WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S

During the few years I spent on the WEST Coast, I would occasionally duck into a bar early on a Sunday around 10 a.m. to catch a few snaps of my hometown National Football League squad. Inevitably, this mission involved asking a bartender or server to change a television channel to “the Jags game” and, inevitably, my request was met with a look of confusion.

“They’re a football team?” I was once asked.

I had many such interactions over the years, but my all-time favorite moment occurred when my friend Chris and I elbowed up to a bar — Chris rocking a throwback ’90s-style Jags cap. A young, long-haired and affable mixologist took one look at Chris and froze.

“I feel like I just spotted a Yeti,” the bartender said.

Chris and I remained silent as we waited for an explanation.

“I’ve never seen a real, live Jags fan before,” he clarified.

I bring this up because on Saturday, I imagine I felt very much like that smartass bartender.

In Jacksonville, Florida, one of the few of a dying breed of large cities with Republican mayors, a very powerful and right-leaning Chamber of Commerce, no comprehensive human rights ordinance protecting gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, and no courthouse weddings, I spent a good hour-and-a-half with supporters of Bernie Sanders — the 73-year-old, billionaire-banker-bashing, Independent Senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats and considers the term “socialist” to be a compliment.

Unicorns! A whole herd of unicorns!

Sanders’ popularity is rising as of late — so much so, he appears to be pushing the economic policies of presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to the left. The idea of a Sanders, or an increasingly-leftist Clinton, ascending to the presidency undoubtedly has local tea-partiers ready to secede (prepare to be anointed President of Ponte Vedra, Ron DeSantis), but to the nearly 100 humans who showed up at the volunteer gathering, the reign of Sanders is a very real possibility.

Here are some interesting things I found out
about Sanders’ support here in Northeast Florida.

SANDERS HAS A JACKSONVILLE CONNECTION. Marcus Ferrell, former canvass manager for former Mayor Alvin Brown’s 2011 campaign, has accepted a position organizing for Sanders’ efforts in the Southeast.

98. That was the final head count of attendees to this, the first meeting of Jacksonville for Bernie. And it was quite a diverse group, representing every neighborhood in Northeast Florida — there were teamsters, service employees, progressives, Democrats, Libertarians, former Obama staffers, doctors, lawyers, students, and teachers. The group had 200-plus confirmed attendees on Facebook, but as lead volunteer Ben Marcus told me, “Facebook confirmations usually only translate to 15-25 percent.”

ORGANIZERS WERE SURPRISED BY THE TURNOUT. KIND OF. Marcus, a veteran organizer (most recently worked a congressional campaign in Illinois) said, “I was trying to be realistic, so I thought, OK, maybe 13, 15 people would show up” to the event. He was pleasantly surprised and thinks it’s a good sign for Sanders’ potential in the area. “I have to say, I’ve worked on ballot initiatives that draw this kind of support, but in terms of candidates, you just don’t see this,” he said.

SIMILARITIES TO OBAMA ABOUND when discussing Sanders’ growing support. Haleigh Hutchison, who’s leading the UNF contingent of Sanders supporters, was just old enough to vote in the last presidential election so she doesn’t remember the fervor for Obama on college campuses. However, the professed lifelong Democrat said, “there’s electricity [for Sanders] on campus,” and “from income inequality issues to college loan debt … there’s not much you can find about Bernie’s message that doesn’t appeal to college kids.”

BERNIE COULD WIN FLORIDA. In Duval County, there are 220,000 registered Democrats (outnumbering Republicans by more than 20,000) and Florida holds a closed primary, which means you must be a registered Democrat to vote for a Democratic candidate. Margins of victory will come down to hundreds of votes in each precinct, which makes traditionally neglected blocs of voters that much more important. Marcus points to the area’s rapidly growing population of 18-to-35-year-olds as a new and more progressively minded cohort to be cultivated, and Kristellys Zolondek of the Duval Democratic Hispanic Caucus says Sanders’ efforts to court Hispanics — who make up roughly 4 percent of registered voters in Duval County — are well underway. “Hispanics in this area tend to be pretty conservative. But that’s changing rapidly,” said Zolondek. Perhaps more than convincing conservatives, Zolondek says she’ll be challenged to pluck entrenched Hillary supporters. “In the African-American and Hispanic communities, the ones who are Democrats are sold on Hillary, so that’s gonna be a challenge for us.”

BERNIE IS COMING … WELL, MAYBE. There are rumors — unconfirmed at this point — that the magic number is 5,000. That is to say, if supporters can guarantee 5,000 humans at a rally for Bernie, they may be able to lure Sanders from Vermont.

THE FLORIDA DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY WILL COUNT. The Florida primary election is scheduled for March 16. Last time Florida tried to run a presidential primary election in which there were multiple Democratic candidates, the state was punished for moving up the vote, causing Obama to virtually ignore Florida. This time around, it is assumed the state will play a big role in determining who will represent the Democratic party in 2016.

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