine Brewing Company's restaurant in downtown SLO on Feb. 19. - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • DEBATING Local Warren supporters convene at a debate watch party in Libertine Brewing Company's restaurant in downtown SLO on Feb. 19.

"Hopefully she uses her invisibility to her advantage," says Cambria resident Susan Mackey. Mackey is a retired teacher, and one of the first volunteers on the Central Coast to hit the pavement for the Warren campaign.

Right on cue, the 70-year-old Oklahoman, known for her many plans, comes out guns blazing, eviscerating first-time primary debater Bloomberg in the early moments over his non-disclosure agreements with women who've accused him of sexual harassment. Unflinching and assertive throughout, Warren is delivering the kind of performance that pundits afterward called campaign-saving.

The Libertine restaurant, once frozen with tension, is now buzzing with excitement. Warren supporters dance, cheer, and applaud when she lands her points and punches. What these locals say they love about Warren is her unique mix of strengths: whip-smart intelligence, dogged tenacity, and a compassionate, down-to-earth nature.

Mackey—who in her teaching career taught students with hearing impairments—explains that Warren was the only presidential candidate early on who outlined her positions on issues that impacted people with disabilities. That's what initially drew her to Warren, and then almost everything else about the law professor-turned-senator impressed her.

"The compassion she has, she's run a government agency, she's been a senator, she's smart, she has excellent policies," Mackey says. "Everyone who's working for the campaign are such good people, too."

Mackey got the Warren bug, and since November 2019, she said she's participated in more than 40 events for her campaign—from debate parties, to afternoons of canvassing—recently even traveling to South Carolina to knock on doors for her.

Early on, the Warren campaign contacted Mackey, telling her she was "their only volunteer between Salinas and Ventura," Mackey remembered with a laugh. In the weeks and months after that first contact, Mackey worked to recruit a still-growing coalition of locals who like Warren as their choice for president. Among those recruits is Kevin Foote, a Five Cities-area native and an eighth grade teacher at Tommie Kunst Junior High in Santa Maria.

Foote told New Times that volunteering for the Warren campaign was "a no-brainer," as he felt that "she was the only [candidate] providing the full package." A Sanders voter in 2016, Foote, who's in his early 30s, said that while Sanders' candidacy stirred up a lot of excitement and inspiration for him, he thinks that Warren can deliver more substance and solutions at the end of the day.

"I knew in my head and my heart that this is everything I expect from a candidate—data, research, academics," Foote said. "It was a no-brainer. I was like, 'Yeah, how can I help?'"

Santa Maria-area voter Mary Ann, who spoke at Warren's Latinx forum on Feb. 20, was also swayed by her "intelligence, passion, and integrity."

"I just feel like she's much more grounded in her plans," she said during the event. "I just believe in her more."

Overlapping movements

Warren supporter Emilio Uranga was leaving his SLO residence recently to knock on doors for the campaign when a pair of Sanders canvassers approached his house at the same time.

As soon as the two sides realized what was happening, they couldn't help but share a laugh over their crossed paths.

"We were like, 'Hey, keep up the good work!'" Uranga, a 25-year-old Cal Poly alumnus, recalls saying in passing.

MAYOR FOR SANDERS San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon (right) is one of Sanders' most outspoken supporters on the Central Coast. To her left is California Nurses Association board member Sherri Stoddard. - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • MAYOR FOR SANDERS San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon (right) is one of Sanders' most outspoken supporters on the Central Coast. To her left is California Nurses Association board member Sherri Stoddard.

It wouldn't be the only time that Sanders and Warren volunteers would feel each other's presence out on the campaign trail. When Team Sanders held its Feb. 16 barnstorm at Bliss Cafe, Team Warren gathered across town at Nautical Bean. When Team Warren recently met up at Scout Coffee in SLO, Team Sanders had been across the street at SLO Donut Company. Even at Cal Poly, when students work phone banks each week for their favorite Democratic candidate, the Sanders and Warren callers are side by side, even keeping score of their calls on the classroom's blackboard.

It's a rivalry that's stayed mostly healthy and positive, according to local participants. The campaigns are amicable in part because the candidates share a number of key progressive platforms, like Medicare-for-all health care, policies to fight economic inequality, and Green New Deal climate legislation. They tend to see each other as two sides of the progressive coin.

"It's not just about getting that one person elected," SLO Mayor Harmon said, explaining her recent get-out-the-vote events, "but about creating a movement. And hopefully getting people excited."

Still, with Sanders and Warren competing for the same voter base, the campaigns inevitably have their critiques of the other. While Sanders supporters deeply believe in him because of his authenticity and long progressive record, Warren voters are sometimes off-put by his idolatry and the zealousness of some of his most fervent followers.

"The 'Bernie Bros' kind of pushed me away. [The Warren campaign] is a less toxic community," Uranga said.

And while Warren supporters rave about her smarts and detailed policy plans, Sanders voters feel that she's compromised her positions somewhat in an effort to appeal to the center of the Democratic base.

That's why Cal Poly student Rob Moore, a third-year political science major and chair of the ASI's board of directors, switched his support from Warren to Sanders earlier in the race.

"What happened for me is Warren seemed to backstep on a few of her key issue areas," he said. "I think Bernie is the only one calling for the change that's truly needed. ... I think you really need to be authentic and speak your truth, and I think that's what Bernie's been doing for 40 years."

Moore now has a poster on his office wall of a young Sanders getting arrested during the civil rights movement. It's an image that motivates him to continue fighting for political change.

On campus, Moore said there's a palpable sense of urgency surrounding the March 3 election, with Democratic students' support generally split between Sanders and Warren. Climate change, economic inequality, and social justice are the pressing issues of the day, he said.

"Students are a lot more tapped into this [election] than I think they have been in the past," Moore said. "They see this as important. There is a definite energy around it."

The rest?

While the Warren and Sanders campaigns have a strong presence on the Central Coast, the remaining four top-polling presidential candidates are far less visible.

ENERGIZED About 75 locals showed up to a "Bernie Barnstorm" on Feb. 16 in downtown SLO to get out of the vote for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) ahead of March 3's primary election. - PHOTOS BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photos By Jayson Mellom
  • ENERGIZED About 75 locals showed up to a "Bernie Barnstorm" on Feb. 16 in downtown SLO to get out of the vote for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) ahead of March 3's primary election.

Other than minimal buzz for Buttigieg—for whom a Paso Robles supporter hosted a debate party on Feb. 25—his, Biden's, Klobuchar's, and Bloomberg's campaigns reported no other recent activity along the coast from Paso Robles to the Santa Maria Valley, according to their respective websites.

Despite the lack of on-the-ground movement, that doesn't mean there aren't Democrats on the Central Coast who are voting for one of the more moderate candidates. Whether it's because their politics are more in the center, or because they don't think a progressive has a great chance of beating President Trump in a general election, local Democrats who are less gung-ho about Sanders and Warren will be filling out ballots, too.

Dan Cook, president of the Atascadero Democratic Club, is one local voter in that boat. He said he's leaning toward supporting Klobuchar in the primary.

"I think a middle-of-the-road person, who can bring Iowa and Michigan along, has a higher chance of winning than someone like Bernie or Elizabeth, who inspire a really fervent response in a certain sector of voters but not everyone," Cook said.

Regardless of which candidate local Democrats end up choosing on March 3, Central Coast voters of all political stripes achieved one common objective: a historic turnout. On Feb. 21, SLO County announced that a record number of voters both registered for the primary election (176,343) and asked for a vote-by-mail ballot (about 144,000).

"We're having a more robust democratic process," Harmon said of this year's primary, "and I'm grateful for that."

Correction: This article has been edited to correct the 2016 primary results in California. Δ

Contact New Times Assistant Editor Peter Johnson at


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